California’s recreational cannabis retailers have been up and running for nearly five years, but there are plenty of herbal enthusiasts out there who haven’t yet darkened the doorstep of a bricks-and-mortar SoCal dispensary. Why’s that? Some are visitors from out of state. Others live in the vast swaths of California known as “weed deserts,” where, despite being state-legal, pot shops are still prohibited at the county or city level.
Still others, including a co-worker who reached out to me a few months ago, live within walking distance of a legal dispensary but prefer to have someone else fetch the pot products for them. “I would like to go in there and confidently buy something for myself,” messaged my colleague (whom I won’t identify because he’s not out of the cannabis closet, and the potential for workplace stigma is still alive and well), “but it’s a little intimidating.”
My co-worker went on to say he imagined it to be the same kind of experience one would have going into a snobby record store or a high-end musical instrument shop where the knowledge gap between customer and employee feels more like a gulf and there’s a palpable risk of wrong-question embarrassment. Those comments stuck with me. Intimidation isn’t something I’ve felt in a dispensary setting for a very long time. After all, my first-time dispensary experience was almost seven years ago (I bought a single-use vape pen of a strain called Headband in Seattle, where recreational pot sales have been legal since July 2014) and my job as a reporter is to ask questions, even ones that might telegraph an embarrassing lack of basic knowledge.
So I started looking at the whole experience with fresh eyes. What should a first-timer expect once they decide to take the plunge? (To be overwhelmed at the breadth of options for starters.) What’s important to know before you go? (Just a few key things — no master class in marijuana required.) And what’s with the uniformed guard out front? (It’s required.) Those questions, and a whole bunch more, are answered in more depth below.
What should I do before I go?
The good thing is you don’t need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of cannabis before visiting a dispensary for the first time because that’s what the pros behind the counter are there for. What they can’t know but only you can is what you want out of your visit and how you want to get there. Are you looking for pain relief, a full-on psychoactive, out-of-body experience or a little of both? Do you want to consume your cannabis by smoking, vaporizing, eating, drinking or rubbing it on some aching part of your body? Is there a product you’ve tried before and really liked but haven’t been able to find again?
“[The] No. 1 thing is to know what type of high [you’re] looking for,” said Cal Laveaux, a manager at the Woods, a new dispensary in West Hollywood. “Do you want something that you can smoke and hang out on the beach and kind of feel a nice little vibe? Or do you want something that’s going to put you to sleep?”
Nikki Horton, a budtender at Wyllow, a 350-square-foot micro-dispensary in the Mid-City neighborhood, echoed the importance of doing a preflight, calling it “intention setting.” “What are you looking for out of your experience and out of your consumption?” she said.
If the dispensary you’re headed to has an online menu (almost all of them do), spend a little time scrolling through it to familiarize yourself with the offerings. This is helpful especially if you’re not sure what you’re ultimately looking for. Even deciding on basic things such as how you want to consume (whole flower vs. pre-rolled joint vs. concentrate vs. edible) and how much you want to spend (remember, city and state taxes will increase the listed price by more than a third), which are among the sort options on most online menus. This will help keep you from feeling wholly overwhelmed once you’re through the dispensary door. (All these years later, that kid-in-a-candy-store feeling from my Seattle experience is still crystal clear.)
In addition to thinking through what you do want ahead of time, it’s important to think about what you don’t want — as in couch-lock, paranoia or the munchies. This is information that will help your budtender help you. Laveaux and Horton suggest sharing any known allergies since the terpenes in other plants also exist in cannabis.
What do I need to take to the dispensary?
The single most important thing you need to bring with you — the first time and every time — is a valid, government-issued photo identification card (think driver’s license, military photo ID card or passport) that verifies you’re 21 or older. That minimum age is lowered to 18 for those with a California physician’s valid medical marijuana recommendation. Dispensaries are going to be sticklers on this point.
The second-most important thing to have on hand is cash. That’s because dispensaries aren’t legally able to accept credit cards (because of cannabis’ illegal status at the federal level). It’s true that most dispensaries have an onsite ATM or a handheld debit-card reader. However, the use of either one come with a fee usually in the neighborhood of $3, but having cash money at the ready is a smart hedge against an unexpectedly offline ATM.
Should I be worried about the security guard out front?
If you think that a uniformed security guard standing outside a legal pot shop means you should be worried about the safety of the establishment or the neighborhood, you’ve got it exactly backward. You should be concerned if there isn’t a security guard out front or inside because Department of Cannabis Control regulations require security personnel to be onsite during the hours of operation. “It’s for our protection as well as your protection,” said the Woods’ Laveaux. “Because cannabis companies are operating with lots of money and a lot of product.”
Why is the dispensary tracking my purchase?
After you’ve shown your ID upon arrival, you’ll probably be asked for it again when you complete your purchase. That’s when the budtender will do what feels like an inordinate amount of tap, tap, tapping into a computer. That’s because, thanks to the state’s seed-to-sale tracking of cannabis, dispensaries are required to account for everything they sell — and to whom they sell it — for potential audit purposes. It’s also to ensure that the shop doesn’t sell any customer more than is allowed under California law. For recreational consumers, that’s 28.5 grams (one ounce) of nonconcentrated cannabis, 8 grams of concentrate and six immature cannabis plants per day.
Wyllow’s Horton pointed out there’s an added upside for the dispensary and the customer to keeping track of your purchases. It helps to further fine-tune your buzz on your next visit.
Can I taste, touch or smell before I buy?
No, no and yes — in that order. State regulations prohibit the onsite consumption of cannabis (unless the dispensary also has a consumption lounge license) so you won’t be able to sample or even handle the unpackaged product. But knowing how much of a cannabis sale is about curb appeal, most dispensaries have sample nugs on display. These are often in transparent plastic jars or boxes with a magnifying lens built into the top (connoisseurs like to marvel at the tiny THC-bearing crystals called trichomes that appear on buds) and air holes so they can get a whiff of the volatile compounds (called terpenes) that factor in to the herb’s taste and effect.
Am I silently being judged?
All pot paranoia jokes aside, given the vast weed-wisdom disparity between experienced budtender and first-time shopper, it’s easy to feel insecure as you find your footing in a dispensary setting. That might be especially the case if you have many questions. But I’ll let you in on two little secrets. First, as far as the budtenders — and their bosses — are concerned, the more questions the better. That’s because they have a vested interest in turning you into a satisfied repeat customer. And that means gauging your comfort and experience level and answering any questions you might have. Nobody wants you to go home with an end-of-the-day relaxer but end up climbing the drapes instead.
Second, for the most part, those herb slingers behind the counter want to talk about weed. When I shared my colleague’s snobby record store clerk analogy, Laveaux said, “We never want anyone to feel like that. The thing is anyone who’s in this industry is passionate about it — and passionate about teaching other people about it. I’ve personally studied this plant for 14 years and I don’t expect you — coming in as a first-timer — to have that knowledge level.” In other words, ask your questions until the cows come home.
What if I ask a stupid question?
“There are no stupid questions,” said Wyllow’s Horton. For example, asking, “What has the highest THC content in it?” isn’t a faux pas if that’s what you want. (Just like going into a liquor store and asking for the highest-proof hooch isn’t a bad thing. But in either case, it’s probably not going to be exactly what you had in mind.) Neither is asking a budtender to explain things such as cannabinoids, terpenes or the entourage effect. (Hint: that last one has nothing to do with what they smoked on an HBO show.)
What should I ask then?
While there aren’t any stupid questions to ask, there are definitely some smarter ones that will help you dial in your desired buzz or expand your horizons without crashing and burning. Among them are:
- What products/dosage do you recommend for my experience level?
- What’s good for [insert your desired effect here: socializing/sleeping/focusing/pain management]?
- What do you recommend if I’m worried about getting paranoid/the munchies?
- What’s fresh/new/exciting right now?
- What social equity, BIPOC and/or LGBTQ brands and products do you have?
- What do you have that’s grown outdoor/indoors?
- What clean weed products (i.e. solventless concentrates or comparable to organic flower) do you have?
- Do you have something that’s similar to some other product I’ve tried and liked?
- What are you really excited about right now?
Should I tip my budtender?
Was your budtender helpful? Did they listen to you, answer your questions and allay any fears you might have had when you arrived? Then, as is customary, you should show your appreciation by dropping a few additional bucks in the tip jar.
Can I travel with cannabis?
If you’re in a car and the cannabis is in a sealed container, then you won’t run afoul of the California Vehicle Code. (As a reminder, you should never operate a motor vehicle or anything more complicated than a TV remote under the influence of cannabis.) And because of its status as a Schedule I drug at the federal level, driving with it to another state — even one where weed is legal — is not legal.
Also, if you’ve winged your way into Los Angeles International Airport and plan to wing your way out, consider purchasing only as much as you plan to consume while you’re in Southern California. That’s because the Transportation Security Administration (the folks who screen your luggage at the airport) are under federal jurisdiction.
Are you a relatively new cannabis consumer with a burning question about the wide, wide world of weed — dispensary visits or otherwise?
Then fire off an email to me at email@example.com. If I can’t answer it, I’ll find someone who can.