Turns out there’s nothing sketchy about buying weed any more.
Buying pot in the United States used to be a crapshoot: You’d call your dealer and take whatever strain he had on hand, without much semblance of quality control or selection. Even most early dispensaries were no-frills operations, with little more than four walls and a few shelves of product.
The times are a-changing, of course, and the slow creep of boring legitimacy has already begun its manifest destiny. As weed becomes more and more mainstream—now legal to varying degrees in 26 of the 50 states—the sketchier side of cannabis retail is being snuffed out to make room for hip, loungey clubs and Marlboro Greens on 7-Eleven shelves. These days, you can pick up your stash with a jaunt to the corner store, as easily as you would a bottle of wine, with police officers cheerily waving goodbye upon exit.
On the one hand, this is a good thing. Nobody should have to worry about getting robbed or going to jail for buying weed. On the other, do we really want to homogenize and sanitize pot the way we have with booze? Have we lost something from this wave of legitimization?
In Los Angeles, where I live, recreational marijuana became legal this week—meaning the gritty, shady dispensaries that are still left in the city will likely soon become shiny, trendy retail spaces. So I set out to see if I could find the last bastions of LA’s sketchy weed dispensaries before they disappear in a cloud of smoke.
Photos by Connie Ha
MARY JANE’S COLLECTIVE
I started the day at my local shop, Mary Jane’s Collective, in East Hollywood. It’s not necessarily a sketchy place, but this being my main re-up location, I figured I could count on the budtenders to recognize me well enough to lead me somewhere sketchier.
Upon arrival, I saw a backhoe digging up the front parking lot. Stepping over debris to get to the front door, I wondered if I had been going to a secretly sketchy shop all this time. But then I remembered that truly sketchy places don’t invest money into construction projects.
Inside, I asked one of the budtenders about the sketchiest dispensaries she knew. She leaned in and whispered that the dispensary across the street freaked her out. “There’s, like, Día de los Muertos skulls and a death cult place attached to it,” she warned. I thanked her for the tip by buying some THC-infused mints and crossed the street.
PAIN FREE SOCIETY OF CA
The neighboring shop was indeed adjacent to a Santa Muerte church, but I wasn’t sure that constituted sketchiness. Inside, a bleary-eyed guard in a Kevlar vest with a pistol holstered on his thigh greeted me, took my ID and marijuana card, and waved me into the waiting room. The walls were painted with cartoon characters that seemed a bit daycare for an industry catering to the 21+ crowd, but I guess cartoons and stoners go hand in hand
This place didn’t seem sketchy either, so I asked the guard where I might want to head next. He seemed genuinely concerned that if he sent me to “the ghetto,” he might be putting me at risk of bodily harm, but he finally acquiesced and grimly gave me some cross streets in south LA to look for my next destination.
South of the I-10 freeway, where I was headed next, is regarded as “the hood” by many of those who live north of that dividing line. But as we drove south, the only indicators of “hood” I saw were in the slight uptick of payday loan shops and homeless individuals.
Outside the stark black rectangle of a shop on Western Avenue, some guys in black jackets, who appeared to be security guards, were sharing a blunt. I chalked this up to more of a workplace violation than legit sketch activity.
Inside, 540 Collective was dark. Due to regulations requiring blacked out or covered windows, the lighting inside of dispensaries, including this one, is artificial and often dim. A few beams of natural light poked through cracks in the curtains and caught smoke in the air. Even still, the scene was more Renaissance painting than den of thieves.
I explained the task at hand to a woman helming the tiny speakeasy peephole of a sales window. She gave me new pair of cross streets, along with the Cinnamon Toast Crunch bar edible I’d purchased.
CALIFORNIA WELLNESS CENTER
Just a few minutes east, I walked into a similar looking dispensary called the California Wellness Center. The posters on the waiting room walls assured me that “good buds stick together.”
More metal doors, more buzzers, more barred windows, more drab interiors, more guards in Eazy-E-style security windbreakers. I was clearly not falling deeper and deeper into some sketch rabbit hole—instead, each new dispensary I visited was virtually indistinguishable from the last. The banal uniformity of each shop was starting to bum me out. Can sketchy shops even exist in a state where recreational pot is legal?
When I reached the counter, I bought some dealer’s choice bud to help me ruminate on that question and asked where I should head next. The guy sheepishly offered up yet another set of guesstimate cross streets and wished me luck in my journey.
The next dispensary had all the trappings of sketchiness on the outside—plywood behind shattered windows and minimal effort signage—but the inside was a disappointing step backward toward legitimate business and a crushing blow to my morale. Cute budtender girls, managers checking flower stocks, even receipts! I was back to the square one vibes of Mary Jane’s Collective. Had I already passed peak sketch?
METRO GREEN MEDS
Half an hour of driving later, I came to the unfortunate realization that the Inglewood location had vanished into the ether without a trace. This was getting frustrating. I had not indulged in any of my cannabis purchases over the day’s journey due to all the driving I needed to do. In short, I wasn’t nearly high enough for this.
I drove Downtown to hit the alternate shop as a Hail Mary final play.
Something felt off as soon as we arrived. The shop was located in the armpit of a freeway on-ramp and I had to circle around a one-way street to find parking at the back of the warehousey building in which the dispensary resided. Once parked behind a detached semi trailer, I stepped over trash, human feces, and a gnarled guardrail before making my way through a hole in a chain link fence to the shop entrance.
Inside, I began filling out enough paperwork to refinance a mortgage. The squareness of the mountain of paperwork was offset by the docile pitbull laying on the couch next to me, occasionally lapping at my hand.
The door to the back room suddenly opened and out walked the owner, Michael Federici, a tanned, middle-aged Italian man wearing a leather jacket and gold chains. He took off his sunglasses and greeted me like an old friend. Behind him lumbered a guy in a velour tracksuit.
I told Federici that I was here to find the sketchiest dispensary in LA. “Whoa! Sketchy?” he replied, and I wasn’t sure if he was feigning insult or was actually offended. He proceeded to give me the grand tour of his operation, telling me the skeletons of his past—opiate addiction and smuggling—along the way.
“I like to think I’m reclaiming a bit of my history by doing this,” he told me.
The bright, spacious, high-ceilinged room he sold from was a far cry from the poorly-lit sardine cans from earlier in the day. And though it may not have been a space intended for socializing, Federici made it feel as welcoming as any dive bar. That is, the kind of dive bar with a back room customers should never go into.
As the cashier packed up my discounted top shelf greens, I felt no need to ask for a next stop. The universe had already gifted me an experience so classically, cartoonishly sketchy that I don’t even blame those of you reading who don’t quite buy it.
It’s hard to find the sort of dubious charm offered by Federici and MGM; less a warning klaxon than a patina on a beloved pair of boots. In my heart, of course, I knew it to be a facade. There’s no getting around the fact that as the illegality of a product diminishes, so too does the sketchiness surrounding the circumstances of its sale.
But MGM, with its pitbulls, track-suited muscle, and character of an owner with a less-than-kosher background felt as close to earnestly sketchy as one could hope to find in 2016. Like a Westworld general store, the glints of danger lurked around each corner, but it was pretty clear that none of the bullets were meant to hurt me.