El Camino Wellness Center in Sacramento represents the archetype of a modern California dispensary. From its friendly parking attendant to its potency testing, it mirrors its bigger peer, Harborside Health Center in Oakland. Both are undiluted visions of medical cannabis distribution: professional; normalized; and, of course, under siege.
On February 28, the four-year-old, 9,000-plus-member dispensary lost the first round of a lawsuit to halt the federal government's crackdown on California clubs. The loss deepens the pall over what city leaders call a "model dispensary," a place that doles out eighths as cleanly as Starbucks slings mochas.
Founded in 2008 by Nicolas Street and Sonny Kumar, El Camino Wellness opened in a battleground. Many in the state capital wish Californians never gave medical cannabis patients, their caregivers, and collectives a defense against criminal prosecution for growing, possessing, and distributing the plant. Sacramento County voted against Prop 215 in 1996, and against Prop 19, the adult-use initiative, in 2010.
Although voters in the city of Sacramento passed a sales tax on dispensaries, and the city council now favors regulating the 33 or so storefronts in town, opposition to medical cannabis has remained strong in the county at large (although a county ban failed to stop about one hundred stores from operating there in 2010). In fact, it was Sacramento County that gave US Attorney Benjamin Wagner a front-row seat to California's then recession-fueled Green Rush, and it didn't play well with the Central Valley's law-and-order crowd.
Some parts of Sacramento are pretty groovy, though, and El Camino managed to fit in. Councilman Steve Cohn supported Street and Kumar's plan to expand to Stockton. The club also had the support of neighboring businesses and patients. It was even called the "Taj Mahal" of local dispensaries, although, in reality, El Camino is more like a model home for marijuana outlets. A few of its facets:
The neighborhood: El Camino Boulevard has all the wind-swept desperation of northern Las Vegas. The tall-black-metal fencing: Across the street from low-income housing and vacant commercial property is a guaranteed landmark. The super-nice parking attendant: Neighbors are particularly sensitive to business traffic, and pot traffic makes 'em go ballistic. Solution? Super-nice parking attendant. The Zen Garden: Sure its Nowheresville, USA, but once you're in the gates, the dispensary wants to exude mellowness. Chill out. Look at the sculpture.
Also there's the metal detector; the hardwood floors; the pastel green walls; the playlist from Starz FM; the alternative clerk with exposed tattoos who is also very nice; the presentation of a valid doctor's recommendation for marijuana, plus state ID; the paperwork to legally join the collective; and the rules, which include no on-site medication.
And then you're in. Two large flatscreens on the wall behind the counter list about 25 flowers, as well as about 25 oils and concentrates by price. The prices are high for Bay Area residents who are used to amazing deals, and more on par with black market inland rates. But, like at Harborside, selection, testing, and professionalism cost more.
Kumar has said that El Camino is a nonprofit that pays 100 percent of its employees' health benefits, and above-market wages. Top shelf eighths — 3.5 grams of the best buds — can run $60, though we saw eighths of Purple Erkle for as low as $40.
El Camino also offers excellent mashups of the hottest strains. "The Yurp" mixes Purple Erkle and with Grand Daddy Purple for maximum sweet grape aroma and taste, combined with pronounced pain relief, muscle relaxation, and sedation. We were most awed, however, by Godfather, uniting two titans of Cali weed: OG Kush and Grand Daddy Purple for a bouquet of sour lemon, pine, and sweet grape. Godfather solves the problems with OG Kush's pulse-pumping, sativa effects, and GDP's potential for couchlock. In the middle of the road but in no way middling, Godfather demands a steep tribute at $60 an eighth.
In October, US Attorney Wagner notified El Camino Wellness' landlord that the property could be seized for violating the federal Controlled Substances Act. El Camino sued Wagner, the US Department of Justice, and the DEA, arguing that the crackdown contradicted the federal government's own statements in the Ogden Memo with regard to marijuana law enforcement. Such a contradiction was grounds for "judicial estoppel," El Camino's counsel argued.
But on February 28, US District Judge Garland Burrell Jr. disagreed, and dismissed El Camino's complaint with prejudice. El Camino will appeal, lawyer Matt Kumin said.
The dispensary could also, theoretically, move and repeat the same game with the US attorney. It's unclear how long Wagner will waste scarce resources playing whack-a-mole with the $1.3 billion industry. El Camino could go private. Or go delivery-only.
But that's irrelevant. El Camino Wellness is another expression of the archetype — the friendly staff; the convenient debit/credit card payment options; and the medical literature and activism rack. It's a vision of a more just, civil world. And you can't raid or jail a vision. Trying to do so tends to make it spread.