Bob Ross, the famous oil painter who loved landscapes and had a PBS show before dying of lymphoma in 1994, was known for his "happy little trees." A master of the quick, "wet-on-wet" technique, Ross made $15 million selling art supplies related to his cheesy, relentlessly upbeat show The Joy of Painting. A former Air Force sergeant, Ross hated all the yelling he did in the service, and painting oil landscapes was his escape — a world, he said, he could make "as happy as I want it."
Happy Lil' Trees is also the name of a two-time, High Times Medical Cannabis Cup-winning dispensary in the rough-and-tumble town of Vallejo — where people clearly can't make the world as happy as they want.
On a recent visit to the corner of Redwood Street and Sonoma Boulevard, a large American flag blew against a gray, angry sky. Weeds had retaken the cracked, eroding sidewalks, and litter floated across the pot-holed parking lot. At the base of the US flag, a green cross was affixed to a white cinderblock building with mirrored double doors.
Avoiding the approaching winter storm, we stepped inside into a warm, dark, groovy den, resembling That 70's Show, complete with fake wood paneling, stained blue carpet, Bob Marley playing on the radio, and the pungent, inviting smell of freshly cured chronic.
The low-profile club eschews press and declined interview requests, but new collective members need to simply present state identification and a valid doctor's recommendation. Happy Lil' Trees verifies on-site before a new patient can join the collective, but afterward, we got a warm, personal introduction to staffer Theo, who was casually dressed with dreads, and wore a super-friendly smile. He ushered us in, past the locked door, to ganja nirvana.
Happy Lil' Tree's medium-size main room has the most profound, fresh-weed stank of any dispensary we've been to. There were clones on the right and edibles, concentrates, and flowers on the left as Theo walked us through the dispensary's unique, five-gram eighths, which can total $67 with taxes for top-shelf strains. It's a connoisseurs top-shelf, too.
Happy Lil' Trees has more than fifty strains, representing some of California's best pot. The club's energetic "Sonoma Coma" took first place in the sativas category last month in High Times' Los Angeles Medical Cannabis Cup, and took third in the 2011 San Francisco Cup. Astonishingly, Theo had some in stock.
Budtenders, meanwhile, were letting patients inspect and smell big Mason jars of each cut, creating a laid-back, comfortable vibe. Lil Wayne played on the radio, and dudes chit-chatted behind the counter with the manager, sitting in a corner behind a desk.
We stuck our heads into a fresh turkey bag of the Cup winner, noting the massive tropical fruit notes of mango and pineapple, with a huge body that is more pronounced when ground. Pot treats nausea, muscle spasms, and neuropathic pain, of course, but Sonoma Coma's unique sativa effects melt stress without sedation. It's a two-day yoga retreat in a bag.
The Blue Fire AAA — a re-cross of Blue Dream (Blueberry and Haze) and Blueberry — looked and smelled just as enticing. Ditto for the Tangerine Dream (Tangerine Kush and Blue Dream) and the Louis XVIII. All the greats were there, too: Ken's GDP; Super Jack; L.A. Confidential; Blackberry Kush; Purple Nepal. We also came across something called R2D2 — a mix of Purple Kush and Hawaiian Skunk.
Happy Lil' Trees might not look like much, but the club's got it where it counts. We'll be back the next time we're passing through on Highway 80.
The future of Happy Lil' Trees, however, just got less sunny. Across town on the day we visited, Matthew Shotwell, owner of Greenwell Cooperative, sat in Solano County Jail on drug charges, his club raided by the multiple agencies. Masked, gun-toting DEA agents held Shotwell's staff and patients for hours before letting them go.
On March 1, authorities also hit Better Health Group and its head Jorge Espinoza. Both Shotwell and Espinoza were vocal proponents of Measure C — a 10-percent tax on marijuana sales in Vallejo that 76 percent of voters passed in 2011. Regulation of Vallejo's 25 or so clubs was to follow, but never did, because of the federal crackdown and legal ambiguity from state appellate courts. The tax begins March 1, with the first payment due by April 20. Revenues could reportedly total $540,000 in 2012.
And Vallejo needs it. In 2008, the city became the largest in California history to declare bankruptcy, laying off 60 of its 155 cops, according to reports. Prostitutes from all over the West descended on the former state capital in 2011, spawning "squat brothels" in foreclosed homes and pimp fights on citizens' lawns. Vallejoans have since gotten a handle on the problem and have turned to dispensaries for an infusion of tax revenue.
But without local regulations, some clubs are generating complaints, Vallejo Police Lieutenant Ken Weaver told Bay City News. "We're taking a more aggressive approach," he said.
Vallejo also is under the jurisdiction of Benjamin Wagner, US attorney for the Eastern District of California. Wagner said on February 28 that the four-month old war on dispensaries would go on. He has threatened a number of dispensary landlords in the Eastern District with forfeiture and initiated civil proceedings against a permitted club in Sacramento.
As for Happy Lil' Trees, it has created a safe, professional place with nice people, nice prices, and really nice cannabis. We can only hope its groovy, Bob Ross-vibes are never quashed.
"I can make this world as happy as I want it," Ross once said. "Shoot, if you want bad stuff, watch the news."