The First Cannabis Dispensary

The First Cannabis Dispensary

The cannabis movement has been around for a very long time. However, the cannabis industry is still very young. Although people have been protesting for the right to legally use cannabis since the Controlled Substance Act (1971) was enacted. The legal (arguably) sale of cannabis in the United States started in 1992.  And, although our cannabis activist warriors were doing big things, the legal sale of cannabis started with San Francisco LGBTQ activists during the AIDS epidemic.

At the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s, thousands of people discovered cannabis was one of the few remedies that could counteract nausea and AIDS-related wasting syndrome.  AIDS-related wasting syndrome causes people to rapidly shed body weight and lose appetite, putting them at increased risk for other infections. At the time, many of the prescription drugs available were barely effective and just as likely to make people with HIV more nauseated. Understanding the importance of cannabis to their community, two San Francisco LGBTQ activists took on cannabis activism and began working on its legalization. 

Today the cannabis business looks quite different!  Cannabis expos pack large convention centers with young, rich, white investment banker types who are interested in finding out more about how they can get richer by selling weed. Back then…. It was more like sick people getting arrested for selling cannabis through legal grey areas.

How the Cannabis Industry Started

When people think of the start of the cannabis industry, they normally start with Proposition 215 passing in 1996, which legalized medical marijuana in the entire state of California.  But the truth is the industry started a little bit before then.  It all started with Proposition P passing in 1991.  Proposition P wasn’t a State initiative, it was a City initiative (San Francisco) that urged the lawmakers of the State to pass a law legalizing medical cannabis, and then later amended the next year to urge city officials to make marijuana arrests the lowest priority especially when used for medical purposes. 

That’s right… it didn’t even legalize medical cannabis, just asked for city officials to tolerate its medicinal use.

That is all two of the authors of Prop P, and eventually Prop 215, needed to open the first cannabis dispensary.  In 1994, Denis Peron and Mary Rathbun opened the San Francisco Buyers Club to the public; it had been operating privately since 1992.

The Cannabis Buyers Club was modeled after the AIDS Drug Buyers’ Club which offered AIDS patients access to medicines that had not been approved by the slow-moving FDA. AIDS Buyers Clubs offered experimental medicines, but they didn’t offer cannabis.  Peron and Rathbun wanted the club to not only offer cannabis but to serve as a community center for people with HIV/AIDS and other terminal illnesses.

The front of a membership card to The San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club
The back of a membership card to The San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club

It was different from the “Apple Store” modeled dispensaries you might find today. The club featured a café and several lounges, people would hang out and smoke right in the club, and members would even put on small theater performances for each other on Saturdays. Although local police largely would tend to turn a blind eye to the operating of the club, they would get raided quite often.

A look inside the first cannabis dispensary. The Cannabis Buyers Club was more of a social club than a retail store.

In 1996 Peron lead the initiative to legalize medical marijuana in the Sate of California under Proposition 215. The 4,500 members of the Cannabis Buyers’ Club collected signatures and made phone calls to rally support.  With some lucky last-minute funding the group was able to pass the initiative and the formal medical marijuana system, with mmj cards, started.

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