From the outside, it looks nothing at all like the country’s most successful dispensary of medical marijuana: a nondescript drab structure standing just across the street from one of Oakland’s bustling harbors (thus the name). The composition of cars in the parking lot bears little resemblance to the lot outside a Grateful Dead concert: more than one armed forces sticker was spotted on the way to the door. Inside, the staff and patients look even less like stoner stereotypes: a middle-aged man with a freshly-trimmed haircut and a pinstripe suit waits for medicine alongside a kindly-looking old woman with her white hair tied up in a bun. After a friendly greeting by the security staff (who look capable but non-threatening), the eye turns to a desk on the left where both volunteers and staff wait to answer patient questions. To the right is the medicine bar, slicker and more appealing than any chain-store pharmacy counter, lined with what looks like the after-work rush: at least twenty-five patients of every age and race wait for their consultations. Other than the conspicuous statue of Ganesha on an altar and the dozens of baby clones glowing under purple lights, very few visual clues would suggest, on first glance, that the place had anything to do with cannabis.
Indeed, almost every detail about Harborside Health Center seems calculated to counter enduring stereotypes about California’s medical marijuana industry. While some dispensaries have developed a reputation for thuggishness, Harborside emphasizes smiling service. In a time when a small minority of dispensaries are under investigation for secretly pocketing illegal profits, Harborside spends millions of dollars every year in providing free holistic health treatments to its members; and even supporting local, state, and federal government through hefty tax payments. Though some dispensaries have endured criticism of their inaccessible prices, Harborside provides medicine free of charge to low-income patients or any member willing to donate their time writing letters for the reform of federal law. That medicine comes from an impressive selection. Under a handsome glass enclosure rested at least a dozen varieties of well-manicured buds, displayed for instant appreciation of their colors, fullness, size, and texture – not an unusual sight in any decent dispensary. But what sets Harborside apart is the labeling: each bowl of dried flower includes an identifying paper listing the strain, price, and – most unusually – results of potency testing from Steep Hill Laboratories, Harborside’s own private efficacy and safety testing facility. By using the facilities at Steep Hill, Harborside can report the concentrations of multiple cannabinoids like THC and CBD, as well as chemicals which may not be visible to the naked eye. For those patients preferring alternative delivery methods, Harborside’s bar also features a decent if not exhaustive selection of edibles, tinctures, and creams.
The overall effect is unmistakable: here is a dispensary determined to set itself apart. This approach has brought Harborside great notoriety, both wanted and unwanted. On the one hand, the efforts of Harborside’s aggressive public relations campaign hang proudly on the walls. Their campaign for the spotlight has spilled over into television, with the first episode of their new reality series “Weed Wars” which premiered on The Discovery Channel last November – all part of a coordinated campaign to show what founder Steve DeAngelo says is the truth about the business, in an attempt to combat decades of lies . On the other hand, so much positive press has led to close scrutiny from the federal government, which, after a lengthy audit declared that Harborside had underpaid its income taxes by $2 million in tax years 2007 and 2008 – citing Internal Revenue Code Section 280E, a special tax provision applying only to businesses “trafficking in a controlled substance” forbidden under federal law. This section, originally intended to aid law enforcement in seizing the assets of drug cartels, is now being used to single out dispensaries like Harborside and forbid them from using routine deductions like rent and utilities from their federal tax returns, a move DeAngelo calls discriminatory and designed to put law-abiding dispensaries out of business. DeAngelo may be right about the government’s intentions, but at an hour before closing time the line for medicine, still populated with all kinds of people, hasn’t shrunk at all. It’s hard to believe Harborside Health Center will be going away any time soon.
First appeared in Issue 3 of Cannabis Now Magazine.