The medical marijuana business is already raking in billions in California. Now some dispensaries hope to cash in even more by going upscale. Forget hippie head shops; these are high-end boutiques -- "wellness clinics" where cannabis treatments can be paired with Pilates, massage and acupuncture.
On a trendy street in superhip Venice, Calif., a neon-green sign with a baby marijuana leaf invites patients into The Farmacy. Inside the stylish shop, herbalists wear lab coats made of hemp fabric. They offer various plant-based medicines, including Chinese and Amazonian herbs. And, of course, cannabis.
"Everything in the store is organic," says General Manager Bill Leahy. He points out the ceilings made of sustainable wood and counters inlaid with mother of pearl. For patients with a doctor's recommendation, The Farmacy guarantees the purity of its marijuana, testing for molds with a chrome gas spectrometer.
"If it's not holistic, or in some way giving off that positive energy, we don't want it," Leahy says. He points to the feng shui fountain on the wall of The Farmacy's West Hollywood store. "We just try to have that serenity and calmness that is necessary for people that aren't feeling well."
Enhanced Edibles And Drinkables
The Farmacy is no ordinary pot shop. Glass jars are filled with marijuana buds, and there's an entire children's section of natural medicines. From The Farmacy's own special kitchen, chefs whip up handmade herbally enhanced organic gelatos, whipped butter and other goodies: crispy treats and chocolate-covered pretzels with a little something extra, enhanced olive oil, and cannabis-infused lemonade. At times, The Farmacy even offers cannabis cooking classes.
"From the typical brownies to Kahlua cakes to biscotti, nobody said medicine has to taste bad," says Leahy's wife, Susan, an herbalist at The Farmacy's shop near UCLA.
"We're not here for people to get high," she says. "We're here to offer medicine to alleviate pain, stress, tension. We have medicines that will help knock off nausea so people can enjoy their lives again."
At the Venice store, the entire upstairs floor is devoted to affordable acupuncture, massages, skin care and shamanic healings.
"We get people from all over, who ask, 'What is this new thing?' It's better than Amsterdam,' " says Eric Baumgartner, who runs the acupuncture center. "This is part of a bigger vision, creating accessible global medicine for local people. It's more grounded in what medicine is about and what patients need."
The Farmacy's owner, JoAnna LaForce, says she'd like her franchise to be a role model for other dispensaries. "We wanted an environment where people could come in and feel comfortable, and not feel like a criminal," she says, pointing out that the average age of her patients is 42. The oldest is 104.
The Farmacy is perhaps the most notable marijuana boutique to date. But with 13 states and the District of Columbia now allowing medical marijuana, other high-end dispensaries are opening across the country, from the San Francisco Bay Area to Portland, Maine.
"I would say that these are full-service holistic-care facilities," says Dale Sky Clare, executive chancellor of Oaksterdam University, an Oakland, Calif.-based trade school that specializes in the marijuana industry. Clare says some clinics offer Pilates with their pot, and even so-called vapor lounges for consuming on-site.
"These places are realizing as we get into a market that is more competitive, that they have opportunity to add value-added services to their patients," she says.
Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron says the marijuana boutiques are trying to change the image of the shady back-alley pot dealers.
"I think they want to look as legitimate, as middle class, as sort of 'normal' as possible," he says, "because that, of course, makes it less likely that the neighborhood or someone will be upset and want to move them out or close them down or change the law against medical marijuana. If they just look like any store, then they don't particularly raise red flags."
In Los Angeles, the proliferation of hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries has provoked a backlash. This week, law enforcement began shutting down collectives not registered with the city.
But The Farmacy's Leahy isn't too worried.
"Our staff is not just tattooed kids that are getting high all the time," he says. "We have acupuncturists, herbalists, nutritionists. Our goal has been that if they did away with cannabis, we'd be able to survive with other holistic medicines."
Still, it seems the boutique dispensaries are positioning themselves to prosper, especially if Californians vote to legalize all marijuana this fall.