More than any big city in America, San Francisco has always been on the cutting edge of cannabis consumption––from the beats and poets smoking “mezz” while inhabiting the 1950s North Beach “beat scene” to the openly stoned hippies of 1960s Haight-Ashbury. Cannabis consumption in the “City by the Bay” continued with the groundbreaking use of medical marijuana in the Castro District to treat those affected by HIV and AIDS, leading to America’s first dispensaries. San Francisco has likewise been the vanguard for providing consumption lounges to dispensary customers, offering a place for pot patients and weed aficionados to consume in a relaxing, safe environment.
High Times Magazine, June 2023
Big Top Pot
Marijuana was always a big part of gay culture in San Francisco, but it was purely for pleasure in those hedonistic, liberating days of the 1970s. That is, until the very first cases of AIDS were reported in the city in 1980. By the mid-’80s AIDS had developed into a genuine crisis in the SF gay community, with thousands of men being infected with HIV (the virus that leads to AIDS), and developing “wasting syndrome,” also called cachexia, characterized by an involuntary loss of body weight, with prolonged diarrhea, weakness, and fever.
But hope arrived with Dennis Peron, who began dealing weed out of his apartment in the Castro, dubbed the “Big Top Pot Supermarket.” In the mid-’80s, Peron’s partner, Jonathan West, was diagnosed as HIV-positive, and cannabis helped West deal with the symptoms. Weed’s appetite stimulating phenomenon was an obvious fit to combat AIDS wasting syndrome. People with AIDS want to avoid or delay the loss of appetite from wasting syndrome because it’s a calling card that the body’s shutting down.
West passed away from AIDS in 1990, and buoyed by San Francisco’s 1991 pro-medical cannabis initiative Proposition P, Peron opened the first public medical marijuana dispensary in America, the Cannabis Buyers Club (CBC) on Church Street in the Castro in 1994. Peron later moved the club to a more high-profile Market Street location in downtown San Francisco, where it was raided and became the subject of headlines and controversies throughout the mid-’90s.
Peron co-authored California’s Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996. In August 1996 then-California attorney Dan Lungren authorized a raid on the CBC pot club and lounge in a move that some maintained was politically motivated. Lungren’s cynical ploy failed to dissuade voters, as Prop. 215 passed with 56% of the vote on Nov. 5, 1996, making California the first state to formally legalize any form of cannabis.
In October 2003 California Senate Bill 420 was passed, along with San Francisco’s Article 33: Medical Cannabis Act, establishing guidelines for regulating medical cannabis dispensaries.
David Goldman, president of the Brownie Mary Democratic Club of San Francisco, along with his husband, Kenneth Michael Koehn, secretary of the Brownie Mary Democratic Club, remember the revolutionary times at the CBC.
“In 1994 Michael and I started going to the Cannabis Buyers Club, located at 194 Church Street in San Francisco, which was a very pleasant experience,” Goldman said. “I know that Dennis [Peron] always wanted to have a safe consumption space for people, where they could socialize. And so the need to have a safe space for consumption was apparent to Dennis, and that motivated him to start at 194 Church Street.”
“We started going to that Market Street CBC lounge location every Friday after work,” he said. “They had two different floors for the cannabis; one floor had some of the higher quality cannabis they’d call either ‘A-plus’ or ‘A-double plus’—they didn’t give them strain names back then. And patients could hang out there, and they offered snacks, and people would sing and play music. It was a very relaxed, chill environment; a wonderful way to spend our Fridays after work.”
Koehn added a sobering perspective reflecting on those uncertain years.
“There was also an element of fear in the dispensary lounges during that time,” Koehn said. “The fear of getting busted, that the AG [former Attorney General Dan Lungren] would raid the dispensary. We weren’t personally there when it was raided in 1996, but every time you went there, there was this fear hanging over your head, that this could be the day that trouble starts.”
Ultimately, Goldman associates positive memories with Peron’s club.
“There was a sense of community at the CBC because during that era of HIV, the gay community and the cannabis community highly intersected and we were able to contact and connect with one another,” he said.
Vapor Room / Jen Siska Photography
Continuing the Tradition
“We opened in late 2003 in the SF neighborhood known as Lower Haight,” Olive said. “I worked at another dispensary prior to this and it was like a lot of dispensaries back then, most of the lounges were just folding tables and plastic chairs, and not very comfortable for people.”
Olive said he outfitted the Vapor Room with 1970s furniture; big, plush couches, gaudy pyrex ashtrays, and wood paneling.
“We made it like your cool uncle’s stoner basement apartment. And it was a hit! It really was the first of its kind in San Francisco, along with the CHAMP dispensary, they had a beautiful lounge.”
CHAMP opened at the Market Street location after the CBC departed in 1998 and closed in 2002. In opening the Vapor Room, Olive sought out to build community through cannabis.
“We had a couple tables set up, so it was about 1,500 square feet, not super-big but big enough,” he said. “And [the lounge] really created a communal aspect; medicinal cannabis was this great unifier of all different types of people.”
Even after Vapor Room was forced into a change of location, Olive adapted and made the lounge experience even better.
“Due to some city regulations, we had to move in the building next door around 2006-07,” Olive said. “We took that opportunity to up our game a little bit, so we created a French cafe/apothecary atmosphere; marble tables, nice wooden chairs, with really nice subdued color pallets. It was a little bit more sophisticated than the typical lounge. We had Volcanoes on every table, bongs available, fresh water, hot tea, things like that. So we were giving people more than just a place to access medical cannabis, we were giving them a safe, clean comfortable space in a community setting.”
Even though medical marijuana continued making great strides in San Francisco, this was not acceptable to the federal government.
“In 2012, we got caught up in the Department of Justice crackdown on dispensaries throughout the state of California, and we were evicted without much compassion,” he said. “Leaving Lower Haight was a deep loss for the community, not only for the patients, but for the local businesses that were being supported by the 300 to 400 people we brought into our dispensary on a daily basis. That’s why I think dispensary lounges are so important, they really do support the neighborhoods they’re in.”
Over half of a decade passed until Olive resurrected Vapor Room.
“When we finally reopened in 2018, we found a location in a downtown ‘corporate corridor’ where Twitter, Uber, and Dolby are. So we definitely miss the residential community small business aspect of Lower Haight, but this is what was available. It’s about 700-800 square feet and we are making it work, with a couple of benches for people to smoke at. We do have a beautiful location; it’s nice, clean, and crisp with a big window, and a lot of sunlight and plants.”
But the fact that the club is located within a business district means people generally aren’t hanging out all day.
“It’s more like people on their lunch breaks or in for a meeting,” Olive said. “They’ll come in to buy a joint, take a few puffs and be on their way. Usually we’ll have anywhere from five to 15 people hanging out and chatting. And it is a really good communal atmosphere because you’re basically sitting right next to another person consuming cannabis, regardless if they’re a stranger or not, so you’re buddied up by default.”
The Continued Transformation of Social Consumption
Goldman and Koehn have seen the dispensary lounge landscape morph over the years.
“After CBC closed we didn’t go to dispensary lounges till at least 2006, when I became a medical cannabis patient because I was already using it medicinally and I wanted access to the highest quality cannabis,” Goldman said. “We began to see each lounge had a different vibe. Lounge 847 above the Green Door, on Howard street in SoMa [South of Market district], was our favorite lounge and easy to get to.
“Lounge 847 opened in 2012 and Michael and I held meetings there for Americans for Safe Access and the Brownie Mary Democratic Club. We had a lot of politicians visit there and they were impressed that we had such a great space to hold meetings.”
The Green Door is currently closed but may be reopened pending a multi-million dollar renovation.
“I’m glad we have a diversity of lounges in the city, but most of the new dispensaries don’t get a lot of business, so the lounges are going to waste in that they aren’t being used, which is a shame.”
For Olive one top aspect a cannabis lounge should provide is a comfortable and safe atmosphere for all.
“There’s no room in this concept for any kind of bigotry or racism or classism,” he said. “You can have your fancy Apple store style dispensary and lounge, but if you’re not making the regular guy and girl on the street and low-income people feel comfortable and safe and valid for being there, then you’re doing something wrong. A lounge should contribute to the culture of the cannabis community where people are meeting one another. The one commonality they all have is their love for cannabis, that’s the key element.”
In terms of what’s next Olive wants to go back to the future.
“Remember what the lounge is for amidst all the spreadsheets and profit margins; to provide high quality weed for people who use it for a variety or reliefs, be it symptoms issues, or for just feeling better about their day,” he said.
This article was originally published in the June 2023 issue of High Times Magazine.