Trying to find medical marijuana dispensaries in Sacramento can prove challenging.
In some cases, they’re hidden in alleys, lost in a sea of nondescript warehouses or operating on a rarely used road. They have little or no signage on the buildings, save for maybe a green medical cross.
Dispensaries have become like the speak-easy bars that operated during prohibition on alcohol in the early 20th century, even though medical marijuana has been legal in California for 20 years. Despite their low profile, the dispensaries are soon going to receive a lot more attention from the public, as the state opens up cannabis sales to all adults starting Jan. 1.
Sacramento’s dispensaries plan to handle recreational sales in the city, and eventually will be joined by delivery companies.
Trying to determine what the dispensaries are doing to prepare for the new business isn’t easy. The Bee visited about a dozen dispensaries last week, and only one operator agreed to share plans for recreational sales. Others said they were still trying to figure out their plans, weren’t authorized to discuss them or they simply didn’t want the public to know.
“We try to be discreet,” a manager at one dispensary said. She said she preferred not to give her name or have her dispensary named.
The dispensaries haven’t had a lot of time to fully consider their options for the retail market. The state and the city of Sacramento just approved regulations for recreational sales last month, and are in the process of reviewing license applications. They expect to issue temporary licenses by Jan. 1.
Sacramento pot czar Joe Devlin said last week that he has received 10 applications from dispensaries wanting to sell recreational weed and expects to receive them from all the city’s 30 dispensaries. Last month, Devlin told the City Council that the dispensaries would have to operate for 30 days without a violation before he would grant them a temporary license for retail sales.
He said he expects a few will be able to sell Jan. 1.
Some City Council members expressed concern about the dispensaries selling recreational weed because of a recent city audit that found some in violation of city regulations for underpayment of taxes, selling more marijuana than allowed and employees smoking weed in the dispensaries.
The unease created by the audit is one reason Devlin says there is “little appetite” to change the regulations that have kept some dispensaries in marginal locations with minimal business signs.
From the city’s perspective, the main changes the dispensaries have to make for retail sales are technological, Devlin said. They need to have an approved electronic system to check customer identification and software to track sales, he said.
Kimberly Cargile, owner of A Therapeutic Alternative dispensary, said Sacramento dispensaries have been marginalized because they haven’t been a fully regulated industry despite voters’ approval of medical marijuana in 1996. The state did not approve regulations for medical marijuana until 2016, and those rules were scrapped after voters approved recreational use and lawmakers decided to come up with a combined system for medical and recreational use.
Cargile estimates that her sales could double as a result of the new retail market. The dispensary on H Street in East Sacramento is making a number of changes, including tripling the size of its sales floor, adding a new security system and hiring a new security company.
Nevertheless, Cargile said A Therapeutic Alternative will stay committed to medical patients who receive treatment for a wide range of illnesses, including cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“People come to us to feel better, not get high,” Cargile said.
That will change Jan. 1, in part because her location is on a well-traveled street in a central location. Some other dispensaries located in high-traffic areas include Hugs Alternative Care on Stockton Boulevard and RCP Sacramento on El Camino Road.
Cargile said retail sales will help subsidize her medical business, which is the core of her mission. But retail sales will be restricted if they begin to interfere with medical care, she said. Staff will continue to wear medical scrubs and preferably come from a medical background.
Devlin said he expects A Therapeutic Alternative will be licensed for retail sales Jan. 1.
Broadly speaking, retail customers can expect a similar experience at A Therapeutic Alternative and other dispensaries. Customers will have to provide identification and fill out paperwork in a waiting room separate from locked show floors that have display cases with marijuana buds, edible pot products and concentrated forms of cannabis.
Once customers are cleared for purchases, they meet with a staff member called a “budtender.” The budtender can direct customers to the best product for their level of experience with marijuana and what kind of high they want – a numbing “couch-lock” or a giggly, high-energy romp.
Customers cannot use the products on site. Cargile and others in the cannabis industry are exploring the possibility of opening places where marijuana can be used, which would require the city to update its regulations.
Some City Council members have questioned why the city should lock in existing dispensaries for all of the storefront retail business, calling it a monopoly. Devlin said new businesses will be able to enter the market through delivery services. They will not be approved by the city by Jan. 1, however, Devlin said.
The city has a cap on the existing number of dispensaries, but the City Council and Devlin agreed to revisit the issue early next year.