Dispensary Diaries: Onboarding a Rocking Boat
THE DISPENSARY DIARIES IS A NEW COLUMN BY SHIREEN SABZI, CHRONICLING HER EXPERIENCE IN THE MEDICAL CANNABIS INDUSTRY BEFORE IT WAS LEGAL FOR ADULT USE IN CALIFORNIA. SHE WILL EXPLORE THE NUANCES OF BEING ONE OF THE FEW AFAB EMPLOYEES IN THE BACK OF HOUSE STAFF, THE SHIFTING CULTURE OF CANNABIS IN CALIFORNIA, ITS QUASI-LEGAL STATUS DURING AN AGE OF TRUMP, AND THE INTERSECTION OF TECHNOLOGY BOOMING IN SAN FRANCISCO LEADING TO MASS GENTRIFICATION.
“The first thing you need to keep in mind is that everything we do here is federally illegal,” my new boss said to me as he slid over a packet of paperwork. We were doing new employee onboarding with me and one other newbie, a security guard who would check IDs and recommendations at the front door.
I nodded, understanding that I was about to take part in what some would call a criminal enterprise. Looking around our dispensary we called a workplace, it certainly didn’t look like anything criminal with our slick branding and architecture award-winning interior design. I knew it was my own choice to join this industry and it may come back to bite me in my future on day.
But I felt serious about the cause I was about to join, this resistance of medical cannabis patients fighting against the federal government. It was 2014. The Obama administration supervised raids on dispensaries in California had taken place a few years ago. The dispensary that hired me was one of the few that didn’t get shut down as a result of the “cease and desist” letters sent by the DEA. As one of the oldest medical cannabis industries in the country, California occupied a grey area with legality and illegality. I was about to embark on a journey of helping out the sick and ill, earning a noble sense of purpose that my last retail job didn’t give me because I would be healing people. Or so I thought.
“You have to remember that cannabis is still a Schedule 1 classified drug,” Chris said, tucking a lock of his long straight black hair behind his ear. He was the head of the part of the dispensary called “Member Services,” in charge of the healing arts offered in conjunction with the cannabis we served. His aquiline nose combined with his olive complexion made me feel at home amongst the majority white budtenders and upper management. The chunky silver rings on his fingers, matched with a heavy glass pendant in the style known as “wig-wag” would categorize Chris just adjacent to a “heady bro.”
Apparently, it was an open secret that Chris’ knowledge about growing weed (called “cultivation” in our corporate dispensary speak) better suited him towards our Product department; the cadre of bros in flannel who decided what went on the shelf to sell to our patients but right now, he was still squarely Member Services, stuck with the likes of newbies such as myself.
At the time, acupuncture, reiki healing, meditation groups, veteran groups, and more were held at our dispensary. Our collective arose from our founder growing and distributing cannabis to his colleagues and friends who were suffering from complications AIDS brought on. After all, medical cannabis only became a thing because of dead queer people and the silence from the United States government that didn’t give any other options to treat their symptoms.
Yet at the end of my tenure at the dispensary, with more and more people flooding in from Twitter two blocks down the street and the other ancillary tech companies, one by one these services disappeared. With a high operating cost and little return, people wanted more space to vape their weed they just bought from us, rather than sitting to be punctured with needles for relief.
“Schedule 1 means no medicinal use and a high potential for abuse, according to the DEA,” Chris concluded. “Meaning that it’s the same as LSD, MDMA in the eyes of the government.
“That’s so absurd,” I replied, shaking my head in disbelief.
Lindsay, our head of HR, looked sympathetically at the looks on our faces. She had probably seen this over and over again through onboarding. After giving us a brief history of our dispensary that was now our employer, she passed us off to Chris, or “C” for short for the legislative break-down.
One of the reasons why I wanted to join the medical cannabis industry was the fact that one of my friends had cured her breast cancer with no chemotherapy or radiation. Her boyfriend and brother grew the plants that they extracted the oil from in order to use a high potency form of treatment called “Rick Simpson oil” or RSO for short. The fact that she was in remission and now was 7 months pregnant lead me to seek more stories of miraculous transformations from children with seizures to veterans with PTSD. The fact that the DEA would not recognize people healing from their ills boggled my mind to no end.
“So the way we’re able to operate is through a few legislations called Proposition 215 and SB 420. The voters of California passed Proposition 215 in 1996 and after the collective standard took hold, the state said they needed to regulate what was basically an unlegislated market,” C said, going down the packet of papers that were distributed. The piece of paper in front of me had a timeline of how we could even begin to do this type of work. It outlined how Proposition 215 exempted medical cannabis patients and their caregivers from criminal penalties for growing and possessing their medicine.
As C spoke at length about the legislation that allowed us to be one of the premier cannabis dispensaries in San Francisco, my eyes fell on the qualifying conditions that a patient needed cannabis to treat:
Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome
Persistent muscle spasms, including, but not limited to, spasms associated with multiple sclerosis.
Seizures, including but not limited to, seizures associated with epilepsy
Any other chronic or persistent medical symptom that either
Substantially limits the ability of the person to conduct one or more major life active is as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
If not alleviated, may cause serious harm to the patient’s safety or physical or mental health
It dawned on me that the only way this whole industry was possible was through qualifying condition number 12. That’s how patients in California could get doctor’s recommendations for insomnia, menstrual cramps, muscle pain, headaches, your bum knee that keeps clicking when the weather gets cold.
Of course, because it was medical, all this information was protected by HIPAA so there was no way that you could cast aspersions on a potential collective member who wanted to join the dispensary and purchase cannabis. After all, you couldn’t diagnose someone by just looking at them and deciding that they were healthy. That’s not how invisible illnesses work.
In later years, other states who came out with medical cannabis laws after California restricted their lists of qualifying conditions to only a handful, excluding PTSD and many other diseases and conditions that could be alleviated with cannabis. The idea is that only the truly sick that had exhausted every pharmaceutical option would ever want to try cannabis as a regimen.
After Weed Law 101, we were passed back to Lindsay. “So here are the rules,” she said. “You can smoke on your 10-minute breaks and lunches,” cue excited looks on our faces at the fact that there we didn’t have to hide our consumption.
“But we highly encourage vaporizing as it’s easier on your lungs and has fewer carcinogens associated with combustion. There’s a staff vaporizer on the break table with all the accessories you may need,” she said. “There are also cough drops,” she winked.
That made sense. Our dispensary was definitely more health-focused than the others at the time, with its emphasis on harm reduction and safe access. There was an understanding that as long as there have been humans, there have been people who have been seeking altered states, so why not make it less harmful for people to consume? I used to roll my eyes at this type of thinking, such as needle exchanges, but I have seen first hand how harm reduction through safe access to dispensaries can reduce crime in neighborhoods, as well as create meaningful civic engagement.
Now we were turned loose for training at the front desk. My job as someone in Member Services was not only making acupuncture appointments, sweeping the vape lounge, preparing vape kits, and teaching patients how to use the vaporizer. It was also to verify patient recommendations from doctors offices, confirm they were legal, valid, and unexpired documents written in the name of whoever was providing them to us along with their valid identification. These two things were non-negotiable in getting in past the front desk to the shining wood and metal bar where the Schedule 1 substances were being sold.
You would think that such rules were simple to understand. But there would always be someone with an expired recommendation, or ID that would try to make their way into our dispensary.
In the end, my job was really to say no.
Shireen Sabzi is a former bud tender who worked in the California medical cannabis industry before adult legalization. With a passion for safe access and harm reduction, Shireen believes with education and decriminalization cannabis can heal the world. Her favorite strains are Sweet Tooth, Holy Grail, and Ancient OG.