Demystifying California Medical Marijuana Dispensaries

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For new medical marijuana patients in California, walking into a medical marijuana dispensary can be both intimidating and overwhelming. A common misconception is that medical marijuana dispensaries are run by drug lords and thugs, but this is far from true.

The vast majority of medicinal marijuana dispensaries are run by compassionate individuals and fellow patients who understand what it’s like to suffer from chronic pain or painful diseases. While photographs of the inside of marijuana dispensaries are generally frowned upon (because marijuana is still outlawed by the feds), I will tell you what it’s like to walk into one of these dispensaries and safely purchase your medicine.

After receiving a medical marijuana recommendation from your doctor, you are free to visit one of the hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries across California. Sometimes you have to register with the dispensary a day or two in advance, and sometimes you can be seen same-day if the marijuana caregivers can confirm your recommendation with your doctor right away.

As a first time marijuana user, the first thing I noticed when walking into my dispensary was the odor. It’s quite shocking the first time you experience that much pot smoke in public. Most dispensaries are set up so that the “bud room” is in the back of the building. When you first walk in, you should see an office-like setup, where the workers greet and screen everyone walking in. Also, at my dispensary, there are guards inside and outside to protect their patients as well as their marijuana yields.

Once you’re allowed to go back to the bud room, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. At my dispensary in San Jose, the bud room has a long glass counter, much like a jewelry store, with about 20 big jars of different strains of marijuana. Behind the counter are fellow-patients affectionately called “budtenders”. At a good dispensary, these budtenders are well-versed in each strain of medical marijuana, as well as the genetics of each strain. This knowledge helps patients find the best strain that will work for their particular ailment (some strains relieve pain, some don’t. Some bring on hunger, some don’t, etc.)

At this point, you can tell your budtender about your specific disease or ailment, and what specifically is bothering you. Don’t get me wrong – budtenders are not doctors, but when it comes to relieving pain, these people are experts in medical marijuana effects. For instance, my two complaints are severe back pain and social anxiety. I can also tell my budtender that anxiety from the pain keeps me awake at night, and how prescription pain medications don’t work for me because they bring about intractable nausea. That’s all the budtender needs to know to come up with marijuana strain suggestions.

Medical marijuana

Now, you can either buy regular marijuana buds to smoke in a bong or weed pipe, or you can buy marijuana concentrates, cannabutter for food preparation, edibles such as cookies, brownies, suckers, and candy bars, or alcohol or glycerin-based tinctures. Your options are endless, but the budtender is there to help you decide which method of ingestion is best for your personal situation.

When visiting a medical marijuana dispensary, it’s best to bring cash, but some dispensaries are starting to accept credit and debit cards. Even medical marijuana delivery services are starting to carry around small credit card machines.

Medical marijuana can cost anywhere from $40 to $80 1/8 ounce (about 3.5 grams) depending on whether the strain was grown indoor or outdoors, and depending on what the growers are willing to part with it for before it arrives to the dispensary. Popularity or unavailability of certain strains can also up the cost. As a general rule, patients start feeling ripped off once the price climbs above $60 for an eighth of an ounce.

If you haven’t already, stop by a smoke shop or head shop to buy a bong, weed pipe, vaporizer, or rolling papers depending on your preferred method of intake. For whatever reason, medical marijuana dispensaries do not sell smoking accessories. Before leaving the dispensary, your bedtender will be able to help you decide which type of smoking accessory is best for you. If you want to shop around, you can visit websites like to see what’s out there.

While walking into a medical marijuana dispensary for the first time can cause anxiety, especially for first-time marijuana users, the caregivers at a good dispensary will quickly put your fears to rest. If you leave the dispensary feeling uncomfortable, websites such as Yelp and contain dispensary reviews. Patients using those websites are both blunt and helpful, and it won’t take long to find a dispensary that makes you feel at home.