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6 cannabis dispensaries that changed the game

March 13, 2018

Cannabis farming dates back 10,000+ years, to the very dawn of human society—at least according to famed astronomer (and enthusiastic cannabis consumer) Carl Sagan, who once hypothesized that the plant may also have been the first species ever purposely cultivated. In his book The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence, Sagan went so far as to opine that “it would be wryly interesting if in human history the cultivation of marijuana led generally to the invention of agriculture, and thereby to civilization.”

Talk about a game changer!

Perhaps the world’s cannabis dealers and dispensaries can’t lay claim to a cultural legacy as significant as being the catalyst of civilization, but there have certainly been some groundbreaking (often rule-breaking) operations that have helped make this herb available to the masses–all while seriously undermining the destructive stigmas used to justify the plant’s prohibition and the oppression of those who choose to consume it.


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After all, kept entirely in the shadows, cannabis can be easily portrayed as dangerous and “other,” with those designations then used as a pretext to persecute entire communities considered undesirable. Keeping cannabis sales confined to the black market also ensures that only criminals buy and sell the plant, reinforcing the notion that such transactions represent a danger to society, rather than a commendable example of the free market making available a safer (and more fun!) alternative to alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical drugs.

If you prefer being treated like a customer instead of a criminal when acquiring cannabis, definitely put one in the air for these game-changing dispensaries.

Unfortunately, much of the history of cannabis sales has been purposely obscured—from the storied old spice trail trade routes that spread hashish far and wide in ancient times, to the pre-prohibition days of just a century-ago when cannabis tinctures and extracts were widely available in pharmacies. Our celebration of “game changing” dispensaries will focus on the modern era, with the term “dispensary” used to describe any operation where cannabis is sold consistently and openly with at least tacit approval from the local government.

In many cases, this still required engaging in “civil disobedience”–defined as “a refusal to comply with a law one considers unjust as a form of peaceful protest”–a strategy that has guided the cannabis movement from the darkest days of prohibition into our current era of fully regulated legal cultivation and distribution.

Meaning, if you prefer being treated like a customer instead of a criminal when acquiring your favorite herbal botanical, definitely put one in the air for these game-changing dispensaries, presented here in chronological order.

On “Freak Street,” Government-run stores sold cannabis and hashish openly alongside shops and restaurants.

Freak Street

Location: Kathmandu, Nepal

Starting in the late 1960s, seekers, students, and other wandering souls from North America and across Europe began to explore what came to be known as the Hippie Trail, a loosely defined travel route that began in Istanbul and moved over land through Iran, Afghanistan, and India, typically ending with a triumphant arrival in Nepal.

Long a cannabis-friendly city, Kathmandu’s citizens largely embraced this influx by steering freshly-arrived Westerners to what came to be known as “Freak Street.” Here, government-run stores sold cannabis and hashish openly alongside shops and restaurants, catering to budget travelers who also came to get bud.

The good times, naturally, came to an end after the American government, in 1976, put pressure on Nepal’s king to outlaw cannabis and hashish.

Mellow Yellow

(Rohan Travellin/Flickr Creative Commons)

Location: Amsterdam, Netherlands

In 1972, a Dutch student named Wernard Bruining and some friends exerted squatter’s rights over an abandoned bakery. They transformed it into Mellow Yellow, a teahouse on a small Amsterdam side street that soon drew crowds for its steady supply of hashish, which could be purchased from an employee who posed as a customer.

Asked to explain his motivation for opening the shop, Wernard said:

“We were selling hash to friends from our small apartment in order to have a free smoke ourselves. We had so many visitors, whom we always gave a cup of tea to drink, that the joke was that we should open up a teahouse and at least make some money. So we did.”

Dutch police raided Mellow Yellow several times, without success, as they could never find the shop’s inventory, which was hidden in a nearby bookshop. This apparent success inspired competitors to open, and Mellow Yellow is now credited as the first ever cannabis coffeeshop in the Netherlands. In January 2017, the iconic shop was forced to close due to stringent new zoning restrictions used to target coffeeshops.

“Marijuana is part of it, but a big part of healing is not being alone.” –Dennis Peron

San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club

Location: San Fransisco, California

Dennis Peron—who recently passed away—became an icon of the medical cannabis movement through his determined efforts (despite multiple arrests) to provide cannabis to the seriously ill at the height of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco.

His years of community organizing and civil disobedience culminated in 1992 with the opening of the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club—a non-profit collective dedicated to supplying cannabis to the seriously ill for free or at a steep discount. After producing a photo ID and a doctor’s recommendation to enter, club members chose from a wide selection of organic flowers, plus edibles, tinctures, topicals and health food. The Buyers Club also offered on-site consumption, which helped create a sense of community.


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“Marijuana is part of it, but a big part of healing is not being alone,” Peron explained.

The San Francisco Buyers Club also served as a center of political organizing for the movement. In 1996, the authors of Prop 215—California’s landmark medical cannabis law—met at the Club frequently to plan strategy. Just months before that historic vote, over a hundred heavily armed police officers raided the Buyers Club, but their tactical assault on a bunch of very ill people backfired, pushing many previously undecided voters to support medical cannabis.

On Election Day, Prop 215 passed by a wide margin.


(Courtesy of WAMM)

Location: Santa Cruz, California

Described as “the gold standard of medical marijuana” by a federal judge, the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Santa Cruz, California was founded in 1993 by Mike and Valerie Corral after they discovered that cannabis helped control Valerie’s otherwise debilitating seizures. Following a pair of arrests for cultivating their own supply, the then-married couple determined to create a collective to help others facing the same struggle.

With the mayor of Santa Cruz by their side, WAMM distributed medical cannabis to its terminally ill members, daring the DEA to arrest them again.

Over time, and with the support of the local authorities, WAMM would play a leading role in the passage of Prop 215, and grow from a small group of determined citizens into a working model of a compassionate collective with thousands of members, that provided cannabis for free or on a sliding scale to those in need.

In 2002, the DEA raided WAMM’s garden and arrested Mike and Valerie Corral. Facing federal charges, they stood their ground. Two weeks after the raid, on the steps of City Hall, with the mayor of Santa Cruz by their side, WAMM distributed medical cannabis to its terminally ill members, daring the DEA to arrest them again–this time in front of the assembled community and a huge media presence.

After the DEA failed to show up, WAMM successfully sued the Department of Justice with help from the ACLU, creating an important victory for the medical cannabis movement at a time when raids and arrests remained commonplace. Sadly, and somewhat ironically, WAMM has been closed since January 1st of this year as the collective navigates the many new distribution regulations imposed by the state of California.         

Harborside Health Center

Oakland's Harborside stands among the top cannabis retailers in the world. (Harborside)

(Courtesy of Harborside)

Location: Oakland, California (flagship)

Founded in 2006 by longtime activist and underground cannabis distributor Steve DeAngelo, Harborside Health Center first changed the game by inviting the press and local politicians into a large, welcoming retail operation that served as a “model dispensary” for the industry. Harborside also pioneered lab testing medical cannabis (DeAngelo co-founded the nation’s first testing facility), helped popularize CBD and develop new CBD strains, educated millions via the Discovery Channel TV show Weed Wars, and took on the federal government repeatedly in battles over everything from tax policy on dispensaries to the plant’s status as a Schedule I narcotic.

On January 1st, Harborside celebrated the start of adult-use sales with a major event that included representatives from local government, longtime activists, and a mariachi band. Former federal prosecutor Henry Wykowski—who has served as Harborside’s counsel in several of its legal battles with the government—bought the first legal gram of “recreational” cannabis sold in the state.


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Denver Relief

(Brennan Linsley/AP)

Location: Denver, Colorado

Kayvan Khalatbari (with partners Ean Seeb and Nick Hice) started up Colorado’s second oldest cannabis dispensary in 2009 “with a $4,000 investment and a quarter-pound of cannabis.” With roots in both the underground economy and the grassroots legalization movement, Khalatbari decided to use his entrepreneurial skills not only to build a business empire (in addition to Denver Relief dispensary, he’s founded a successful pizzeria, a free arts magazine and a cannabis consulting firm), but also to give back to the local community.

Denver Relief has since set a progressive standard for medical cannabis dispensaries in Colorado, the first state to fully license and regulate them, including working to “green” the often energy and resource intensive process of indoor growing. Also, as the driving force behind Sexpot Comedy, he helped foster a thriving local comedy scene in Denver by marketing his pizza and cannabis with community events and local culture rather than hype and advertisements.

Denver Relief was sold to Terrapin Care Station in 2016. Today, Khalatbari is running for mayor of Denver on a platform that emphasizes his activism around homelessness, the arts, and cannabis.

Header image by: Michael Delaney/Flickr Creative Commons
Flood image by: Holynow/Wikimedia
Secondary flood image by Andy Kuno/AP

David Bienenstock's Bio Image

David Bienenstock

Veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock is the author of "How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High" (2016 - Penguin/Random House), and the co-host and co-creator of the podcast "Great Moments in Weed History with Abdullah and Bean." Follow him on Twitter @pot_handbook.

View David Bienenstock's articles

  • Jose Herrera

    Just would like to see that everyone of all ages benifits. From CBD and all of its medicinal purposes and have it in abundance like their is aspirin and ibuprofen over the counter with the minimal tax. Stop all the argument in consideration of its much more needed medical purpose to homeless and less fortunate citizens in this 2018 world of advance social media communications we live in. I believe it should be resolved.

    • John Smith

      Unlike aspirin cannabis is not man made chemical, taxation is theft, nature is free as should the flower be forever

      • 360dunk

        But taxation is a necessity because without it, municipalities wouldn’t benefit nor support dispensaries. One of the selling points in the industry is the financial windfall for public schools. If it’s untaxed, it’s likely cartel weed. I have no problem whatsoever paying tax on something they used to throw me in jail for.

        • Jose Herrera

          I believe a set price for taxation should be left for the dispensary to include it in when it it’s advertising prices to consumers. Not tax after the price has been set on the menu. Thus, having a stable inventory and more affordable price set for medicinal purposes and recreational use would help take the industry to it’s full potential.

      • Bob Thomas

        FYI aspirin is found in willow bark. Reportedly used back as far as the ancient Egyptians.

      • MXJ222

        Then you should be cultivating your own supply.

        I would be interested to hear how you think services, medical and social programs the government runs should be funded without taxes since you say taxation is theft. How about necessary police, fire and public works services? How shall those be paid for?

  • Monica Wallows

    FUCK Harborside

    • 360dunk

      Au contraire, BLESS Harborside. They battled for our rights, endured federal harassment, and became a leader in the dispensary industry. The DeAngelo brothers stuck their necks out and battled for our freedom to indulge at a time when the Justice Department was trying to wipe out voter-approved dispensaries.

      Whatever petty complaint you have against Harborside (which you conveniently failed to mention), I’m sure it pales in comparison to all the legal victories they accomplished.

      • Monica Wallows

        I don’t like to put ppl on blast, however since you wan to stick up for them and put me in blast for simply stating my opinion in an option forum.

        Besides exploiting people of color and minorities in general; and even their own “friends” out in the Bay Area. (Stoney Steve for Ratings) | (Employees in dispensaries) They are in it for pure profit.

        They snitched on friends in MD then ran to CA to leach off the system. RIP. But the Allman Brothers Disva hell of a lot for the jam band scene also. Still love the music. But a snitch is a snitch in my book.

        You know their names. It’s well known in the DMV cannabis community.

        Now I know this firsthand. Hence why I am so passionate. I’ve been to their dispensaries. Never bought a thing. I did sit and write my congressman and received an entire gram. I did take there free Community Grow course. Which inspired me to start my own. So they def do good in the community. But at the exploitation of others. When is enough enough.

        Set others up to win!

        Peace and Blessing

        • 360dunk

          First off, you didn’t ‘simply state an opinion’. You basically just cursed at them w/o explanation, which is pretty lame. Then you go on to claim they’re racist, again w/o explanation. Pretty easy for you to level accusations, but you continually offer no substance to your claims. It appears you have some hidden agenda against their operation and are trying to vent on these pages. Nobody cares.

          I could call you an under-educated buffoon, but without saying why, it’s meaningless…..just like your angry posts.

        • 360dunk

          Horse manure…..I highly doubt the DeAngelos are racist as you claim.

          Give some real examples or else you’re just someone with a vendetta who is spouting off.

  • Barry Pratt

    hi everyone i am barry

  • Patti Moher

    Opt out

  • Mike_Scarborough

    These “10 Most” articles are great for recognizing the game changers in the cannabis industry. Keep them coming.

  • Alex Perez

    I wonder if a strain will come out after Dennis Peron ⁉

  • Robert Turner

    I enjoyed some good Blueberry and other goodies at the Mellow Yellow, I really enjoyed my visit there.

  • 360dunk

    Before the nation’s first legal dispensary opened in Marin County in the mid-90’s, there was the Cannabis Buyer’s Club in San Francisco. For the sake of accuracy, there was no doctor’s recommendation needed as the article states. They didn’t have the approval process, state regulations, and pot doctors back then. I joined in 1991 or ’92, simply by showing Dennis Peron a prescription from Kaiser and all it was for was 800 mg of Motrin. I was thrilled when Peron issued me a Buyer’s Club card which allowed me to buy weed from the Church Street location and later on Market Street. It was easy as grabbing a loaf of bread on your way home for the evening. We should all take a moment to express gratitude toward the cannabis pioneers, because without them, we’d still be looking over our shoulders every time before lighting up.

  • Linda Vee Sado

    These archaic regulations toward cannabis is laughable. Did they learn nothing from alcohol prohibition and the black market and crime it created? Not to mention cannabis is nothing compared to what booze can do to your body. And then there is tobacco which is horrible. But they want the tax money. It’s all so hypocritical