LADY BUSINESS: San Francisco’s Apothecarium

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PHOTO: San Francisco’s Apothecarium is located at 2095 Market Street in San Francisco.

In the early 1990s, Dennis Peron opened the first medical marijuana dispensary on the corner of Church and Market in San Francisco’s historic Castro District, a cultural and political center for the world’s LGBT community as well as a hotbed for political civil rights activism.

Dennis Peron and Harvey Milk, Castro resident and first openly-gay person elected to public office in the nation. Milk was a staunch advocate for marijuana law reform and an advocate for the gay community.

Dennis Peron and Harvey Milk, Castro resident and first openly-gay person elected to public office in the nation. Milk was a staunch advocate for marijuana law reform and an advocate for the gay community.

Peron had served a tour of duty in Vietnam and returned with marijuana seeds. Shortly thereafter, the AIDS crisis hit the nation and was especially catastrophic in the Castro. Peron saw how cannabis eased the suffering of his partner and friends as they died from AIDS. He opened the marijuana dispensary to create safe access with a complete disregard of the legal implications of breaking Federal, and at the time, State law. Although local San Francisco police left the dispensary alone, the state intervened and enforced Federal law. Peron went on to co-author Proposition 215, the first medical marijuana law in the nation and the catalyst for today’s legalization movement.

“Dennis took the DIY approach, he said ‘let them bust me in San Francisco for helping these thousands of suffering patients’ during the heat of the AIDS epidemic,” says Ed Rosenthal.

It is on this historic corner where the best, albeit not the largest or flashiest, dispensary in San Francisco exists. The tradition of community compassion is integral to the business model at The Apothecarium. It’s not your typical ‘pot shop,’ no loud music or buds n’ babes posters. Rather, The Apothecarium has a unique, classy living room vibe where all patients can feel comfortable having a straightforward conversation with their patient consultants.

And that is one of the key elements that makes them different: they don’t have budtenders, which is a play on the word “bartender”, and let’s all remember alcohol is a legal recreational drug. They have patient consultants, who speak easily on a personable level to the patient—many who are new to the world of medical marijuana—about how to pick the medicine that works best for them, how to use it and how to track personal progress with the medicine. It is also a stand-up role model for community engagement in the industry: The Apothecarium runs a variety of programs to assist the community’s homeless, sick or otherwise needy. They even offer a discount on medicine in exchange for donations to programs they support.

Ladybud sat down on a beautiful hot afternoon in the garden of a neighborhood café with Alexandra Butler and Sara Payan, two of the wonderful patient consultants at The Apothecarium.

Sara Payan and Alexandra Butler, patient consultants at San Francisco’s Apothecarium

Sara Payan and Alexandra Butler, patient consultants at San Francisco’s Apothecarium

LADYBUD MAGAZINE: What inspired the patient-consultant model?

SARA PAYAN: I started my journey with medical marijuana when I was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer. I am two years into remission. Even before I was diagnosed I was really ill and medical marijuana helped keep me from getting sick. I had a blockage the size of a lemon in my colon. It’s not fun stuff. I went to many different dispensaries and had trouble finding a place that worked for me. Patients need an atmosphere where they can ask a lot of questions without feeling like they are doing something bad, or being generally uncomfortable. Going to the Apothecarium as a patient was different because I felt I could ask questions and I was welcome. That was one of the main tenets when it opened, that someone’s mother could come in with a scarf on her head and feel comfortable and safe. We really try to uphold that and support our patients the best way possible.

LB: Which is why it’s such a great unique place, you don’t really find that everywhere.

ALEXANDRA BUTLER: There are a lot of different models out there for medical marijuana dispensaries and collectives and ours is to try to be compassionate. All of us are really invested in medical marijuana and what it does, the different strains. We get teased about being the geeks of the dispensary. In terms of our patient consultant model, it’s demand-based. We have all taken it upon ourselves to learn as much as possible [about our medicine] so we can give our patients reliable information in a really effective way. I know a lot of our patients really do have a lot of questions they need answered. They are completely new to medical marijuana and maybe they don’t want to smoke or eat an edible. There are so many different ways to use marijuana as a medicine, or ways to do it without the psychoactive effects.

LB: When you say “without the psychoactive effects,” I think outside the medical marijuana world that is a completely foreign concept to the average American. Can you explain what that is?

AB: Topicals [lotions, salves, sprays] can be applied anywhere on the body where you are feeling pain. Recent research has shown they are more effective than inhaled cannabis to control pain. For me I think they are really effective, a lot of women like to use them for menstrual cramps.

SP: We carry high-CBD lozenges and flowers [marijuana buds]. We also have three different tinctures: one that is a high CBD, another that is a 50/50 with CBD and THC and another that is a high THC. That is something more and more people are getting really excited about—the non-psychoactive therapeutic effects.

LB: And yes, whether or not you like to use marijuana recreationally, if you are using marijuana as a medicine you don’t necessarily want to be “stoned” all the time. Not everyone enjoys that effect either.

SP: You have to be functional and comfortable to live life.

LB: Do you find this model attracts a different crowd?

SP: We get people from all walks of life, but a difference is we don’t medicate on site.

AB: We are in the Castro, it is super diverse here. We staunchly support gay rights. When we do our intake process, we respect gender diversity and find out what pronoun our patients want us to use. We want to make everyone comfortable here. We are respectful of everyone and I think that plays a major role in the atmosphere inside.

LB: In fighting the Drug War, we are really fighting a battle for public opinion. You are in a historically gay community and on the edge of a very wealthy neighborhood. How do you think the image you have created affects the opinion of your neighbors?

AB: I feel like we are preaching to the choir in our neighborhood. A lot of people here have fought for civil rights, gay rights. We have a lot of people in the community who are veterans of the AIDS crisis and do a lot to continue to fight for us.

LB: Another great thing about The Apothecarium is you have compassionate pricing.

SP: We really make it a point to be accessible. People need to be able to afford their medicine when they are ill. There are so many people who get sick and they aren’t insured, they can’t pay for medications through pharmacies. I mean, a lot of the medicines you could get [in pharmaceutical form] could really be replaced with cannabis. When I had cancer, I was given anti-nausea drugs. They were several hundred dollars apiece, which my insurance partially paid. The pills helped my nausea but they made me sick in other ways.  I was able to actually forego that by using cannabis. I was spending a lot of money for something that was going to tax my liver.

LB: ‘Budtender’ is usually a male profession. How do you feel it is different

being a woman in this role?

Sara Payan and Alexandra Butler, patient consultants at San Francisco's Apothecarium display the extensive menu and variety of cannabis flowers.

Sara Payan and Alexandra Butler, patient consultants at San Francisco’s Apothecarium display the extensive menu and variety of cannabis flowers.

SP: I think that people are used to seeing women behind the bar who don’t know very much about medical marijuana.

AB: Or you just don’t see women at all.

SP: Right, you don’t see a lot of women, period. I know a lot of our patients feel it’s nice to have women behind the bar, too. Especially for older women, some people only want to speak with us when they come in.

LB: Even many younger women don’t necessarily want to deal with the “bro culture” in a lot of dispensaries. They like to tell you how you will get the most stoned, but that isn’t what everyone wants in a dispensary.

AB: If I walk in wearing sweatpants, clearly un-showered and I just want to know how I can get rid of these cramps…

LB: And of course they would know nothing about that.

AB: Right.

SP: (laughs).

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Getting a closer look at the flowers.

AB: All of us have different reasons for having our medical marijuana cards. If you say, “I have IBS and this really helps with my stomach” then your consultant can pick up on that information and convey it to patients with similar problems.

SP: We encourage our patients to journal the effects and share with us; the more they tell us, the more we learn and the better we are at helping them find what works for them.

LB: You also have other programs, Patient Wellness Programs and research programs. Can you tell me more about that?

AB: For us, assessing the affordability of medicine to our patients and how connected they feel to the services we try to offer– like the Patient Wellness Groups,  [is key to our model]. If you enroll with one of our wellness groups (like yoga, meditation and anxiety and depression support groups), you get a coupon that gives you the staff discount, or 20% off the suggested donation of your medicine.

I got my start in researching these types of programs in college. I have been doing a lot of research and have been trying to develop a patient’s needs assessment to determine what resources are available in their community. I am a really big research nerd. There is nothing out there like [the research I get to do at The Apothecarium]. I went to graduate school at New York University (NYU) and I did a syringe access research project while I was there. It was really rewarding. I want to make sure people have safe access and I think people should have the benefit of safe access [to substances they are going to use]. Cannabis, however, is completely safe and [community based research] can give it a positive image.

LB: How did you find your way to marijuana?

AB: My mom used it to treat her COPD, she passed away a couple years ago. I have Spina Bifida and I just… I don’t like pain pills. Marijuana is much better for me. I grew up where it was pretty accepted.

SP: I grew up in Michigan. My mother is a cancer researcher and before that she was an oncology nurse. I always knew the medical benefits of cannabis and nausea in cancer patients. It was criminalized where we were, if you had a roach in your ashtray you would go to jail for it, there is still that stigma attached to it there that doesn’t exist here. It was really a breath of fresh air to move here, to the Bay Area. I came here in 1996, I was here for the passage of Prop 215 and it was really exciting.

After I had cancer, I really wanted the opportunity to work with patients the way the Apothecarium worked with me. It’s been a really good experience. I am going back to school now to get a graduate degree in Organizational Psychology. So many people are interested in the interaction with marijuana in the field. I have had really good conversations with people about how to get [aging family members] to try cannabis instead of pharmaceuticals in a way that won’t conflict with their religious or personal beliefs.

LB: It is really cool to see more women like you doing this kind of work.

SP: There are some really cool women that are involved. I wish more women would educate themselves and get involved in the movement. WE NEED WOMEN. We have loved reading Ladybud and hearing from more women like us, it is really exciting. The website is really smart.

AB: You guys are like Jezebel, with more weed.