When medicinal cannabis first became legal in 1996, the persistent social stigma surrounding the plant manifested itself throughout the legal market. Some dispensaries employed a highly impersonal security screen between patients and budtenders, treating cannabis like a dangerous narcotic. Others appropriated the countercultural impulse of cannabis's underground days with a "groovy" atmosphere that often seemed off-putting and inaccessible to the uninitiated.
Today, things are changing. Geared toward a welcoming professionalism, modern dispensaries aim to cultivate a community of knowledge and warmth, divorcing cannabis from its propagandized "Reefer Madness" depictions. We spoke with cannabis dispensaries that are pushing the industry forward and bringing the elements of luxury and maturity to their products.
As medical and recreational cannabis transitions from a black-market product to an accepted national industry (despite the ongoing federal prohibition), many American dispensaries are working to recreate the business as an accessible, welcoming experience to newcomers of all backgrounds.
"The clean-and-modern design makes it easier to stay in legal compliance and just plain makes things work," said Martin Kaufman, operator of Blüm medical dispensaries in Oakland, Las Vegas and Reno. "Customers have a clear view of our products and they're comfortable, but they also don't feel like they're being herded through the line at the DMV, which is a huge complaint in our industry. We're super sensitive about never feeling prepackaged or cold."Credit: Blum
For medical dispensaries, that accessibility and a personal touch is even more important than finding a foothold as a business. It's often about maximizing the benefits of cannabis as a medicine and getting it into more patients' hands.
For example, Barbary Coast, a medical cannabis collective located in San Francisco, boasts an associated lounge, which resembles an a 1920s hotel lobby, with hardwood floors, bright lighting and an oak-stained bar set behind velvet ropes. It's casual and welcoming, but also adult, and the budtender behind the bar has a wealth of information for patients curious about which strain is best for their condition.
"It's really all about establishing a place that's safe, clean and comfortable," said Jesse Henry, general manager of the Barbary Coast dispensary. "We wanted to set up something that you could bring your mother to and be comfortable."Credit: Barbary Coast
Creating a welcoming atmosphere is only half the battle. Patients choosing their medicine need far more than just a surface-level conversation with the budtender. To truly understand what product works best, patients must be comfortable enough with the staff to open up and engage on a personal, medical level.
Brendan Hill, owner of Seattle-based medical and recreational dispensary Paper & Leaf, said it was a central part of his mission to create a space that could openly discuss the benefits of using cannabis. He also wanted to avoid the negativity previously associated with the plan.
"My business partner, Steve Kessler, and I both were fascinated by the plant's complex properties, both for healing and stimulation, and we want to see that promoted in a positive way," Hill said. "Many early recreational shops, although perhaps unintentionally, continued to perpetuate the stereotype that cannabis … was still taboo. The sales transaction was to be quick and anonymous. Products were hidden behind counters while customers were often corralled through a roped-off line, handed a menu, and asked to point, purchase, and move along for the next person."
"For a budding industry with so much curiosity around it, and so much potential for new customers, there was rarely any real discussion or exploration," Hill added. "Steve and I envisioned a different kind of experience."
Paper & Leaf created that experience by offering an open space where customers can inquire about the products right next to them, brightly lit and on display with knowledgeable staff on hand. While Paper & Leaf maintains a private room for medical consultations, much of the experience is contained to the main floor, where browsing is much like strolling through an art gallery.Credit: Paper and Leaf
"It all starts with communication," Henry told Business News Daily. "When patients come in, we just ask how they are and how they're feeling today. Oftentimes it's people who are dealing with pain issues, trouble sleeping, nervousness issues … and we offer a recommendation."
Henry recalled a particular instance when a woman who suffered epileptic seizures came in looking for cannabis-infused lozenges the dispensary carries. The lozenges, it turns out, helped prevent the seizures; for five years, the patient has been seizure-free and weaned herself off pharmaceuticals with harmful side effects.
"It's stories like that that really make it all worthwhile," Henry said.
Marrying that warm environment and splash of personality with robust educational opportunities is essential in maximizing cannabis's medically beneficial effects, Kaufman said. Patients aren't just there to be treated as another transaction, but as members of a caring community.
"[Cannabis] is an incredibly effective curative treatment for all sorts of ailments. We wish more people knew about everything cannabis is capable of," Kaufman said. "We've spent a great deal of time and effort developing useful educational materials for our patients, and we're constantly working to keep our staff well informed about the various products our patients have to choose from."
The community these dispensaries are cultivating around cannabis differs from the countercultural cannabis communities of the past. It isn't relying on the historic social stigma of cannabis as a rallying cry, but rather the positive influence cannabis can have on a patient's life and the support of those with the knowledge to help comfortably bring them into the fold.
"We love seeing first-time visitors. Everyone seems to have a different takeaway, whether they love the artwork, or hit it off with our staff, or they're just blown away by the quality of product they go home with," Kaufman said. "We are very proud of the fact that we're able to retain almost all our new patients and we … make sure they know how much we appreciate them."
Maintaining a friendly, educated staff becomes an essential part of cultivating a sense of community. Welcoming personalities that are ready and willing to answer any question a customer might have are key to engaging people on a personal level.
"Sales people are the ones [who] have to effectively bridge the gap between the first-time consumer and the daily consumer, whether medical or recreational," Hill said. "The sales staff are the plant's best ambassadors and also represent the feel of the dispensary."
In addition to building a welcoming environment, Hill said moving beyond day-to-day business operations to offer seminars and activities helps solidify those relationships. The modern dispensary, then, operates much like a library, where the community comes together to learn something new and experience a hands-on lesson.
"Dispensaries today should be offering classes, seminars and learning materials that help consumers find what they're looking for," he said. "At Paper & Leaf, we've done seminars on everything from cooking with cannabis to the ins and outs of cannabis-infused sensual topicals."
Similarly, Henry said Barbary Coast made it a point to connect with the community at large first, demonstrating that they were good neighbors with a stake in the development of the community even as they were just opening their doors.
"Initially, we wanted to establish something that was a community-first place of business," he said. "Having that good relationship with different neighborhood groups and the city was important to us, so we made that connection first and established ourselves as an anchor tenant on our block. We wanted to set an example of what a good storefront could look like."
As it is with any community, Kaufman said, the cannabis world comes back to a central tie that binds – love and shared passion.
"We're constantly humbled by the love and support we get from our patients and peers in the industry," Kaufman said. "We love all the things cannabis can do for people. We love working with our suppliers, educating our staff and, especially, helping our customers find the strain or product that's good for them."