Marijuana goes mainstream

Take a tour of the Bay Area's best cannabis clubs, which are proving that prohibition is the problem, not pot

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I've smoked marijuana on and off for most of my adult life, usually in the evening to help let go of the anxieties associated with being a progressive wage slave in an increasingly conservative capitalist country.

Buying my pot, which is California's biggest cash crop, has always been a criminal transaction: in hushed tones or coded language, I arrange to meet a dealer I've been set up with through friends. And when I meet him (they've always been men), I give him cash in exchange for an eighth- or quarter-ounce of whatever kind of pot he's selling.

I don't know what variety I'm buying, who grew it, or how it was grown; whether violence or environmental degradation have occurred along the supply chain; or even whether it is an indica or sativa, the two most basic cannabis families that have differing effects on users.

I've been completely in the dark, both in terms of what I was buying and who was benefiting from the transaction, but that changed recently. I obtained a doctor's recommendation to legally smoke weed — honestly citing anxiety as my affliction — and set out to explore the area's best cannabis clubs.

It was a little strange and disorienting at first, this new world of expert purveyors of the finest Northern California marijuana and the various concentrates, edibles, drinkables, and other products it goes into. But what eventually struck me is just now normal and mainstream this industry has become, particularly in San Francisco, which has long led the movement to legalize marijuana.

Unlike in cities such as Los Angeles, where the rapid proliferation of unregulated pot clubs has made headlines and raised community concerns, San Francisco years ago made its clubs jump through various bureaucratic hoops to become fully licensed, permitted, and regulated, free to join the mainstream business community, pay their taxes, and compete with one another on the basis of quality, price, customer service, ambiance, and support for the community.

As Californians prepare to decide whether to decriminalize marijuana for even recreational use — on Jan. 28, advocates plan to turn in enough valid signatures to place that initiative on the fall ballot — it's a good time to explore just what the world of legal weed looks like.

Pretty much everyone involved agrees that San Francisco's system for distributing marijuana to those with a doctor's recommendation for it is working well: the patients, growers, dispensary operators, doctors, politicians, police, and regulators with the planning and public health departments.

"It works and it should continue to be replicated," Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who created the legislation four years ago that led to the current system, told us. "It's now mainstream."

Public health officials agree. "In general, we're very happy about our relationship with the industry and their commitment to the regulations," said Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, San Francisco's environmental health director. "We did this well and we did it cooperatively with the clubs."

Bhatia said there are now 22 fully-permitted clubs (and two more under review) in San Francisco, less than half the number operating when the regulations were created. He also said the city no longer receives many complaints from neighbors of clubs.

Misha Breyburg, managing partner of the nonprofit Medithrive, which opened just a few months ago on Mission Street, supports the process too. "The regulations generally are not easy, but I think that's okay," he said. "The process was long and cumbersome and stressful, but very fair."

Martin Olive, director of the Vapor Room, one of the city's largest and best dispensaries, agrees that the permitting process professionalized the industry: "I'm proud to be here because the city government has been amazing."

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