The sky is a soft blue as sunshine beams down on a row of photovoltaic solar panels framed in the line of sight by a geodesic dome filled with microgreens, a windmill that “can pump impressive amounts of water in light breezes” and a few picnic tables. Equipped with a map for a self-guided tour, the grounds of the Real Goods Solar Living Center in Hopland, California are expansive, but one sustainable component of the site is missing from the rendering — a solar-powered cannabis dispensary called Emerald Pharms.
Still in its infancy, Emerald Pharms has only been open for a little more than six months and has yet to advertise. While its host site, the Solar Living Center boasts a barrage of roadside signage, the dispensary’s location isn’t clearly defined. It’s discovered only after a guide in the Real Goods retail store supplies vague directions as well as blue marbles that, she explains, are wishes and can be charged with additional power by the “blue fairy.” The blue fairy she’s referring to is Emerald Pharms’ General Manager Chelsea Lucich and while the time spent on the 12-acre demonstration farm has been perfectly enchanting thus far, entering Emerald Pharms is nothing short of pure magic.
“As soon as you drive into this land you’re at a sense of awe, you’re at a calming, peaceful state of mind,” Lucich says over a cup of yerba mate tea on a patio overlooking the aquaculture ponds that border the dispensary. “I see a lot of people walking around here just all blissed out.”
The dispensary, which is both paperless and run entirely by solar power, is stocked with organic, outdoor flower selections as well as an impressive assortment of edibles, topicals and tinctures. Emerald Pharms specializes in the medical applications of cannabidiol, more commonly known as CBD. The cannabinoid is being widely recognized for a wide range of medical applications and played a large role in the partnership that brought a cannabis dispensary to the Real Goods Solar Living Center.
“Our mission over the years has always been find something that’s new and makes a whole lot of environmental sense and gets people away from their evil polluting ways, promote the hell out of it, get it nationwide and then move onto something else after it catches on,” Real Goods owner and founder John Schaeffer said. “The question was, ‘So what’s the next wave now?’ and we thought medical cannabis – what could be more fitting to take us into the 21st century?”
Schaeffer explains that cannabis has essentially always been intertwined with the solar company he started in 1978. As far as he knows, Real Goods sold the first photovoltaic lights in the world and — while the cost has since plummeted 99 percent — each 9-watt light was initially sold at $900, or $100 a watt.
“[Cannabis growers] were the ones who bought the first photovoltaics because A, they were the only ones would could afford them and B, they needed them to live off grid,” he said. “As the growers supported the solar movement so did the solar panels support the growers because now they could be out living off grid and growing their cannabis out in the woods.
“We used to call ourselves the solar capitol of the world, because this is where solar was born, this is where it got its start, and then they came up with this Emerald Triangle moniker so we say, this is where the Emerald Triangle meets the solar capitol of the world. They co-evolved, synergistically, cannabis and solar over the years.”
“A Place in the Sun,” a book explaining the evolution of the Real Goods Solar Living Center, helps to flesh the idea further. “The company’s methods rarely represent the latest trend in business jargon. Instead, governed by a basic grasp of simple principles and an irrepressible urge to question authority, Real Goods does things in a way that the ‘straight’ business world considers wildly innovative.”
And Schaeffer believes the relationship he’s struck with Project CBD, a non-profit educational group that’s served as a sort of consultant for Emerald Pharms, has shown great promise thus far. Sales at the Real Goods retail store are already up by margins of 30 to 50 percent. In addition to the dispensary, Project CBD is helping establish a native medicinal plant garden and marijuana museum at the Solar Living Center.
“We want to emphasize, as part of our educational approach, that cannabis should be looked at as a medicinal herb,” Project CBD Co-Founder and Director Martin Lee said. “It’s a very special medicinal herb, but actually it’s one medicinal herb among many… The idea is to present cannabis in that context. It’s a part of the pantheon of medicinal herbs and it’s now being welcomed back officially.”
In an interesting twist of fate, in 2001 Schaeffer sold his company to Gaiam, a company that focuses on yoga products, but stayed on as president. However, as of December 2014, he re-purchased the off-the-grid general store he started in Willits as a 29-year-old Berkeley graduate living at a commune and now retains sole ownership again. Part of that transition meant improving the site, which had fallen into a bit of disrepair, and developing new ideas to propel the company’s visions ever-forward.
“I was a little worried in the beginning because we have a couple thousand school children that come here every year to learn about alternative energy and biofuels and they make solar cookies in the solar ovens and I didn’t want to put them off or their parents off,” Schaeffer says of the decision to host a dispensary onsite. “But actually in all the time they’ve been here there’s been zero pushback about having a dispensary on site so, so far so good… Now that they’re here, people that go there come in the store, people that come in the store, we send them over there and no one says ‘Oh my god, you’re selling dope onsite,’ everyone loves it.”
The rules established around medical marijuana in Mendocino County allow the dispensary, acting in the role of a resource center, to remain open for anyone to explore, but only verified medical marijuana patients can purchase the medicine. In this way, it can be discovered organically or through instructions to search for a “blue fairy.”
Once inside the space, the medicine is displayed on small wooden pedestals in three glass cases – one for flowers and concentrates, one for edibles and one for tinctures and topicals. The aesthetic of the space brings together natural wood elements alongside crystals, air plants and succulents.
“I’ve always seen Emerald Pharms as a place to showcase what’s really best about the medical marijuana experiment in California, a lot of people have distorted ideas about it,” Lee said. “We expect that, particularly if adult-use is legalized, that Emerald Pharms could be a tourist attraction.”
Since opening in October 2015, a large majority of visitors to the dispensary have been those seeking help with CBD treatment. Many are also older patients, who might not feel comfortable in a more restrictive dispensary setting.
Large open windows facing the pond and gardens, along with an interior seating area and glasses of tea help the dispensary feel welcoming and open. On today’s visit Lucich is observed counseling and embracing an older woman with an oxygen tank on the sunlit patio.
“My favorite part about working here is spreading education,” says John Donham, a self-described “over-the-counter herbalist” employed at Emerald Pharms. “I have knowledge for people, but there’s a lot of people that have just as much knowledge for me so it’s more of a trade and a share than it’s just me standing behind the counter and feeling empowered. It’s really empowering to learn that information from them.”
Lucich says at Emerald Pharms they treat medical cannabis patients with “medi-quette.”
“We try to tune into what they’re saying because we’re not doctors, we don’t know how to tell people the right medicine every time,” she said. “It’s about tuning into what the patient’s telling us and listening to that and then having them listen to themselves and having them guide themselves to their own medicine. A lot of people just don’t get that, it’s so easy to listen to the patient and tune into them and then empower them to be experimental with the medicine because there’s no dose for everyone. There’s a recommended dose and there’s a recommended CBD to THC ratio but it’s all personal. So we try to inspire people to just experiment with it and don’t be afraid, it’s not a harmful medicine in any way. Even if you overdo it, you’re just going to get tired.”
The complete vision for the dispensary, Schaeffer explains, is a holistic hub to promote the practices associated with sustainable cannabis cultivation.
“The idea is once legalization likely occurs in November, this could become more of a cannabis cultural center, where people come and take tours, they could see the dispensary, they see how extraction facilities work, they see how you grow plants as well as renewable energy, how you live off the grid, hand washing machines, electric vehicles and alternative fuels – so all that’s in one place.”
The Solar Living Center will celebrate 20 years this summer. Before departing the dispensary, Lucich charges the marbles with additional focus and provides instructions to make a wish that benefits the world. The final instructions are to cast them into the water feature serving as the land’s central point, a solar calendar.
“What we have constructed is so much more than just another commercial enterprise,” Schaeffer writes in his book. “It represents a ray of hope for the planet, a justification that we really make a difference… We need to keep putting forth positive examples that will change our species’ approach toward ensuring a sustainable future. The government isn’t going to do it. The utilities won’t do it. What we’ve tried to demonstrate with the Real Goods Solar Living Center is that the principals of sustainability really work. They are not an environmentalist’s pipe dream.”