After suffering from chronic back pain for months, I decided it was time to get a medical marijuana prescription. I’m a retired academic living in the East Bay, but I called the Mission my home 30 years ago. Even though Oaksterdam and Harborview were closer, I mostly associate pot smoking with the Mission.

So, over two days in June, I checked out the seven dispensaries in the Mission. Here are my impressions. Add your own.

With health reports in hand, I met with a doctor in a recently opened clinic south of Market Street. We talked for about 20 minutes, I had a photo taken for my ID card, and received a one-year prescription. The cost: $95.

First Stop: Bernal Heights Co-op Dispensary

33 29th Street

Six years old, Bernal Heights Co-op is just down from Mission Street and around the corner from the venerable Cole Hardware store. The block it’s on is a mix of garbage cans, a few sidewalk flower boxes, a corner bar and a couple of gentrified shops trying to make an inroad into a working-class neighborhood.

A large mural covers the front of the dispensary, but it’s hard to figure out how to get in. Finally I saw someone ring a doorbell next to a locked door and get buzzed in. I did the same, only to find that a metal gate and a very large guy stood between the inner sanctum and me. I handed over my California ID and written prescription, filled out an application and gained admission.

I felt like I’d just walked into a time warp: a large, low-lit room with seedy, albeit clean, bar décor with a 1970s hippie-reggae feel. Two men smoked the herb they had just purchased. The club’s logo is an easy chair with a broad smile. The furnishings are sparse — a few high bar tables with chairs, two couches beneath a flat-screen TV, and a large board with brightly colored names next to the prices of different strains of marijuana, hashish and edibles. I learned later that the handwritten approach — as opposed to computer-updated lists — has its drawbacks. Several of the varieties listed were no longer in stock.

A constant line of mostly men streamed furtively in and out. It would be the most diverse group of clients I would see all day. The pace may be attributed, in part, to the 30-minute limit on how long any one customer can idle.

The man and woman who stood behind the small counter were matter-of-fact. Customers knew what they wanted, and after making their purchases, left. My questions — Are the herbs organic? Where are they grown? What are the characteristics of “Train Wreck”? — raised enough suspicion that another very large man came out to talk with me. Intimidating, but not unfriendly, he just wasn’t used to inquisitive customers.

Shambhala Healing Center
2441 Mission Street

As I walked past family-operated beauty shops, Mexican and Chinese restaurants, cut-rate clothing shops and small grocery stores with fruit stands spilling out onto the sidewalk, I almost walked by Shambhala. Only an etched sign on the window and a small sandwich board announced that it was open.

Here there were no locked doors; instead, a soothing décor and a young man at the sign in-desk greeted me. After having my papers reviewed and filling out an application to join the collective — evidently many dispensaries are clubs, with buyers as well as vendors making up the membership — I entered a serenely lit green room with well designed T-shirts artfully hung on one wall and a small L-shaped counter with a complete selection of pipes near the entrance. The goods were displayed on a long, sleek counter with glass bottles stylishly displayed and professionally labeled.


There were just a few people in the early afternoon, so the budtender and later the owner gave me their full attention. Shambhala invited questions, as budtenders opened jars with names like “Platinum Headband” and discussed appearance (fluffy or dense, light, dark or more textured greens), aroma, and the physical or mental characteristics you can expect to experience.

On the wall was a large screen, connected to the computer, where types, names and prices were constantly updated. There was a special offer of marijuana flights — “I love wine,” explained one of the owners, referring to the practice of serving wine flights at tastings and in restaurants. He was friendly and eager to teach me a whole new vocabulary of tastes. As I left, he gave me a gift — a small portion of “Blue Dream.”

1933 Mission Street

Just down from the 16th Street BART station, MediThrive’s signage is so discreet you would never know it’s a medical marijuana boutique. I walked by twice before realizing where the entrance was. A friendly but slightly imposing man greeted me at the door. By now I knew to show my California ID and prescription. The entryway was light and filled with lively conversation, and had well-crafted wooden benches for people waiting to register.

I filled out my application and had a photo ID taken, the young woman explaining that the photograph and membership number help prevent a bottleneck at the door. The next time I visit I can just give my number, or if I forget, they can look up my name and photo ID. As with the other dispensaries I had been to that morning, all of my information was recorded on a computer. But MediThrive was the first to take my picture.

Two years old, MediThrive is a high-tech dispensary where names and prices appear on a computerized screen that is kept up to date both in the store and on the website.

At least while I was there, the clientele appeared to be in the 20s-to-40s age range, male, mainly white, and further up the economic ladder. According to the woman who processed my application, about 400 people from all over the Bay Area and state come through the door each day, and up to a hundred sign on as new members. Having two pot clubs, MediThrive and Shambhala, within blocks of each other does not appear to be a problem for either. There are enough patients for both.

MediThrive is calm and orderly. Budtenders stand behind beautifully arranged glass-fronted counters. What is unique about this club? I asked. “Customer service,” the budtender replied, “and a very knowledgeable staff.” As with the other dispensaries, the overwhelming majority of customers and staff were men. Where are the women?

My education continued as I learned the differences between bubble hashish, kief and concentrates. There was also a large selection of edibles, including triple-strength “Medical Cannabis Fire Chocolate” candy bars, brownies and sugar cookies.

The chocolate bars looked just like the ones you find at a grocery store. But when I looked closely at the nutritional information (calories 60, protein 1 g), and ingredients, I found, along with 65% cocoa, sugar, vanilla, spices and blood oranges, the amounts of “THC, 180 mg; CBD>9mg; and CBN>9mg.” When I left I was given a card entitling me to “1 Free Gram” after I collect 10 stamps for purchases.

The budtender, the woman behind the desk and the man at the door all thanked me for stopping by.

Valencia Street Caregivers
208 Valencia

I finished day one at Valencia Street Caregivers. You wouldn’t know it existed if you didn’t have the address. It’s a word-of-mouth kind of place, located at the very back of Cesar’s Café and Crepes. Even though the café is a hole in the wall with a few tables, I liked the atmosphere. When you enter there’s an enormous board offering crepes and other delicious-sounding food. I made my way back to the cashier/waiter/cook and asked for the dispensary. “You are here,” he said with a smile, making me feel immediately at ease.

My papers inspected, he pointed to a door just behind me that led to two rooms not much bigger than walk-in closets. One man staffed the dispensary. Large jars were on shelves behind him and there was a scale on the very small counter. On either side of me, two little blackboards advertised a limited offering.

We discussed, as I had everywhere, what I was looking for, and he confidently guided me to what he thought would give me the desired effect. No individually packaged grams here. The herb was measured out in front of me, then weighed. I liked Valencia Street Caregivers and could see myself sipping a non-fat decaffeinated cappuccino after making my purchases. It would be perfect if, as in the coffee shops in Amsterdam, you could also enjoy a leisurely smoke of grass or hashish as you indulged in a crepe.

Love Shack

Love Shack
501 14th Street

The next day I took an early Sunday afternoon walk down Guerrero toward the Love Shack. Again, it was very hard to differentiate the shop from nearby apartment entrances. A large number of mostly young adults in sharp casual clothes were standing at the corner, and at first I mistook them for customers waiting for the dispensary to open. No, they were waiting for a table to open up at one of the upscale breakfast spots that have sprung up all around the Mission. I looked again and finally saw a screened metal door with a friendly young man stationed on the other side. I presented my papers and the door opened into a small, well-organized dispensary.

The Love Shack, a mom-and-pop-like store, is nine years old. Sun poured through the front windows. On one side of the room was a water cooler; on the other side, three large glass pipes sat on a shelf. The pipes are for customers who have made a purchase or just want to stop by for a smoke.

The shop is clean, with a homey feel, and I was told that folks from 18 to 92 stop by for their prescriptions of medical marijuana. It is definitely gay-friendly and has, I assume, helped many an AIDS sufferer over the years.

What’s special about the Love Shack? “We have known our vendors for years and have the best herb sold at the best prices,” said the middle-aged budtender. I wanted something to lift my mood and give me energy. Sativa induces what they call mind experience and can combat depression, while Indica induces a slowed-down body experience best for the relief of pain. A very strong dose of Indica can put even insomniacs right to sleep.

I asked about cooking and learned that cannabis-infused butter can be used to bake everything from chocolate brownies to ginger cookies, and is even used as a spread for toast. The budtender gave me a complimentary brownie made by the Butter Brothers to see what I thought. “It’s cheaper if you make your own,” he told me.

Next I was shown beautiful hand-blown glass pipes that you clean with rubbing alcohol and a pinch of salt. The three communal pipes are cleaned every day with this mixture to keep them free of bacteria. Cooking recipes, cleaning instructions and an easy approach to unraveling the mysteries of medical marijuana made the Love Shack a special place. Other shoppers joined in the conversation, adding to the community atmosphere. Just before I left, a young man in pressed jeans cautioned, “I wouldn’t go there,” when I mentioned that I was headed for Mr. Nice Guy. Others agreed that it’s a rough place.

Mr. Nice Guy

Mr. Nice Guy
174 Valencia Street

Homeless men and rowdy punks favor the six year-old Mr. Nice Guy. Several years ago a man was convicted of first-degree murder for his involvement in the robbing and shooting of a customer on the street outside the dispensary. A police car can often be seen double-parked in front, which makes the hard-to-spot dispensary easier to find. I walked up to what looked like a theater box office and handed over my papers.

Inside, massive floor-to-ceiling murals covered the walls on each side. Even though there was no natural light, it was colorful. The room was bare except for a fish tank and a small table with a suggestion box. But there was plenty of space to stand, and clear blue lines indicated where to wait. Just as in a medical office, there’s a line several feet from the dispensary showing you where to stop so each customer can make his or her purchase in private. There was hardly anyone there on a Sunday, and I felt that the warnings had been overstated. Perhaps if I visited at night I would have another opinion.

An affable but no-nonsense woman stood behind what was probably a bulletproof barrier surrounding the biggest dispensary I had yet seen. There was a two-way microphone and speaker system, and a locked box about a foot-and-a-half square that pivots so you can place your money on one side and the budtender can turn it inward to place the herb and make change.

I was surprised to see that Mr. Nice Guy offers a senior discount — the only dispensary to do so thus far. A man working at an antiques store a few doors away said that the dispensary hasn’t caused any problems. I asked the beat cop for his impression of the neighborhood. “Eclectic,” he replied.


Ketama Collective
14 Valencia Street

My final visit was up the street at the Ketama Collective. As soon as I stepped inside I felt I had been transported to Amsterdam. The owner is North African and the walls, ceiling and cabinets are decorated in Moroccan style. Sometimes a DJ plays music at night, while a table and comfy couch in the corner invite you to linger. Ketama used to be a café, and the lunch counter promises an Amsterdam-like experience, but for reasons I do not understand none of the dispensaries offer food or drinks.

The man at the entrance and the woman who sells the products were both easy-going and wanted to be helpful. We joked and talked. The women washed her hands each time she scooped out some herb for a customer and placed it on the scale. She wanted me to appreciate the fine distinctions between hybrids such as Amnesia Haze. I was given a complimentary Bud-of-Scotch cookie and advised to eat it before I went to sleep. It’s a hybrid that contains a very high percentage of Indica.

In a bright yellow wrapping, the label read, “For Medical Use Only. Contains THC: .90 grams of Sweet Tooth and GrandDaddy Purple. Keep Out of Reach of Children.” Percentages were listed on all of the edibles I looked at, as well as ingredients and warnings. This is serious stuff. I didn’t want to leave but needed to get home. Ketama is a very social place with a fanciful design — no furtive comings and goings here. But the array of baked goods made me very hungry.

During this two-day outing my rudimentary understanding grew at each dispensary, as I was introduced to pure and hybrid marijuana, as well as varieties of hashish and kief. I found that all of the shops I visited took pride in their expertise — part art and part science. Most of the marijuana is locally grown, and vendors congregate in the back rooms of dispensaries on designated days each week. Very experienced testers sample and verify the type and grade of the product. Herbs are often dated so you know they are fresh. I saw some overlap in what was sold, but shops also specialize. I cannot yet evaluate the quality, but costs did not seem to vary greatly between dispensaries — $10 a gram at the low end to $20+ a gram at the high end.

Primarily what differentiates the dispensaries is their unique cultural atmosphere. Customers also differ, depending on what they need and what the dispensary offers. I felt most at home at the Love Shack and Ketama Collective. Valencia Street Caregivers is quirky and barebones. Shambhala Healing Center and MediThrive have a more sophisticated air. The Bernal Heights Co-op is a little grungy for my taste, and I’ll leave Mr. Nice Guy to the young rowdies, though its senior discount is tempting.

After two days of exhausting research, it was time for the next step: testing the product. Because testing is a very slow and painstaking process, I will report my findings on product and price points in my next installment. Coming soon.