On New Year’s Eve 2017, dispensary workers in California toiled late into the night restocking store shelves with compliant product, in preparation to open early on January 1st and welcome throngs of people gathered to buy legal cannabis on the very first day of adult use sales in the Golden State. It was a glorious and historic occasion.
But behind the scenes, the roll-out of legal weed in California has been bumpy—to say the least—thanks in large part to a set of sweeping industry regulations that weren’t fully implemented until July, with final revisions just released this December.
Along the way, some dispensaries have struggled to keep the shelves stocked with compliant product, while customers have grumbled about sticker shock resulting from higher taxes and stricter requirements for things like lab testing and costly child-proof packaging. Meanwhile, a deluge of new companies have launched, backed by wealthy investors.
In the midst of all that volatility, the top-shelf dispensaries, cultivators and manufacturers on this list have remained determined to not just survive, but to thrive. Representing the best of Northern California cannabis in 2018, they stand out for the quality of their work, the integrity of their operations and their unwavering devotion to the plant.
Overall Dispensary: Magnolia Wellness
Led by longtime cannabis activist Debby Goldsberry, Magnolia Wellness is constantly pushing for a more progressive cannabis industry. A union shop with an inclusive staff, Magnolia uses its spacious showroom floor to host classes, support groups, wellness counseling, and social events, supporting a vibrant community of patients, activists, and cannabis lovers. Their menu is consistently excellent, with top-shelf cannabis from boutique producers like Fig Farms, accompanied by a wide selection of edibles, drinks, capsules, concentrates, vape carts, prerolls, topicals and CBD options.
Best Budget Dispensary: Purple Lotus Patient Center
San Jose, CA
Founded by patients for patients, this refreshingly unpretentious shop in San Jose offers not only top-shelf cannabis from Sherbinskis, Gold Seal, and UpNorth, but also a 1oz bag of shake for $50 and all options in-between. Look for deals, specials, and sales on their extensive menu, updated online every day. Scoop up the indulgent Kaneh Co. baked goods, Beezle live resin, and CBD-rich prerolls.
Best Boutique Dispensary: Barbary Coast
San Francisco, CA
Yes, it’s expensive and crowded with tourists, but the lounge at Barbary Coast is somewhere you’ve got to visit at least once. A taste of Amsterdam-style freedom in the US, experiencing social cannabis consumption is truly an eye-opener for the uninitiated. Snag a spot and smoke for up to 30 minutes after choosing something special from Barbary’s carefully curated menu. Featuring hard-to-find gourmet items such as Alto Truffle Oil, plus local favorites like Somatik cold brew coffee, Mellows marshmallows and Hepburns prerolls, this is the place to procure unique San Franciscan specialties.
High rollers take note: prepare to drop $100 for 0.5g of Guild Extracts’ THCA Crystalline, $93 on an eighth of Alien Labs’ Melonade or $75 on Sherbinski’s Bacio Gelato. Priced more affordably, look for fine sungrown gems like Swami Select’s Durban Lime sativa or snap up “quarter specials” for just $40.
Best Overall Company: Flow Kana
For the second year in a row, Flow Kana tops our list due to their socially conscious business model, designed to preserve California’s heritage cannabis farming communities in the Emerald Triangle. Happily, their ambitious plan to promote eco-friendly, sungrown cannabis is proving to be successful, with Flow Kana retail sales outpacing the competition by nearly three times in September 2018, holding steady as the number one selling cannabis flower brand for three quarters in a row. Available in over 200 dispensaries statewide, look for jars of Gold and Silver label flowers along with prerolled joints.
Best Flower Products: The Village
There was no shortage of excellent cannabis available in California this year, with outstanding flowers from IC Collective, Gold Seal, Utopia, Fig Farms, and UpNorth found in many dispensaries around the Bay Area. But the most memorable bud of 2018 was the Garlic Cookies (aka GMO), a powerful cross of GSC and Chemdog grown by The Village. Rich with umami tastes and savory aromas reminiscent of caramelized garlic, mushrooms, and onions, this crave-worthy weed will blow your mind with its sky-high potency of 26—30% THC content.
Best Concentrate Products: Terp Preservation Society
Humboldt County, CA
Look for this authentic Humboldt-based brand on the top shelves of dispensaries statewide, with flavorful live resin sauce made from favorites including Mendo Breath, AK-47, OG Kush and Zkittlez consistently available. If you’re lucky enough to find these coveted terps, scoop up limited-edition “Private Preserves” collaborations, such as recent runs of Connected California’s Biscotti and Talking Tree’s Cookie Kush.
Best Topical: Om Edibles / Whoopi & Maya Soaks
If you’d like to experience a different kind of high, then experiment with soaking in a cannabis bath. The THC-infused salts dissolve in the hot water and absorb through your skin to create a delightfully cozy and relaxing body high without any mental euphoria.
Maya Elisabeth, founder of Om Edibles and partner in Whoopi & Maya, creates similar products under both brands, with a variety of soothing botanical fragrances including Lavender and Rose Geranium.
Best Edibles: IncrediMeds
San Francisco, CA
Operating since 2004, IncrediMeds started as a subsidiary of The Green Cross, San Francisco’s first legally permitted medical cannabis dispensary. It’s heartening to see legacy businesses returning to stores after transitioning to compliance, especially when their products are so downright delicious! Look for the sophisticated shortbread cookies, available in savory Walnut Parmesan or sweet Strawberry White Chocolate and Coconut Dark Chocolate, along with gourmet chocolates and CBD-rich gummies.
Best High-CBD Product: Satori Chocolates
Santa Rosa, CA
Choose between two chocolate-covered, CBD-rich options, available as either Salted Caramel Almonds or Wild Strawberries. These satisfying, tasty snacks contain 140mg of CBD and 14mg of THC for a ratio of 10:1 per bag—perfect for maintaining a consistent, subtle level of relief by microdosing throughout the day. Powered by Cannacraft, one of California’s largest cannabis companies, Satori is available throughout the state.