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The list of people I’ve taken to get their medical-marijuana papers grew to be about a half-dozen long before I realized what I’d become: a weed-card concierge.

Whenever a friend or family member visits San Francisco and wants to become a legal medical-cannabis user in California, I end up guiding them through the process. I consider it a public service, mainly because obtaining a medical-marijuana recommendation in California can be as mysterious as it is seedy. As a San Francisco–based freelance journalist with a pot column in the East Bay Express and a pot blog on, I’ve been on the beat for years talking to lawyers, doctors, patients and dispensary operators. It’s a delight to pass on what I’ve learned, and the look on people’s faces as they comprehend that they’re no longer a weed criminal in the eyes of the state is pretty priceless.

Here’s my spiel.


Californians legalized medical marijuana in 1996 with Proposition 215, which grants a medical defense in court to patients with a doctor’s recommendation for marijuana who are charged with possession or cultivation of the plant. The limit is eight ounces of bud and six mature plants.

A doctor’s recommendation and a valid state ID are all you need to get into California dispensaries or to grow, but if you want full legal immunity from arrest for holding or growing pot, you’ll want to get a California State Medical Marijuana ID Card. You do so by filing your doctor’s recommendation with the county. (When most people say, “I got my weed card!” they actually mean, “I have a doctor’s recommendation.” Very few patients go on to get the proper state ID card because it’s an extra step, and people are lazy. That said, a full weed ID means fewer hassles during police stops, so weed-delivery drivers and old folks in conservative counties such as Butte opt for them.)


According to Prop 215, California residents may obtain a doctor’s recommendation for marijuana “for the treatment of cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, migraine, or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.” Why does the devil weed have so many clinical indications? Good question. The unfertilized female flower tops of cannabis contain more than 60 unique molecules called cannabinoids. Euphoric delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, is chief among them. These weed molecules boost a chemical signaling system in mammalian nerve cells called the endocannabinoid system, causing a variety of effects. THC relieves pain, vomiting, and muscle spasms. It also stimulates appetite and can make you giggly. The second-most common cannabinoid, CBD, has anti-convulsive, anti-inflammatory, and anti-psychotic properties, among others. More exotic cannabinoids induce sleep, kill bacteria, or
promote bone growth.



The experience of getting a weed card runs the gamut, from a visit to your primary-care physician to a visit to a Winnebago advertising “$40 recommendations – or your money back” outside something called “Hempcon” at the Cow Palace. Many people aren’t comfortable bringing up marijuana with their primary-care doctor, as it would be added to one’s health file. But the Winnebago doesn’t seem very appealing either.

In the middle are the recommendation clinics. Look for reviews of them on Yelp and elsewhere online, as well as advertisements in the back of the local alt weeklies. Price is an issue for lots of people, but so is professionalism. You want an established, well-reviewed clinic that offers “third-party verification” because all dispensaries need to verify your recommendation before they let you join. If a club can’t reach your shady doctor, you’re not getting in. Conversely, if staff can type your special ID number into a form on a third-party verification web page and quickly get back “verified,” you’re in.


Medical visits are covered by several layers of state and federal laws related to personal information and health information, so a recommendation isn’t going to show up in a background check, according to lawyers. However, liking “Stuff Stoners Like” on Facebook may.



My go-to spot for years now has been Greenway. Its $85 recommendations don’t come cheap, but you get what you pay for. The company has advertised for years and is well reviewed, and the place is clean and professional. All kinds of patients are in there, from urban dudes rocking tribal tattoos and piercings to professional women in Nordstrom Rack blouses to seriously ill, old gents in ripped jeans.

The intersection of Sixth Street and Mission Street can get a little rough, so I like to go to Greenway early on a weekday when it opens at 11 a.m. The drunks are still asleep, and you save time. A visit with the doctor doesn’t take longer than 15 minutes, but if there’s a line, you could be there for an hour.

Tell the receptionist near the door that you’re a new patient, and expect fill out a couple of pages of forms that ask for your basic contact information and medical history. The forms also ask if you already use cannabis and for what purpose. I tell people to be honest. (That said, you generally shouldn’t be using pot if you’re under 18, pregnant or trying to get pregnant, or have a history of mental illness, such as psychosis. Some studies show that underage use of cannabis is associated with a higher potential for dependence as an adult. Doctors often won’t write underage recommendations without parental approval, as pissed-off parents will report them to the California Medical Board.)

Last time I was at Greenway back in May, I spoke to an Indian doctor who was really great. She reviewed my form and asked me about myself, my work, and my cannabis use in a non-judgy sort of way: “How much? What time of day? How do you take it?”

She recommended using a water-filtered pipe (bong) or vaporizer to cut down on the irritation of smoking—cannabis edibles are another option there. Topical ointments can also be used to treat muscle pain and even eczema and psoriasis without getting you high.

Almost all physician recommendations last a year. At Greenway, patients get three signed doctor’s notes: one very official-looking, embossed one to present to clubs; a copy for your records; and a laminated business-card-size recommendation that also works at virtually every dispensary.



After Greenway, I usually run friends to the new Mint Plaza boutique, the Bloom Room. If we have all day, it’s off to SPARC for the interior design and outdoor-grown ganja and vaporizers, and then I blow their minds at The Green Door’s lounge with bong loads, billiards, and the ball game in HD. First visits to dispensaries are generally all the same: say you’re a “new patient,” present a valid state ID and a doctor’s recommendation, fill out some forms while they verify, and then you’re in. You’ll probably get a free joint or brownie.

San Francisco clubs are as diverse as the neighborhoods they’re in. SPARC is known for its outdoor varieties. The Green Door? It’s all about the award-winning Candy Jack. The Hemp Center on Geary pioneered 2013’s trendiest strain, Girl Scout Cookies. Each club has different rules about how much you can buy – generally, it’s a few ounces. If you get anywhere near the personal limit of eight ounces – which is about $2,400, or a half pound of weed, and equal to about 224 days of use at a very ample one gram per day – you’re going to be questioned by staff. Visits are limited to once or twice per day. You can’t use your cell phone in dispensaries. It’s a private medical facility, and they don’t want you taking text orders from your friends.

At the sales counter, say you’re new, and enjoy the product tour. Feel free to ask as many questions as you have. Some clubs allow “on-site medication” either in the form of vaporizer stations or bongs and joints. Ask or use your nose. Are people burning one? Outside the club, use common sense. It’s still illegal to smoke in public or drive high. Plenty of stoner ninjas clandestinely inhale all over S.F. every day, but if you’re flagrant, police will write you a possession ticket. If you’re in a vehicle, you could lose your license, or worse. Take BART or Muni, which are thrilling to navigate while stoned.