Pico Boulevard, 2013 is, at the moment, a work in progress.
It’s after 6 p.m., and workers have left the middle of the median mid-construction. Work will recommence tomorrow, early.
On this block of Pico, east of Fairfax, there are at least two medical marijuana dispensaries. My consort and I learn this after walking through the front doors of one of them. A man, either pulling on or pulling off his boots, looks up nonchalantly from a couch. Before I can determine what exactly I’m looking at, a security guard steps in front of us.
“We’re looking for Tony,” my consort says.
“No, no Tony here.”
And finally, because we are, uh, professionals: “Are we at The Natural Way?”
“No. That’s further down.”
We thank him and leave. The Natural Way of L.A. is two doors down. We press the ringer and get buzzed in.
Of the estimated 1000-1500 medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles, this shop is one of the 135 technically still allowed to run. Proposition D, passed by citizens of Los Angeles in May, was meant to scale back to only those operations that were open prior to a 2007 moratorium. I have seen storefronts of numerous dispensaries around Los Angeles and admired or smirked at their names—“Field of Greens,” “Green Kiss,” “LA Kush,” “The Green Mile”—but it’s unclear which ones are a part of the select 135.
A small lobby with a counter and sliding window is the first thing we see. Behind the sliding door, the face of our friend, Tony, appears, and we are allowed into what seems to be the dispensary’s inner chamber.
Framed covers of Star Trek books and albums, like The Robot Masters and A Mirror of Futility are set on one wall. An autographed photo of William Shatner is placed between two of the covers. It looks to have been taken sometime during the ‘80s. In this context, The Time Stealer—another cover on the wall—seems like an odd joke on Mr. Shatner.
As we chat with Tony about business, I touch the bamboo and fichus (both fake) next to a pleasantly burbling fountain, and ponder a HEPA unit that looks like it’s seen better days. It emits a loud roar over the fountain as though insisting it’s still up to the job.
Up until now, I have never stepped foot inside a dispensary. The dispensaries I visit subsequently remind me that each has its own culture; a semiotics that might be difficult to ascertain if one is not familiar with weed culture at large.
To enter The Natural Way you buzz yourself in and are allowed entrance (or not), depending on how your “energy” is assessed by the staff. If you seem okay, you’re allowed through into another set of doors, the inner chamber where we currently stand. The Economist magazine (the subscriber’s address blacked out with marker) is your biding-time materials. A stack of magazines rests on an end table between two mismatched chairs. Display cases offer healing cream, hemp shampoo, rolling papers (both organic and not), and vaporizers. Digital marquees on the wall boast lollipops, honey sticks, granola bars, and tea, along with separate headings for wax and hash. A corner shelf holds hats advertising the dispensary, as well as Mark Haskell Smith’s Heart of Dankness.
Tony eats dinner, delivered through the sliding door, while we walk around the shop examining the wares. Philly-born, Tony is both soft-spoken and brash. He works alone this night, accompanied by surveillance cameras with screens mounted directly above the first counter. I can see the sidewalk outside, the spot where we stand, and other locations around the building. Tony tells us the police were in recently.
“They came in, asking to see the surveillance video,” he says. “Someone got mugged down the street so they were checking everyone’s surveillance. I asked them when they were gonna start shutting down the illegal dispensaries.”
Certainly this would help business. If the illegal dispensaries were shut down, it would leave just 135 total in the city. Business would explode. I ask if they ever go to any of the conventions, my mind flashing on the billboards and flyers around Los Angeles—HEMPCON and KUSH EXPO pushing their way into the spots usually reserved for ADULT CON and TATTOO & BODY ART EXPO.
He shakes his head. “Nah. We’re working, paying the bills… down the road, though.”
Over the course of an hour and a half a handful of customers are buzzed in, folks Tony is familiar with. He explains our presence to them. “They’re here to write an article.”
“For what publication?” one man asks. He doesn’t appear suspicious or ashamed. He’s just conversational, and has a bright, frank openness.
“McSweeney’s,” I say.
“Oh! Great publication!” he says and wishes me luck.
While customers meet with Tony over the glass counter of accoutrements and other marijuana-related products, I examine the two pieces of art closest to the inner chamber door. “Made of roaches,” Tony explains when he sees us looking at it closely. The two images, one of a sacred heart, the other a detail replica of from the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, are entirely composed of unwrapped rolling papers, the last bit of a joint smoked almost to the quick.
I ask Tony about the sticker I noticed out front on the window—UFCW LOCAL 770. “This is a union shop? There are unions for pot workers?”
“Yeah, same as food workers,” Tony says. In fact, UFCW boasts 30,000 members from retail food, meat, drug stores, packinghouses, food processing plants, pharmacies, laboratories, barbers, beauticians, and, apparently, “green” pharmacies.
After mulling over products I’ve never heard of, let alone seen before (liquid cannabis, fat-free and sugar-free bagel bites, and a device used to shred weed), I gather a postcard advertising the world’s largest cannabis strain resource, the shop’s business card, and a shop bumper sticker. We joke that we’ll put the sticker on the back of our daughter’s plastic car, a spot where, at the last Pride Parade in West Hollywood, some happy fairies stuck a COEXIST sticker courtesy of Dr. Bronner’s, which we eventually peeled off.
As we get ready to leave I notice a small silver dish near the fake bamboo and fountain.
“What’s this for?” I ask. I have images of water used as an energy cleanser, or to provide humidity in an arid environment.
“It’s for dogs,” Tony says. “We’re dog friendly.”
The culture of the neighborhood—a mixture of single-family homes, charming duplexes, and apartment buildings, with Little Ethiopia just blocks away—would suggest that you should provide water for dogs. Indeed, there is a doggie “eco-wash” just steps from the marijuana dispensary.
The question DO YOU KNOW THE WAY? is printed on the dispensary’s business card. It suggests that this establishment is The Way, or part of the way, on this unassuming stretch of Pico Boulevard, where you can buy groceries at a chain supermarket, score on discounted women’s clothes, get your furniture refinished, and stop for an overpriced coffee.
And, with the right documentation, you can also get your green meds, dog in tow.