I suspect I was like most new medical marijuana patients when I first got my card. I found the dispensary closest and most conveniently located to me, went directly there and never bothered to venture anywhere else. After all, all dispensaries are more or less the same, aren’t they? Well, no, they’re not. I decided to get out and explore the differences between a few Sonoma County, California dispensaries.
First, let’s start with what isn’t different. Local dispensaries are hard to find and mostly have terrible signage. Tucked in out-of-the-way strip malls or relegated to the outskirts of town with the adult stores and smoke shops, I found myself muttering, “where the $@#&! is this place!” over and over in frustration.
Even guided by my GPS, if I was a stone’s throw from the business, I would’ve never known it. There’s no street signage, leaving me squinting through my windshield, creeping along, scanning every tiny storefront and annoying the people behind me who knew where they were going. This is likely due to a combination of things, including but not limited to, the difficulty of gaining permits from a hypocritical city/county to finding landlords willing to lease useable spaces. Still, it does no great service to the patients or the dispensary operators, much like locating a homeless shelter in a rural area as not to bother the valuable taxpaying residents with the hassle of mentally ill veterans digging through their recycling. Patients need easy access to medicine and homeless people need easy access to services, so the closer in, the more people can be served.
Of course, cities love to pop off about the criminal element surrounding cannabis, never mind the fact that they themselves, in collusion with the banking industry, create this dangerous atmosphere by not allowing dispensaries to take any form of payment but cash, not to mention the less than desirable parts of town they’re located in. What do you get when you have large quantities of cash and “drugs?” It doesn’t usually end in a cuddle party.
The other thing that is far too homogenous is the staff. It’s almost as if there’s a “Weed Bro” factory nearby churning out young, white male budtenders to staff these places. There are women as well, although less of them. The same young, mainly white, lithe ladies who appeal to Weed Bros. There’s nothing wrong with Weed Bros and Weed Waifs; the problem comes when that’s all there is to choose from.
In a county of nearly 50% Latino population, I find it hard to believe that local dispensaries would dismiss the importance of having a bilingual staff member on every shift. I was also disappointed by the lack of older employees. If you think a Boomer medical patient wants to describe his or her intimate aches and pains to a dreadlocked 22-year old boy, think again. By continuing to cater to the MTV -demographic cannabis crowd, dispensary owners are driving older patients away from brick-and-mortar, straight into the hands of delivery services and eventually, mail order. I can’t tell you how many times a budtender has passed over me, a woman from The Greatest Generation (That’s X, btw), who is waiting in line to buy an ounce of product, just to spend 20-30 minutes with a young man who buys a $15 gram. But, that’s where the similarities end.
First on my list was Peace in Medicine (1061 N. Dutton, Santa Rosa). In my opinion, Peace in Medicine has the best location out of those that I visited. It’s near downtown and easily accessed from the College Ave. exit from Hwy. 101. It has a small parking lot in front with additional parking in back and often have a security presence in the parking lot. Peace has the most “community health center” vibe out of the five. They regularly hold classes and workshops, host costume parties for their customers and have daily specials. You’ll find a small selection of flowers and extracts, a case of edibles, some accessories and a lot of reading materials. They also provide a good selection of information about cannabis and health issues in the form of free handouts and fliers. The staff is friendly and eager to help people find products.
Next, I went over to Alternatives A Health Collective (1603 Hampton Way, Santa Rosa). It’s located off of Sebastopol Rd, near Stony Point, which isn’t a part of town I get over to very often. I had a hard time locating them and my GPS tried to send me to Fresno, but once there found easy parking in their lot. It’s a nice place inside and definitely had a West County vibe. They offer a couple of small cases of edibles, extracts and flowers. The employees were nice, but not particularly engaged with me. We’ve all dealt with bored teens and 20-somethings in retail. My experience was okay.
From Alternatives, I drove to Sonoma Medicinal Herbs (3403 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa) located in a small strip mall with a one-way parking lot. The staff was friendly and knowledgeable. They interacted with me and offered me recommendations, told me about their products and even managed to upsell me (not hard to do). With several cases of flowers, edibles, extracts, they offer a moderate selection to choose from, more than the previous two dispensaries.
The largest dispensary on my list was OrganiCann (301 E. Todd Rd., Santa Rosa). It’s directly across Santa Rosa Avenue and has a good sized parking lot to accommodate customers. If Peace in Medicine is the “community health center” of the dispensaries, that makes OrganiCann the Whole Foods of cannabis. That’s actually what springs to mind when you step into their well-appointed, enormous dispensary. They have separate areas for merchandise, garden inventory, baked goods and other edibles, as well as a large selection of flowers and extracts in every form possible. The service was friendly and the budtender engaged with me, made some recommendations and looked up some information when he didn’t know. They also offer several grades of medicine, from every day to their reserve stock, priced accordingly. OrganiCann is a good choice for people who like a lot of options. You can also order online for pick-up at their locations (also in Hopland, CA; Oakland, CA).
Last but not least I stopped into Mercy Wellness of Cotati (7950 Redwood Dr, Cotati) conveniently located next door to the gun shop. This is another very attractive dispensary. It has a nicer, more upscale vibe than Peace, Alternatives and Sonoma Medicinal, but is smaller than the also swank behemoth OrganiCann. The brief interaction I had with the staff was pleasant but limited due to the busyness of location. I liked the description cards for the flowers and the wall displays. They offer a nice selection of the usual assortment of flowers, edibles and extracts. I liked being able to browse the selection without feeling in the way at the counter.
Overall, there seems to be a dispensary for just about everyone, from the casual community energy at Peace to the upscale OrganiCann. Truthfully, most medical marijuana patients and cannabis enthusiasts aren’t weed nerds and dispensaries have yet to adopt the policy of posting lab reports, so atmosphere and staff are going to play a large part in where they shop. With the writing on the wall for complete legalization within the next several years, buyers will soon be faced with a plethora of options, including not shopping at a dispensary at all. Smart owners will be refining their target markets, cultivating loyalty and honing their operations now before the Altrias and British American Tobaccos step in.