Postcard from New York

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The Independent Culture
"You won't be able to buy anything any more," warned the taxi driver outside 1444 Market at 11th. It was midnight on a Friday and the place was packed. You could hear the frenetic rhythm of the music from the street. Behind the smoked-glass window a slim young man wearing hipsters and a mod haircut performed a high energy solo. I told the driver not to worry, that I wasn't in the market. People don't come to the Cannabis Club in downtown San Francisco to smoke, they come to party.

A few weeks ago most people who visited the Cannabis Buyers' Club, as it was known then, did come to buy soft drugs. Founded by a group of middle- aged former hippies, the club sold cannabis for "medicinal purposes" to a clientele which they claimed was restricted to the terminally ill, although I was once told privately by a man called Dec, who looked perfectly fit, that the club "had the best prices in town". For six months the San Francisco police looked the other way under instructions from the Mayor's office. The club ran a pleasant cafe with OK coffee and a couple of sofas. There seemed to be no reason why things couldn't continue that way. But when the club's organisers drafted Position 215, seeking to legalise restricted marijuana use, and chose to promote their cause by selling "brownies" at a street party, they attracted the attention of a local politician running for Governor. The end result of a long battle between Attorney- General Dan Lungren and the club was a raid by Federal agents (local police refused to take part) who arrested the owners.

Lungren broke the rules in a city whose motto could be "Each to his own". The Cannabis Club became a cause celebre when cartoonist Garry Trudeau, a long-term Bay area resident, picked up the thread of the story in his "Doonesbury" strip for several days. Zonker Harris, the strip's main character, learnt the dope drought was a result of the raid on the Cannabis Club. "My regular sources are spooked," he says. "What country are we living in - Germany, Russia, Idaho?" Lungren went apoplectic.

Meanwhile, with its drug-dealing activities curtailed, the club reinvented itself as a night club in order to stay afloat and help pay the owners' legal fees. In a few weeks the Cannabis Club was drawing customers from reigning SoMa venues. The big difference, I'm told by Madeleine, who lives in the Mission but clubs downtown, is that the club is "cool, central, but with no door queens or entry fees." So on "Compassionate Friday", to the sounds of DJ Tufty, Eldridge and Psycho Betty, the kind of West Coast crowd who would normally have a fit over passive smoking came out to dance for drugs. Now the Cannabis Clubs of Santa Cruz, Oakland and LA are opening at night, too. The only question that remains is whether Lungren will win the youth vote.