What does the cannabis dispensary of the future look like? What will shopping for cannabis entail in 5, 10, or even 20 years? In order for us to truly estimate what a future dispensary looks like, first we should evaluate the dispensaries of the past and present in order to get a feel for their momentum and directionality. What about the variety of products, the number of dispensaries, the regulations they’re obliged to follow? In this article, we’ll explore some of these questions in order to find where dispensaries have been, where they’re at, and where they’re going!
A Quick History of Dispensaries
The current paradigm of weed shops on every corner began in California in 1996 with the passage of 1996 California Proposition 215, which legalized cannabis cultivation for medical purposes with the knowledge and consent of a doctor. This allowed millions of Californians to begin cultivating their own cannabis or designate Primary Caregivers who could cultivate on their behalf. California’s state legislature would go on to pass California Senate Bill 420, which would establish their State Medical Marijuana Program and add clarity to possession limits, registration guidelines, the scope of medical issues not treatable through normal means, and so forth.
The passage of these laws would begin a cascade of legalization and decriminalization measures across the country, beginning with Oregon, Washington, and Alaska legalizing medical cannabis through ballot measures 2 years later in 1998. Over the following decade, 9 more states would either legalize or decriminalize medical cannabis usage. The number would grow to 19 by 2012, nearly crossing the threshold into a majority of states. This period of time could be characterized as the “medical” period of dispensaries. Patients in LA County might’ve gone to places such as the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center, founded in West Hollywood in 1996, and picked up a pack of pseudo-legal pre rolls, flower, or even edibles.
Considering legalization happened on a state-by-state basis, each state had their own complex of regulations, their own regulatory bodies, and so forth. Where some states simply had you register and possess a special ID which could be used at state-licensed cannabis shops, other states might have you become a member of a cooperative or club where you’d sign something to temporarily authorize them as your Primary Caregiver, or possibly use a doctor’s note as a form of “license” for cannabis. While this variety of different systems benefited the bureaucrats that got new jobs and those that could operate within the regulatory bounds, it also led to a lot of confusion for patients, who often simply want an edible for their anxiety, as well as effectively ending any chance for legal interstate cannabis transport for years.
In many states, this was somewhat of a “Wild West” period. This was when laws were at their least-amended, and amendments to laws rarely led to fewer rules. Many states had vague legalization laws which didn’t adequately define possession limits, specify what exactly qualifies as a “caregiver”, and often didn’t require testing for potency or contamination. It was sometimes unclear what was above the board and what wasn’t, so many of the same operators from the black market moved into the early medical scene in order to push the limits. Until recreational use became legalized, medical cannabis usage was still somewhat inaccessible – sometimes requiring steep upfront costs for specialized doctor’s visits not eligible for insurance coverage – and remained on the fringes of what was possible.
Washington and Colorado legalized recreational cannabis in 2012, the former with a people’s initiative and the latter with an amendment to their State constitution. This began a paradigm shift as massive as the legalization of medical cannabis in 1996. In the following 7 years, the number of states with full legalization would grow to 11, with only 9 states having no form of cannabis legalization or decriminalization law. New laws were added to the books, and existing laws were amended. Like before, every state did it their own individual way, with some states following models set by other states. Some states, such as Iowa, would legalize only non-psychoactive components, such as CBD oil, and the 2018 Farm Bill would make low-THC cannabis (i.e. hemp) federally legal.
Patronage at dispensaries exploded as perceived barriers to entry began to dissolve. Requiring nothing more than an up-to-date government-issued ID, buying cannabis became as easy as buying liquor or cigarettes where before the process might’ve been compared to getting a rental car or hotel room. Individuals who might’ve indulged back in the ‘60s and ‘70s but didn’t want to go through the trouble of registering as a medical patient, people who were freshly entering retirement and were eager to “break the rules” a little bit, introverts who were anxious to work through “dealers” – many new demographics of people were engaging in cannabis usage as it became easier and easier, leading to 1 in 7 adults smoking at least once in 2017.
With the explosion in usage and tax revenue came a commensurate rise in legislation surrounding cannabis. New rules came into effect regarding the packaging, distribution, sale, cultivation, testing, and every other aspect of the industry. Some states required separate rooms for every customer due to security concerns, some required separate rooms for the cannabis, some required specific security protocols, some required the packaging carry a specific warning, and so forth. How bright can the packaging be? How big does the “21+” logo have to be, and what does it have to be on? Should it be sold in a bag, and should the bag be childsafe? What shapes are the gummies allowed to be? Can it be delivered?
Each one of these questions inspired an accompanying adjustment to existing law, and while some of them actually made the rules more lax – such as Colorado allowing dentists and even some nurses to recommend medical cannabis – the sheer volume of these new regulations, and the sheer breadth of their scope, made following them more and more difficult. Opening a dispensary yourself became a more daunting and difficult task than it had been before, and as any industry no longer operating on the fringes, often was dominated by those with the most resources rather than those who were most passionate and able to help their customers. While it may have been more ambiguous for dispensaries and producers what exactly constituted legal compliance, as new rules were coming out every day, for customers it became much more apparent that the industry was acceptable, legitimate, and above board.
So What About the Future?
Now, let’s evaluate the trends we’ve discussed in both the past and present of dispensaries; we still need to figure out what the future of dispensaries look like.
- Variety of products is going to explode. Just ten years ago, many dispensaries focused almost singularly on cannabis flower, and many concentrates hadn’t even been invented yet. We’ll begin to see new novel products such as solventless hash oils and sublingual strips. Some products are even experimenting with compounds like amino acids to make THC more effective, more potent, last longer, and so forth.
- Dispensaries will grow more customer-centric. Dispensaries such as Sweet Flower with locations in Melrose, Studio City, and Culver City have built their ongoing success upon their slick image, enjoyable customer interactions, and community-forward attitude. As more and more dispensaries pop up across the country, customers begin not only shopping for a given product but also shopping for dispensaries themselves – when you go somewhere regularly, it’s worth finding the best place. Sweet Flower and other dispensaries which are following their emphasis on a positive, friendly, memorable customer experience are building a model for what dispensaries will feel like in the future.
- Part of this will be raising standards for staff. Certifications and professional licenses will become more important as budtenders and other staff fall into a role of not only selling cannabis but also educating, consulting, and researching. As it is at Sweet Flower, product testing will become ubiquitous across the country.
- The pendulum will swing on dispensary regulation. As industry lobbying groups enter the political arena and more customers interact with staff and managers at dispensaries, certain regulations may begin to receive greater pushback than they do currently. Arbitrary packaging laws and heavy-handed record retention laws will disappear, and the legal wall between states with similar legalization programs might even begin to break down. Interstate cannabis is on the horizon.
- With interstate cannabis will come an explosion in testing facilities and cannabis e-commerce. New devices and methods for testing of potency as well as toxicity are already being developed.
- Exploration of the entourage effect, terpene pharmacology, and other fringe concepts will result in new products that barely resemble those of today. Distillate hashes with purity to 4 decimal places. Terpenes extracted to the same level. Bespoke flavor, aroma, and effect profiles for every individual, purchased off the internet and vaporized with a microelectronic bong. Looking up in 30 years, we’ll see products that seem to us how hash oil seems to Deadhead retirees today.
That’s it for our predictions, but it’s just where the conversation begins. What trends do you see in the cannabis industry, and where do you think they’re going? What does your dream dispensary look like, and do you think we’ll get there in the future? What’s your favorite dispensary in LA, and what makes it so great? Get engaged and tell us what you think!