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The Ganja Ship Jolly Roger

The difference between San Jose's sad HempCon and the city's awesome Yerba Buena Collective Amber Pearl? Intention.

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This week's cover story looks at how three years of mainstream marijuana lab testing has changed cannabis culture, illustrating the schism between testing entries in the High Times Medical Cannabis Cup on June 23-24 and testing medicinal marijuana to save lives.

Critics of California's Prop 215 never tire of questioning how pot can be medical if High Times is having a contest for it. The reality, of course, is that weed is both life-saving medicine for some seriously ill individuals and also the second most-popular mind-altering substance on the planet, behind alcohol.

There was no better place to investigate this duality than in San Jose, which hosted the controversial HempCon at the San Jose Convention Center June 15-17, and allows the ongoing operation of the Yerba Buena Collective Amber Pearl, a pot club that looks like a pirate ship. The difference between the two is intention.

HempCon was your typical, sad, greedy weed-culture swap meet, offering plenty of ammo for medical marijuana's critics. Meanwhile, the Yerba Buena Collective Amber Pearl was actually pretty unique and imaginative, with all-star service more sincere and professional than one would get at a Walgreens pharmacy.

Let's start with HempCon, promoted and sponsored by Mega Productions of Los Angeles. Mega is known for holding annual tattoo expos and debaucherous beer festivals, and all the clichés were present: The official poster featured a busty, smiling, tattooed brunette in a bikini superimposed over a pot leaf and a red cross. "Learn how to get into the medical marijuana business," it advertised.

On Saturday in downtown San Jose, under a baking midday sun, vinyl-wrapped Scions advertised ThePotDoc.com and "Sacramento 420 Evaluations." The kind of people attracted to such advertising paid $20 to get into a big circus tent in the convention center parking lot.

Inside the dark, stuffy big top, about eighty people were waiting for more than an hour to see a doctor, pay $60, and get a recommendation for medical marijuana. As medical pot's critics note, many in the line looked young and healthy.

Beyond the recommendation mill, it was typical fare: bongs, vaporizers, pro-weed T-shirts, and hemp products. HempCon's food and drink offerings made a 7-Eleven look like the French Laundry.

Those with a doctor's note for pot were also allowed into a separate back area of HempCon, where about a dozen or so dispensaries lured new members to sign up with promises of free joints, edibles, grams of weed, and "bud pong" carnival games. A huge purple truck wrapped in vinyl advertised "Granny Purple." The only thing missing was a Venice Beach boardwalk clown with a big arrow sign reading "Fuck the Feds, Get High Here." It's easy to see why the battleground city of San Jose is divided on whether it should regulate the medical marijuana industry or raid it.

Several miles away is an unlikely role model — the Yerba Buena Collective Amber Pearl, part of a chain of eight Yerba Buena dispensaries in San Jose. First of all, Amber Pearl blends into the modern business parks past HP Pavilion, in an out-of-the-way, industrial part of the city.

Dark, mirrored windows only reveal an 'open' sign and Yerba Buena's consistent branding, the medical Rod of Asclepius. A doorman greeted us with a friendly hello and welcomed us into the cool, dark, air-conditioned dispensary lobby, famous for its 15-foot-tall, 35-foot-long pirate ship installation.

Made out of wood and foam, painted in brown and gold, bedecked with skulls and pirate booty, it is genuinely awesome. Yerba Buena Collective Amber Pearl used to be an aquarium store, and the pirate ship was part of its draw. When it became a dispensary, the owners adapted the motif, decking out the surrounding walls and ceiling in fake rock material so the pirate ship looked trapped in a cave, like in the film The Goonies.

Rihanna played on the radio overhead as we filled out membership forms. Friendly staff asked us where we from and what brought us to Amber Pearl, and verified our age and recommendation. We received a thick, pocket-size "passport" explaining dispensary rules, medical marijuana facts, methods of consumption, state law, and local ordinances. We also got a personal guided tour of the club, which is further decked out like a cave.

"Theo" walked us through Amber Pearl's cooler and freezer-full of edibles, medicated cannabis colas, and even hot sauces. He explained cannabinoid dosage and effects better than a Kaiser practitioner. We were given a full tour of Amber Pearl's weed supplies, with eighth-ounces ranging from $35 to $60 and a top shelf of world-class cuts like Gooey Wreck, Dutch Crunch, and XJ-13.

The Amber Pearl crew was knowledgeable without being intimidating, and friendly without being unprofessional. Staff never made you feel rushed or stupid, and seemed to enjoy each other's company as well. They took credit and debit cards without a fee, and their huge loyalty rewards include free ounces, which can run $360 retail.

Like any type of drug, the difference between medical and non-medical use comes down to intention. At HempCon, it was easy to see why critics are against medical marijuana. Mega Productions just doesn't seem to care. By contrast, Yerba Buena staff aimed a thousand times higher.

We'd shop at a Walgreens shaped like the Great Sphinx of Giza as long as it was as clean, cool, and professionally run as this superb Jolly Roger of the South Bay.

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