Approaching an unassuming commercial building in a quiet part of town, you might think to double-check the address — is this really a cannabis dispensary? It’s just another discreet storefront surrounded by small-scale businesses. Where are the glaring neon lights, the billows of heavy smoke, the muggers, the hustlers, the junkies, the wild pot-smoking depravity in the streets?
And then you realize: it’s just another pharmacy, man.
To Californians without the cannabis card, the idea of a cannabis dispensary is a funny sort of abstraction – a fantastical "pot store" that D.A.R.E. education and anti-drug advertising never anticipated. Medicinal cannabis dispensaries can be found in 13 states across the country, where it has been legalized by ballot initiative or the signing of a bill (AK, CA, CO, HI, ME, MI, MT, NV, NM, OR, RI, VT, and WA).
California made the first jump into medicinal legalization in 1996 thanks to a 55% majority vote for Prop. 215. After hard-fought negotiation and years of delay, the California Legislature further defined the legality with State Bill 420 in 2003, which added greater specificity to the measure and offered a second layer of state protection to cannabis patients.
In Sacramento, medicinal cannabis establishments are fairly commonplace, and have been tolerated by law enforcement since they first started popping up in 2005. After finally catching the scent, Sacramento city government has acknowledged them and has imposed a 45-day moratorium on dispensary development to research how many there are and what can be done to regulate them.
Under present city law, cannabis clubs can open just like any other business and require no extra paperwork for the sale of THC medicines. By state law, the dispensaries all must operate as not-for-profit collectives or cooperatives as a 501 (c)(3). In accordance with this, patients can pool their resources to open a shop — that’s how they all start — and must reinvest all their earnings into salaries, rent, insurance, product quality, and other expenses to have a bottom line of zero.
Nearing the club, you notice that the building’s windows are tinted or barred, and the shop’s logo is printed in simple typeface, with no image of the iconic seven-fingered hemp leaf. Clubs always have an eye toward safety due to the sensitive nature of their business. Frequently, store owners post cameras to watch over the area outside and hire a friendly but firm security guard to help out.
To get in, you’ll have to ring a doorbell or press a buzzer, and the staff will attend to you within 10 seconds. Some dispensaries have an unlocked front door and a buzzer inside, but others have their patients wait briefly out on the street.
"Safety is our number one concern," said Lanette Davies, co-owner of Canna Care, a dispensary in North Sacramento on Harris Street. "We don’t want people to feel scared or feel shady coming to get their medicine. These people are already sick, so we want them to be as comfortable as possible."
Various waiting areas and numerous sofas
‘Comfort’ is certainly the first word that occurs to you once you get inside a dispensary. The place immediately strikes you as far more cozy than a doctor’s office, with plush leather sofas, walls covered in psychedelic posters, magazines to flip through, informational pamphlets to take home, and a big-screen TV tuned to the news, the Discovery Channel or The Boondocks.
"Everything here is designed to be clinical," said American Alliance for Medical Cannabis state director Ryan Landers at the El Camino Wellness Center. "The check-in window, the music, even down to the bright clean floor — it’s what patients want to see." El Camino, off of I-80 in North Sacramento, is the only club this reporter visited that had a landscaped pagoda garden out front and floor-to-ceiling clear glass windows.
Exotic exterior of El Camino Wellness center
Waiting areas range in professionalism — some look like upscale hotel lobbies, but most look like the living room of a very, shall we say, "green" family.
"Everyone who works here is family," said Clyde Baker, owner of Hugs Alternative Care near the UC Davis Medical Center. He means that biologically and spiritually. As is the case with many cannabis dispensaries, most of his employees are relatives or longtime friends.
"We have a great understanding and trust between us," he said. "If they say they want to take some medicine home with them, I know they’ll be good for it."
A cordial receptionist will check your doctor’s recommendation or your medicinal cannabis ID card before you enter the patients-only showroom, where the shop’s medicine is on display.
Displays of edibles, smokables and growables
Huge glass cases contain a wide variety of cannabis, cannabis products and other non-cannabis herbal remedies. Any dispensary will have a selection of old-fashioned smokable buds, usually between five and 15 different strains ranging in price and potency. Common names to find are OG Kush, Sour Diesel, Northern Lights, Orange Crush or Purple Haze — different balances of the two species cannabis sativa and cannabis indica that have different flavors, THC content, and are recommended for different purposes.
"I prefer a good sativa myself," Baker said, "it’s much more of a picky-upper that can help you focus and still treats my chronic back pain. A good heavy indica can help you relax and get to sleep."
Any serious cannabis dispensary will also have a wide selection of edibles, baked goods that have THC oil cooked right in. Edibles can appear in the form of cookies, brownies, carrot cakes, cherry cobblers, ice creams or marshmallow rice squares, which all come in different prices and dosages. These edibles are a smoke-free medicine for patients with sensitive lungs, a sweet tooth, or both.
Most cannabis dispensaries will also have a rotating inventory of other cannabis products. This includes things like bottles of THC oil, tins of topical THC balms, eyedroppers of THC tincture (a bud soaked in alcohol), and small cannabis plants ready to take home and grow. These plants are all rooted cuttings of successful female plants that are guaranteed to bear ounces of medicine with proper care and a little luck.
Medical research on cannabis has documented its effectiveness with relieving symptoms of a long list of diseases. Cancer patients on chemotherapy, AIDS sufferers with chronic nausea, people living with multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia all come to cannabis dispensaries seeking mental and physical peace and tranquility.
Other herbs share the stage with cannabis at some dispensaries. Occasionally, you can find bags of St. John’s Wort, Star Anise and Slippery Elm Bark, selections of teas and soaps and other personal care products available along with THC medicine. These plant remedies are standard fare at a health food store, so next to NorCal Super Skunk, they can seem just a little underwhelming.
Pricing charts at two dispensaries
Employees will happily show you through their collection and describe the expected effects and experiences each product has to offer. Anything you’re interested in they’ll pick out and let you look over, even offering lenses or microscopes to see the crystal quality of cannabis buds. Once you make a selection, they’ll bag it up and take you to the register. The cost can be $5-10 above "street" prices, but you’re paying for much more than just the bud: hospitality, management, compensation for time and materials, security, and, yes, California sales tax.
On your way out, they’ll watch over you until you get to your car or hop on the bus. Most cannabis dispensaries are located near public transit lines to better serve patients with limited mobility. Watching patients leave through security cameras is both for their safety and the club’s. Patients are generally forbidden to "medicate" on the premises, and illegally exchanging meds with non-patients is equally discouraged. Crime such as robbery of an exiting patient or of the entire club, is rare, according to Sacramento Police Department Spokesman, Sgt. Norm Leong.
"We want to maintain an open relationship with law enforcement," Landers said. "Crimes are infrequent, so when they do happen, we want to be able to report them."
Clubs that have been around for more than a few months get usual inspections from the Sacramento police. Inspections focus on structural matters such as main entrances, windows and back doors, to ensure security. Hugs Alternative Care has been robbed twice, but has since stepped up security. The crimes were reported to the police.
"I really can’t say enough about the Sacramento Police Department," Baker said. "They dealt with us with the utmost respect and concern for our well-being."
Safety was reported by all to be the first concern. While at the club you might run into full families, with kids hanging around patiently in the waiting rooms, watching Spongebob for a few minutes while their parents get their medical treatments.
Almost half of the cannabis dispensaries in Sacramento opened in the last six months, according to club owners. Many new dispensaries were created in response to the new Obama administration’s drug policy of no federal raids. Despite the recent influx, no new clubs can be opened during the 45-day moratorium, which the Sacramento City Council can extend for up to two years. All club owners and managers agreed, though, that cannabis dispensaries should be as normal as Rite-Aid.
A model transaction at Northstar Healing Collective
"Medical cannabis is here to stay," Baker said, "and it should be."
It’s quick, it’s easy and it’s starting to get more accessible. If you show up at 4 p.m., you can be in and out before 20 after.
Photos by Cheya Cary