San Francisco

Rebranding Weed: One Year Into California's ‘Green Rush,' Cannabis Industry Wants to Change Pot's Image

A year after full legalization, cannabis retailers in San Francisco are working hard to take the taboo out of smoking weed

What to Know

  • One year after California cities began issuing recreational dispensary licenses, new pot shops resemble grocery stores, cafes and bars
  • Under state law, anyone 21 and up can buy cannabis in California with a valid ID
  • Lounges for consuming cannabis at dispensaries have become a draw for tourists visiting from states where pot is still illegal

"What kind of high you looking for?" asks a man standing behind a case of cannabis concentrates that only a year ago would have required a doctor's note to purchase.

As sunlight streams into the steampunk-themed lounge at Urban Pharm in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood, the "budtender" offers a few options to a young woman visiting from New York and allows her to sniff each one before making a purchase.

"Welcome to a non-prohibition state," he says gleefully.

"Great to be here!" she replies.

Just a year after San Francisco and other California cities began issuing permits for recreational sales and on-site consumption of marijuana, retailers like Urban Pharm are working hard to change the image of a plant that was illegal for generations, and convince people to come in and give it a try.

"This is a product — this is a manufactured product now, as opposed to just something from someone's backyard," said Marcy Leventhal of the Green Door dispensary.

The Green Door, which once catered only to medical customers, is across the street from Moscone West, a major hub for conventions. Leventhal said she now sees a steady flow of visitors from other states and countries coming into the dispensary for their first legal cannabis experience.

"(We) urge them to start small, make sure they're not overdoing it or going big the first time, and that they have products that they understand how to use," she said.

Customer-friendly weed has become a big deal in the legal cannabis industry — from vape pens that measure a precise dosage to edibles that are packed with flavor and light on THC, pot's psychoactive ingredient.

"We're designing the products for clarity and simplicity," said Bloom Room general manager Steven Rechif, who said his fastest-growing customer group is now Baby Boomers. "Generally when seniors come in, they feel very comfortable: 'This is not what I was expecting, this is much nicer than I would've thought it would be.'"

Across town on Geary Boulevard, Harvest is hoping to welcome seniors and first-time pot users by turning the "pharmacy counter" dispensary model on its head.

"Typically, what you'd do if you were shopping somewhere is you'd have some kind of a basket," said Harvest guest services manager Tom Powers.

Harvest resembles a high-end corner grocery store, with large plate glass windows, wide-open shelves and and display tables made of light-colored wood. Customers are invited to browse at their leisure, or ask for help.

"Is it Whole Foods, is it Starbucks, is it Apple?" Powers continued. "Those leading retailers that have … delivered something bright and clean and refreshing, so cannabis — we're not hiding in the shadows anymore."

Harvest is the first stop on a new bus tour offered by Green Guide Tours, a company that weaves San Francisco history together with a dose of cannabis education.

Stuart Watts, the tour company's founder and CEO, said his mission is to de-stigmatize a plant that's been banned in the country for 80 years.

"Years ago, I started a walking tour company that was doing food and beer tours," Watts said. "The way we saw people treating craft beer and craft food was eventually the way they're gonna treat craft cannabis."

On a three-hour tour of the city, Watts took guests to a handful of dispensaries along a route that snaked through the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, passing houses where The Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin once lived, while telling a version of marijuana's story that was likely different from what they'd learned in school.

"It's really interesting, but it's not super surprising, because a lot of what I grew up learning was true about history turned out not to be the real story," said Anya Khalamayzer after the tour wrapped up.

The stories included tales of the late Dennis Peron, who fought to legalize pot for medical use from his cannabis buyers' club in the Castro District, and ultimately convinced voters to pass Proposition 215. John Entwistle, Peron's husband and Prop 215 co-author, spoke to us in a room full of memorabilia from the political fight.

"The club was a good thing, but we figured at the end it would be like cigarettes, you'd be able to buy a box of pot in the gas station," he said. "It's not perfect yet. But it will be."

For an in-depth look on the evolution and history of pot culture in the Bay Area and the pioneers who fought to legalize it, watch our special documentary — Bay Area Revelations: Cannabis Rush.

In this episode, we take a look at the evolution and history of pot culture in the Bay Area.
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