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How San Francisco Ignited Public Partying

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People love to party in public in San Francisco. Photo of Bay to Breakers by Kevin Edwards via Flickr

By Steven T. Jones

Originally published as “Partying Down the Apocalypse” on the weekly newsletter Scribe’s End Notes.

Times are tough, but take heart: it’s the golden age for beer, booze, and marijuana. So things could be worse — at least we’re not facing The End sober.

We in California have always had it pretty good when it comes to legalized partying. We launched the craft beer revolution and grow the best weed, which has been legal or semi-legal here for decades.

San Francisco led the statewide charge to legalize marijuana for medical purposes in 1996 and for recreational uses in 2016. Other states soon followed suit, with medical marijuana now legal in 38 states and recreationally in 24.

Now President Biden’s administration is finally doing what the White House should have done decades ago: changing the federal designation of marijuana as a dangerous drug. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s also smart politics that could help with his eroding support among young people.

Unfortunately, California still isn’t a top-tier party state when it comes to outdoor or late-night drinking. Our bars stop serving booze by 2 a.m. and you can’t walk out of them with alcoholic beverages, although that did loosen up a little during the pandemic with a proliferation of street-side parklets, where you watch the world go by with drink in hand.

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But those restrictions are now changing. San Francisco has received state permission to establish “entertainment zones,” where bars and restaurants can sell walk-around cocktails and you can party in the streets, just like New Orleans and Las Vegas. And there’s legislation that could expand that opportunity to other California cities.

So grab a drink, dear readers, and let’s stroll through our country’s evolving party scene.

Legalize It

As a California newspaper journalist and longtime pot smoker, I closely covered the state’s slow-motion legalization of marijuana. I had only recently made the transition from daily newspapers to alternative newsweeklies when California voters passed Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996.

Working for New Times in San Luis Obispo, I hazily remember covering the election night party for the pro-pot campaign in Morro Bay — smoke thick in the air, tables full of pot brownies and other cannabis-infused edibles, everyone grinning and happy, celebrating the big historic victory.

While marijuana really does help with many medical conditions, it was also clear from the beginning that this measure was a Trojan horse toward decriminalizing the drug for everyone. Still, it took several years before I got my medical prescription to legally buy marijuana from the dispensaries that had began to proliferate in San Francisco.

In late 2008, when the San Francisco Bay Guardian was planning its first annual Cannabis Club Guide, I was the city editor and attended editorial meetings as our culture editor updated us on the guide’s progress. I was a hard news guy who covered pot’s political developments, not guides like this one, but when the freelancer working on the project fell through, I volunteered to report and write it.

Photo of the SF Bay Guardian cannabis issue courtesy of 48Hills/SF Bay Guardian

I know, tough assignment, right?!?! With a budget from the Bay Guardian, I got my medical card from a local pot doc and proceeded to visit and rate a dozen or so local dispensaries, judging them on factors including price, selection, ambiance and “sketch factor” (yeah, in those early days, some places still felt a little sketchy and criminal).

Because local rules didn’t allow on-site consumption at most dispensaries, visits were mostly transactional and it was hard to just hang out and sense the scene. So the Guardian gave me a budget to buy a little something at each stop, which I would then distribute to our unpaid interns and low-paid staffers, like Santa Claus for young stoners.

Fast forward to today, the day that we always hoped and suspected would eventually arrive. With weed legal in most states, it just doesn’t make sense that the federal government still lists marijuana as a Schedule I narcotic, the most dangerous category that even cocaine and methamphetamines aren’t in.

Administration sources tell reporters that the Drug Enforcement Agency is expected to approve a recommendation by the Department of Health and Human reclassifying marijuana as a Schedule III drug under the Controlled Substance Act, the same category as ketamine and anabolic steroids. That acknowledges pot’s lower potential for abuse and some medical benefits.

Once the recommendation is approved, there will be a 60-day public comment period followed by a hearing before an administrative law judge. In states like California where pot is already legal, the biggest impact of the federal change would be legitimizing banking transactions for marijuana businesses that now must operate on a cash basis.

But more importantly, it will bring state and federal drug laws into alignment and help prevent the periodic crackdowns on pot businesses that have happened continually ever since that hazy, happy cannabis legalization party back in Morro Bay.

Wiener vs. the Death of Fun

Before I took on the marijuana beat for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, I worked on a series of stories for the paper we called the Death of Fun. It was about a series of crackdowns on the parties, street fairs, public drinking, nightlife and other fun activities by the mayoral administration of Gavin Newsom, who is now California’s governor.

Newsom’s fun police banned drinking at venerable street fairs and the Bay to Breakers race, jacked up fees on other community events, let police raid private parties and seize DJ equipment, and cancelled the popular Halloween in the Castro. But there were several local politicians who pushed back on the trend and championed the crusade against the Death of Fun.

One key ally was Scott Wiener, who defended fun even before he was elected to the San Francisco Boar of Supervisors, played a central role on the board keeping San Francisco fun, pushed to allow more party venues, and has continued that advocacy in his current role as a member of the California State Senate.

People partying in public fro 420 at San Francisco’s Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park. Photo by Dan Schooling via Wikimedia Commons.

It was Wiener’s legislation that allows the new “entertainment zones” in San Francisco and his bill to expand it into other cities. Wiener has repeatedly tried to overturn California’s law banning bars from selling alcohol after 2 a.m. Wiener’s consistent message has been that allowing more public partying is good for our economy and our spirits.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors could vote soon to approve the first entertainment zone along restaurant- and bar-heavy Front Street between Sacramento and California streets. It’s part of a multi-pronged effort to enliven The City’s struggling downtown, which is still reeling from the pandemic. City officials also just launched the monthly Downtown First Thursdays street party, modeled after Oakland’s Art Murmur, with its First Friday parties.

Wiener’s pro-party stance is consistent with his other policy interests: reducing government regulations and oversight, particularly when it comes to developing more housing. Both in San Francisco and at the statewide level, Wiener has been the legislative leader of the YIMBY movement that seeks to drastically expand housing development and oppose local controls on it.

So Wiener has always been a complicated and controversial figure, which I wrote about in 2013 as a Bay Guardian cover story profile of him, for which I was criticized by some progressive purists and Wiener haters.

But personally, I’ve always liked Wiener, his boldness, and his willingness to answer tough questions about his stances, even if I don’t agree with all his policy positions. And now that he’s been named chairman of the powerful Senate Budget Committee, it’ll be fun to see what else he does to pump up the party — and the economy — in California and its cities.

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