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A Cloud Darkens Over Vapor Room

Is the federal crackdown about to claim a nine-year-old Haight Street institution?

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Just weeks after Berkeley Patients Group announced it was shutting its doors, Bay Area medical cannabis supporters are facing another gut-wrenching closure, only this time it's in the heart of San Francisco. David Goldman, organizer for Americans for Safe Access in San Francisco, said the nine-year-old Haight Street institution Vapor Room is "going to close sometime this month." Like BPG, Vapor Room will morph into a delivery service and seek another location, he said.

Goldman said Vapor Room's landlord received a letter from US Attorney Melinda Haag, who has been threatening dozens of landlords in Northern California with property forfeiture for leasing to dispensaries. Haag's office didn't return requests for comment, but has said in numerous public statements that she is targeting dispensaries within 1,000 feet of school, parks, or playgrounds. Vapor Room is about 750 feet from Duboce Park.

Vapor Room operator Martin Olive would not comment for this story, but dispensary staff are telling patients and growers the club might close soon. Legal maneuvers are under way to buy time. Vapor Room is also asking patients to sign "pleas for compassion" addressed to Haag, as well as letters of support for the iconic club.

Federal pressure on Vapor Room also may explain the timing of a San Francisco Board of Supervisors commendation that the club received May 1. In it, city leaders exalted the nonprofit's contribution to the Lower Haight, calling it a "model medical cannabis dispensary" since its establishment in 2004. The club founded the Lower Haight Merchants and Neighbors Association in 2006, and "participates avidly" in street clean-ups, the board said. The dispensary increases public safety through frequent communications with police, and with better street lighting. The cooperative also funnels its earnings to local HIV/AIDS cancer hospices, the Food Bank, and the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics.

What the commendation doesn't say is that Vapor Room has quite possibly the best style and location of any club in the world. From its longtime partnership with skate culture artist Jeremy Fish to the delicious local restaurants, bars, and cafes nearby, Vapor Room has been a city institution, and its pending loss cuts very deep. Qualified patients should soak up as much time in the Room as they can.

Start with the neighborhood. Sure Haight and Ashbury — the one-time epicenter of counterculture in America — now sports a Ben & Jerry's and Anthropologie, but it's still the Haight. San Francisco is as dense as the West gets, and the Haight exemplifies density's possibilities: the Victorians, the dive bars, the world-famous art boutiques like Upper Playground. Right across the street from Vapor Room is the world-class artisanal sausage shop Rosamunde, adjacent to the intimidatingly advanced beer bar Toronado.

All of which leads us to Vapor Room. The club is camouflaged in the neighborhood, hiding halfway under a Victorian house. Only the telltale work of Jeremy Fish on the signage gives it away. Fish has come to represent Vapor Room's style — weedy, urbane, and cool, like an Amsterdam club, drained of seediness. The ceilings are low, the place smells of fresh and smoking ganja. The walls are covered in Fish's fantastic art, and the six lounge tables are always surrounded by locals puffing away. Young skateboarders, old hippies, professionals just off work, the dreadlocked, joggers, and the terminally ill are all regulars, along with their dogs, which Vapor Room loves maybe more than people.

Unlike the encyclopedic menu at Harborside Health Center in Oakland, Vapor Room features just under a dozen strains per day, all top-shelf, available for $55 for four grams. The club is known far and wide for its approachable, citrusy Tangerine, as well as the exotic, sedating Purple Nepal. Vapor Room is just as famous for its hash choices, featuring a well-curated selection of little vials of keif and big lumps of pressed hash, which staffers break off and weigh in front of you.

The vibe is quite mellow and stoney, with cards and board games stacked high around the aquarium in the corner. Patients can borrow a bong in exchange for ID, and then fire away while watching basketball on the flatscreen. Others roll joints from the free basket of custom Vapor Room rolling papers.

Elise McDonough, author of The Official High Times Cannabis Cookbook and a Santa Cruz resident, was there the day we visited. McDonough did a talk and a book-signing in the corner, and said Vapor Room was one of the reasons California now outclasses Amsterdam. She couldn't believe the club might have to close.

National patient lobby group Americans for Safe Access is working to end the federal crackdown, and its San Francisco branch has been running a "save our sanctuary city" campaign in response to the federal closure of several dispensaries since October. "It's just terrible. That was, for me, the closest sit-down dispensary where I could go and medicate," Goldman said of Vapor Room. "I always enjoyed hanging out there."

We did, too. The place is professional and safe, wholly unlike the street dealers near Golden Gate Park, who have been selling weed since quarter-ounces cost $10. Spending resources persecuting Vapor Room instead of drug dealers that sell acid and mushrooms to kids showcases just how dangerously idiotic federal policy has become.

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