The advent of legal adult-use cannabis in a number of states across the United States (and now nationwide in Canada) has introduced the public to a new way of buying weed, namely in a safe and regulated manner through cannabis storefronts. But a misconception has arisen during the dawn of this new era: that every retail outlet selling cannabis products is operating in 100 percent compliance. In fact, there are hundreds of illegal or “gray area” dispensaries across California alone, and while not every one of them is shady, there can be cause for concern if you find yourself wondering about the legality of the establishment you’re buying cannabis from.
During a visit to the Bay Area earlier this month with a friend from my home in Minnesota (where we have an extremely restrictive medical program), I realized that there are everyday consumers out there — and even folks who may be trying cannabis for the first time — that assume if they walk into a dispensary, it must be legitimate simply because it’s located in a state where it can legally exist.
Here’s what happened: My friend and I joined a few people we know who work in the cannabis industry for dinner, and we needed to buy weed — which we figured was an easy problem to solve in this neck of the woods. We pulled out our phones, did a quick Google search and found a spot (which shall remain nameless) that was only a six-minute walk away. As we wandered the street looking for something indicative of a cannabis retail store, a guy on a Lime scooter asked us if we were lost.
“Is there a dispensary around here?” I asked.
“That way,” he pointed, riding ahead. “I haven’t been, but I heard tell of it.”
We came upon a nondescript building with the blinds shut and cameras placed above the door. Noticing a doorbell, we rang it — with no response. Two girls, who looked like they were also trying to get lit, joined us at the doorstep. We rang again. Finally, a security guard opened the door and herded us inside, taking a quick glance at our IDs, admitting later he was hoping we would all give up and walk away, given that they were 15 minutes away from closing.
After quickly purchasing two fancy dipped pre-rolls, some gummies and a couple eighths of “top shelf” bud (and thanking the budtenders profusely for letting us in), my industry friends and I emerged from the establishment and started laughing outside about how obviously non-compliant the spot had been. My hometown pal, the civilian from Minnesota who had only ever been to a legal cannabis state once in his life, was incensed, unable to believe that such a thing could exist — as if the system is ever perfect.
“How can you tell?” he asked us.
For him, and for all of the other folks out there who may not know the difference, here’s how you can tell if you’re in an illegal dispensary:
Remember how nervous you used to get when you were a kid and you bought weed off your mom’s friend in secret and then smoked it when she was at work, praying she didn’t come home early and bust you? If you feel that way in a place that is supposedly operating within the constraints of state and local ordinances, something’s amiss. A lack of visible signage, blocked windows, a weird backroom retail space behind a bunch of storage and or dusty merchandise is pretty indicative of an illegitimate shop, no matter what it is they’re selling.
The first thing we did after leaving the illegal dispensary in the Bay was examine the packaging of the products we had just purchased, explaining the stringent regulations to my ignorant-yet-adorable consumer buddy. Everything about what we bought was messed up. The pre-roll containers were not child-safe nor had tamper-proof seals. The loose bud was in a resealable plastic bag with no testing labels, which has been a requirement since July 1 in California. The gummies didn’t even list “cannabis” in the ingredients list. Not only is this non-compliant, it’s downright dangerous, as people rely on packaging information to make sure they’re receiving the dosage they want and not consuming any unhealthy additives.
Sure, we could assume those gummies contain 10 mg of THC each, based on what’s common in this fledgling market, but what if the gummies contain more and my friend ends up catatonic on the sofa for three hours when he’s supposed to be visiting Fisherman’s Wharf and driving across the Golden Gate Bridge? Definitely not chill.
If a recreational cannabis dispensary isn’t charging the proper taxes pursuant to the local ordinances, it’s breaking the law. Therefore, if prices seem too good to be true, they probably are. At the dispensary we went to, we weren’t even given receipts to check — another telltale sign that you’re in an illegal shop.
High taxes are a big reason why the black market is still flourishing in California, yet the laws were written as such, which means that excise fees must be paid.
The security guard at the aforementioned shady spot in the Bay Area did, in fact, glance at our state-issued IDs before we crossed the threshold, which was a good sign. However, I have been to plenty of “medical” dispensaries in states that do not allow for adult-use cannabis purchases that have never once asked to see my doctor’s recommendation. Even if you go into the same storefront every day, you are still required to show proof of legal age during each visit, and if it’s a medical dispensary, you must show your doctor’s recommendation.
This one is a bit subjective — and sadly not every person knows the difference between top-shelf and schwag — but if everything in a dispensary is low-grade, it’s suspicious. For those who are familiar with reputable brands, a lack of recognizable products is also a dead giveaway of a non-compliant shop. While packaging requirements in certain states may make it impossible to see the actual bud before you buy it, this may be one of those scenarios wherein a bait-and-switch could leave you dry and not very high.
TELL US, have you shopped at an illegal dispensary?