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Canna-business: Has Legalization Ruined Weed Culture?

July 19, 2019
by Bill Snyder
Cannabis products

Walking into the Berkeley Cannabis Buyers Club might give you a dose of cognitive dissonance.

It’s a bit like going to an Apple store; lots of chrome and glass and helpful young people hanging around to guide you through a purchase. Electronic sign boards list products and prices, and streamlined checkout queues shuttle customers along quickly. But it’s also social, laid back. A DJ spins tunes, there’s a comfy couch to relax on, and you’ll be mingling with a friendly and eclectic crowd of shoppers, not all of whom look like the Berkeley hippies of yore.

A scene from a dispensary in San Francisco
October 15, 2016 – San Francisco, California, United States: Joe Dolce checks out the products at Medithrive, a medical marijuana dispensary in San Francisco. Dolce is the author of “Brave New Weed.” (Santiago Mejia / San Francisco Chronicle / Polaris) ///

And with so many new products and new ways to get stoned, firing up the venerable doobie seems like a relic of the Summer of Love. There are designer brands of weed, THC sprays and tongue strips, a cornucopia of edibles ranging from the usual brownies to fruity, sparkling beverages, and don’t even get me started on the CBD-infused balms, oils, and ointments that claim to calm your nerves or ease your aches and pains. It’s enough to make your head spin (literally).

The paraphernalia these days goes far beyond glass bongs to include such gizmos as grinders that turn sticky bud into smoothly burning powder and something called a decarboxylator—a $250 device that enhances the psychoactive content of cannabis so it can be used to put the buzz in your food.

In November of 2016, Californians voted for the recreational legalization of cannabis 57 to 43 percent. Last year alone, cannabis consumers in California contributed some $345 million in tax revenue, more than any other weed-friendly state.

But in all the rush to light up and cash in, has something been lost?

From a cultural perspective, yes, says Michael Polson, an anthropologist with the newly established Berkeley Cannabis Research Center, reflecting on the outlaw weed days of the ’60s and more recently when pot was smoked in legal, medical dispensaries. “The idea of sharing was much more intrinsic than today; there was a kind of solidarity. Marijuana was a culture marker, not just a product.”

Now, legal pot is marking a different culture, one that’s starting to look a lot like the consumer culture that hippies and heads used to deplore.

Interior of a dispensary
Inside the Berkeley Patients Group // Courtesy of the Berkeley Patients Group

What’s more, Polson says, the early buyers’ clubs of the 1990s that formed when marijuana was legalized for medical use “were a productive and healing space for folks.” But licenses for the clubs expired after recreational pot was legalized. Patients can still buy marijuana, of course, but “there was something valuable about that medical space that may be lost,” Polson says.

Today, you don’t even need to get off the couch to buy weed and other cannabis products if you live in a major city—you can get it delivered to your door by any number of companies that have sprung up in the last year.

Gary Leatherman, a San Franciscan who worked to pass the Medical Marijuana Initiative in 1996, also sounds a bit wistful when he talks about the medical dispensaries of the 90s. “[They] were like speakeasies. Back in the day, I’d roll a joint and pass it around. It was almost a religious experience,” he says.

Religious experience has given way to retailing. These days the pot business is all about marketing, and sellers have started labeling their products not only with CBD and THC content but also with descriptions reminiscent of wine reviews. There’s even a move to borrow the term “appellation” from the wine industry and apply it to marijuana.

A strain called Member Berry, for example, boasts “sweet and tart citrus notes” and promises a “heavy, long-lasting balanced high that relaxes the body while providing a euphoric cerebral buzz.”

“The idea of sharing was much more intrinsic than today; there was a kind of solidarity. Marijuana was a culture marker, not just a product.”

“That stuff is kind of a turnoff,” Sam, a retired attorney who has been smoking marijuana since the ‘60s, says of the marketing hype. He also worries that some of the new products pose health risks, and he generally avoids the fancy dispensaries, preferring smaller, local outlets. (Like other consumers interviewed for this story, Sam asked to be identified only by his first name.)

While the newfangled substances themselves likely don’t pose any greater health risks—dispensary products are very carefully regulated—their ready availability and potency might. Polson says that the kind of dangerous overindulgence that young people engage in with alcohol is becoming more common with marijuana users and is worrisome. “It speaks to our culture of binging,” he says.

In a recent trend known as “dabbing,” highly concentrated resins, some of which have a THC concentration of about 80 percent, more than twice as high as even the most potent strains of weed, are heated and inhaled. “It’s popular. You need to be careful with that,” says a clerk at the Buyers Club, which boasts a collection of specially designed pipes called dabbing rigs.

But not everyone is looking for an industrial strength intoxicant. Many just want a manageable form of self-medication.

“Younger people are looking for alcohol substitutes; a way to get high without the hangover. Older people are looking for alternatives to [conventional medications] for sleep or depression,” says Josh Held, a founder of Form Factory, a multi-state manufacturer and distributor of cannabis-infused beverages and edibles.

Dustin Brown helping a customer
Bud tender Dustin Brown helps out a customer at Harborside Health Center cannabis dispensary in Oakland, Calif. // Leah Millis / San Francisco Chronicle / Polaris

Take 85-year-old Nancy, for example, just back from a shopping trip to the Harvest dispensary in San Francisco’s Richmond District, toting a bag of CBD ointment for her arthritis and a four-pack of pre-rolled joints. She’s never smoked pot before, but she has some health problems and hopes marijuana will help with the anxiety. “I want to try new things,” she says.

Back in the day, novice users of LSD would often take their trip with the help of a guide. Now, many Bay Area dispensaries have adopted that model with concierges to guide customers.

Nancy says she was warned that, as a novice smoker, she shouldn’t light up a joint by herself. Have your daughter there, the salesperson advised.

A look around the Berkeley Buyers Club confirms that cannabis isn’t what it used to be. As the strains get stronger and the devices more high-tech, a little guidance can go a long way.

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