I know it sounds like a Bill Clinton line, but even without smoking or eating a thing, I got buzzed after hanging out behind the counter with the staff at the Vapor Room. It’s one of the benefits, I learned, of working at one of San Francisco’s medical marijuana dispensaries.
So yes, this is the story of how I spent a day learning what it’s like to work in a cannabis club. I wanted to know about the business from the point of view of the people who run the dispensaries. So I convinced Martin Olive and Nicole Strand, the directors, to show me the ropes.
First step: getting a prescription so I could legally enter the club. Anyone who’s flipped through the San Francisco Bay Guardian knows the ads for doctors whose only business is prescribing medical marijuana. On a friend’s recommendation, I hit Green Relief and after an office visit with the doctor and a faxed medical history from my chiropractor, I paid $100 in cash and was verified legal.
On the way home I passed by the Love Shack dispensary and figured I may as well peek inside. But when I handed them my prescription papers, the dreadlocked dude at the door told me I could look around this once, but if I wanted to come back, I needed a government issued ID. It was turning out that getting marijuana legally was more complicated and confusing than I had thought – and I’m not even a stoner.
Next stop: the table in SF General Hospital’s lobby, where a middle-aged woman asked me to fill out a form, checked my prescription, took my photo, and said I could get my card a week later. It’s faster and easier than a DMV visit. Only problem: The card costs another benjamin. Was legal pot restricted to the rich?
Turns out I was somewhat misinformed: Any doctor, not just “pot doctors” will write prescriptions, including those at free clinics, if you make a convincing enough case. As medical marijuana gets increasingly legitimate, fewer doctors worry it’ll jeopardize their careers. As for the card: The Love Shack is a rare exception. Most places only need a prescription. But the card offers extra proof, helpful if the cops ever question you.
Martin and Nicole asked me to show up first thing in the morning – that is, 11 a.m. in stoner speak. The Vapor Room is located on Haight Street – fitting given the street’s history with drugs, but the club is a far cry from a hippie head shop. With its wooden counters and glass display cases it looks more like a Kiehl’s cosmetics shop. Jeremy Fish’s paintings don the walls and curiosities like porcelain birds and antique books line the shelves.
In some ways working at the Vapor Room is like running any shop: stocking shelves, coordinating breaks, ringing up sales, and running people’s credit cards – that’s right – you can buy pot with plastic, a single indicator that the industry is officially legitimate. Workers have health insurance and 401(k)s, and everything is ridiculously up to code. The Vapor Room runs more strictly by the books than most mom and pop businesses because of heavy scrutiny and bureaucratic hoops. There are major differences, though, like the heavy security with video monitors and intimidating guys checking paperwork outside. And everyone was high. Some, really high.
The best thing about cannabis clubs – besides being legal – is how the staff describes the nuances of the marijuana strains. But unlike wine sommeliers, they explain not just the taste, but also the buzz. They pointed out which strains are good for a roller-coaster ride versus an ongoing mellow plateau; the cerebral and mellow strains that allow you to still get stuff accomplished; or the ones that put you to sleep. If only Napa tasting rooms described which merlot makes you tired and which chardonnays make sunny days even rosier.
I was surprised by how few people asked questions. Most knew what they wanted, and after smelling the samples in the glass jars, made their choice. Just as the ’90s wine trend created amateur wine experts preferring certain vintages and tannins, Martin explains, we are now in a marijuana renaissance, and people know what’s what.
So where does all this cannabis come from? In true San Francisco ethos, they buy from small local growers, mostly individuals who grow in excess of their personal stash. Every couple of days suppliers hand-deliver marijuana, which the staff then separates, weighs, and bags. Each bag is labeled: Red (as in stop) for indica, which relaxes and induces sleep; green for sativa, the kind that energizes; and yellow for in-between.
I was there on edible delivery day. A young guy dropped off two Ikea bags filled with cookies. Another supplier waited with her tote bag of lollipops. The staff checked packing slips and restocked: lollipops in glass jars lining the shelves, cookies in display cases next to Rice Krispies treats and vegan chocolates. The range, from honey to tinctures, is impressive, but perhaps most ingenious was an edible salve, or “pleasure cream,” that will get you high – perhaps some stoners’ ultimate fantasy.
There was a steady stream of customers all day. I had expected the stereotypical hippies, skaters, and hip hop stoners, and while they were represented, they weren’t the majority. It’s not just pro-legalization rhetoric – there really is no typical pot smoker. A guy in a business suit with a Rolex lined up behind a tranny who was in front of a middle-aged woman who looked like she’d be friends with my mom next to an aging Haight Street hippie. It was a cross-mixture of people rivaling MUNI buses.
Martin and Nicole purposefully designed the club as an alternative to sketchy dispensaries with bulletproof glass and dilapidated lawn furniture, creating a space where anyone – senior citizens, women, transgendereds – would want to hang out. And it works: up front in the cafe, a smorgasbord of people sit around playing chess, drinking tea, chatting, and getting high. Old men played chess. One woman with bright pink lipstick, who looked like she was on her way to a Florida early-bird dinner, shared THC-laced Chex Mix with her husband. Senior citizens, it turns out, really like their pot.
Some customers caused commotions: Three staff members spent 20 minutes negotiating with a customer with an expired card before he’d leave. One well-medicated customer wanted to discuss confusing get-rich-quick schemes. The latter Martin said was an aberration, and the former, a common problem. But mainly everyone was friendly and polite, with many regulars whom the staff knew by first name.
But there were also the terminally ill. Nicole explained how heartbreaking it is to see customers get increasingly sick, losing weight and hair, until one day you don’t see them anymore. But she also said it was rewarding to see people whose pain is eased by marijuana getting better. I had assumed that there was a level of disingenuousness to obtaining marijuana as “medicine” for “patients.” I say make it legal for everyone. But when I heard one customer, whose stroke and debilitating side effects of HIV medication made basic movements difficult, explain how marijuana transforms his life, I thought twice.
Martin agrees that anyone has a right to cannabis – whether to help unwind after a stressful workday or to get through chemo. But he’s also helped make “compassionate care” the club’s focus. The Vapor Room offers free services like yoga, nutrition counseling, massage, and support groups. It stresses taking care of all people, but realizes that the truly sick need more help. Each week it delivers marijuana to cancer and AIDS patients at local hospices – for free.
In fact, I have never seen so much free pot given away as I did that day at the Vapor Room. Unlike the real estate agent who dropped off flyers about a pot-growing warehouse for sale, the Vapor Room is definitely not about cashing in on the crop. Anyone who’s broke and in pain gets up to five free vapor bags – which are about the size of plastic grocery bags – to inhale onsite.
The Vapor Room offers free weekly quantities to select terminally ill patients who can’t afford care and Martin has even driven one elderly patient to doctor’s visits. Patients come to him for help and advice: While I was there, a down-and-out tranny came in to drop off a cane for another regular customer and asked Martin if she could talk privately about a problem she was having.
Just like the credit card commercial, there are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, including marijuana, there’s MasterCard.
Need medical marijuana? Most dispensaries require only a prescription, so visit Green Relief or your doctor and describe your symptoms. If the pot dispensary you’d like to visit (such as Love Shack) requires a government issued ID card, hightail it over to SF General with your prescription, proof of address, ID, and 100 bucks. To acquire the green stuff, visit the Vapor Room in the Lower Haight.