Jason Beck stood behind the counter of his modest Haight Street storefront and fretted about the rapidly changing marketplace.
For years, he said, he and his fellow merchants tried to hold up certain standards, to ensure the good faith of their clients and neighbors. But then a bunch of newcomers invaded the market, with no heed for tradition. They threatened, he said, to tarnish the entire industry.
"We don't know who they are or what they're representing," said Beck, explaining why he has signed on to a movement demanding more city oversight of his industry.
And then he took a deep drag of cannabis smoke from a vaporizing device. Not a customer in the room batted an eye, all absorbed in their own small joints or blunts and wreathed in their own numbingly fragrant clouds.
For that is the business Beck wants San Francisco to regulate: selling pot.
Specifically, selling medical marijuana to people whose doctors have recommended they use it. Since California voters first approved a measure in 1996 permitting sick people to use the drug, scores of marijuana dispensaries have opened across the state -- and nowhere more so than in San Francisco, the birthplace of the medical cannabis movement.
From six cannabis clubs in 1999, the city is now home to at least 43, local officials say.
Yet the rapid growth has become troubling even to advocates of the movement. City police complain that medical marijuana is slipping out of the clubs and into the hands of recreational users or drug dealers. Last week -- not long after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the power of federal prosecutors to charge medical-marijuana users even in the 11 states that allow it -- agents raided three of San Francisco's clubs, alleging they operated as fronts for larger drug-trafficking and money-laundering operations.
Now, as city leaders push for stricter regulation -- imposing a six-month moratorium on new clubs while they draw up rules -- they have found some of their strongest support comes, surprisingly, from club operators themselves.
"We have to assume some responsibility," said Wayne Justmann, a pioneer in the pot-club scene. More government oversight would "pave the way to legitimacy" for medical marijuana, he said.
"It would be like Good Housekeeping was here," he added, "and we got their seal of approval."
Spend some time with San Francisco's club operators and you may feel as though you have entered a counterculture chamber of commerce.
The display case at Beck's Alternative Herbal Health Services is like something out of an R. Crumb cartoon. Next to the glass vials packed with standard, smokeable buds -- strains dubbed Big Sur and Caramela, $18 for a gram -- are whimsically packaged food products: marijuana-infused peanut butter and jelly, as well as candy bars that look like Snickers and Reese's but are labeled "Stoners" and "Reefers" for $8 each, or two for $15.
"It's a different delivery system," said Beck, a goateed 27-year-old who uses cannabis to control seizures related to his cerebral palsy. "Lots of people with emphysema and asthma can't smoke. They find the baked goods help them sleep."
Today, though, everyone at Beck's dispensary is smoking -- the athletic-looking guy in the knit cap and shorts, the forty-something woman in dark glasses and two-inch fingernails. Though patients are free to take their cannabis home, many of them choose to smoke at the club, and the place has a glazed, sociable feel.
Yet for all the iconoclast trappings, San Francisco marijuana distributors like to talk the earnest talk of do-gooder corporate citizens and are largely respected as such. Bouncers at the doors make visitors show the city-issued cards that certify they have a doctor's referral. Police officers walking the beat drop by for friendly small talk. One local dispensary won the "best float" prize in the neighborhood parade. Beck keeps a framed photo of himself from a friendly meeting with the city district attorney; over at the Compassion and Care Center, there is a warm letter from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on the wall.
But the fact remains that it is all illegal under federal law. Despite last month's Supreme Court ruling, there has been no effort to shut down the marijuana clubs, other than the three accused of drug trafficking.
Still, club owners, who distance themselves from the raided clubs, are wary. Local Drug Enforcement Administration officials insisted after the recent arrests that they will not target sick people who use marijuana. But they offered no such guarantee to the places that sell the drug, and club owners cannot be sure that their locations will not be targeted next.
"Every day you realize law enforcement could take action," said Justmann, 60, who runs a downtown club and uses marijuana to alleviate side effects of HIV drugs.
Ross Mirkarimi, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who has led the push for regulation, said the city's willingness to "turn a blind eye" led to the boom in marijuana clubs that now threatens to cause a backlash.
Some of the newest clubs opened after other California cities -- notably neighboring Oakland -- laid down their own restrictions. In San Francisco, though, pot clubs still face fewer guidelines than most businesses.
Mirkarimi, who is calling for annual licensing and limits on where pot clubs can operate and how much profit they can earn, said the clubs "should be catapulted into the mainstream. . . . The more cognizant we are of our medical-marijuana clubs, the less likely it will be for the DEA to threaten a raid."
Some advocates have expressed concern that greater regulation would force clubs to compile paper trails that could put them and patients at risk if federal investigators come around. Others are leery of measures that would limit the number of clubs.
"Then you have lines outside, and big operations and economies of scale where they become kind of corporate," said Hilary McQuie of the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, which supports many other regulation proposals. "I'd rather support a bunch of proverbial mom-and-pops."
Yet overall, club operators say they welcome new rules. Beck said the city should require that club owners be physician-referred cannabis patients themselves -- not only because they are the only possessors protected by state law, but also because of their ability to empathize with their customers' medical conditions.
Patients, meanwhile, "will know the quality of cannabis has been checked," he said.
Justmann agreed. "The more facilities there are, you know the cannabis supplies are watered down."
Customers at the Compassion and Care Center in San Francisco use marijuana for medical reasons. The city, which had six cannabis clubs in 1999, now is home to at least 43.