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San Francisco

Inside the Vapor Room

We’ve all walked past it. But for most people, what’s behind the doors of the members-only Vapor Room Cooperative is shrouded in a cloud of, well, mystery. Is it an exclusive art nouveau lounge? An unconventional medical clinic? A den of iniquity? We made a visit to the cannabis dispensary to, err, clear the air.


Before getting started, let’s get one thing straight: what goes down at the Vapor Room is legal in the State of California. Cannabis dispensaries have been up and running since a 2002 California Senate bill established the state’s medical marijuana program. (Everyone who uses the dispensary’s services, though, must have a valid doctor’s recommendation and CA identification.) Inside, the dispensary’s aesthetic is inspired by old-timey apothecaries, where up until a century ago cannabis was a common ingredient in over-the-counter tinctures and tonics. The street signage shows a hint of that era’s art nouveau stylings, which are echoed indoors with wall art and a large mural by SF artist Jeremy Fish (of Pink Bunny Statue fame). Many dispensaries don’t allow smoking onsite, but the Vapor Room’s custom HVAC system means members can medicate in the lounge, which resembles a low-key café: board games and books are stacked in shelving nooks, minnows circle inside a brightly lit aquarium, and a big-screen TV plays sports in the background.
Members sit at café tables and socialize while making use of the dispensary’s vaporizers (all, it was pointed out, Volcano brand — “the Mercedes of vaporizers.”) To use them, members flip a switch and vapor fills up a clear plastic balloon, roughly the size and shape favored by county fair kettle corn vendors. Once full, the bag is removed from the machine and the vapor inhaled through a mouthpiece. “It’s the healthiest way,” said one member. “You’re heating the medicine right off the leaf.” Past the lounge, business takes place from behind a long wooden bar, which showcases a variety of cannabis strains sold by the gram. Staff are on hand to help determine what type of herb is right for you, from Purple Urkle and Jilly Bean to Super Wreck and Blue Cheese. “The goal is to get to know people, so you know what’s right for them,” says manager Ray Nickson. “We’re like the Cheers of pot shops. It’s the place where everyone knows your name … but can’t remember it.”
As a quick reference tool, each strain is labeled with a red, yellow or green sticker: a “traffic light” system to indicate the effect of the drug. Green will get you going, yellow will slow you down, and red — one can assume — will bring you to a full and complete stop. For members who prefer to eat their THC, the counter also boasts a robust pantry of baked goods, teas, and specialties such as coconut butter, olive oil, peanut butter, honey, and chocolate milk.
“The Vapor Room Cooperative is a compassionate, community oriented dispensary,” says Martin Olive, the Vapor Room’s executive director, who notes that the Vapor Room is a member-owned cooperative with its own board of directors, member voting system, and nonprofit operations. “Our funds go back into providing better service for our members. It’s a closed-loop system that gives members and staff a sense of ownership.”
Martin Olive.
The cooperative is about quality medicine, says Olive, but it’s also about supporting the community and providing health and wellbeing services to members. And he’s not joking around. The Vapor Room’s free programs and services include:
  • Nutritional counseling
  • Computer skills workshops
  • Peer counseling
  • Activist training
  • Chair massage 3 times a week
  • Fresh organic fruit
  • Compassionate cannabis as needed
  • Yoga 3 times a week at the Harvey Milk Recreational Arts Center (“This class is also open to the Lower Haight Community,” says Olive. “No medical cannabis experience required!”
Is that all? “We have a few new exciting programs in the works as well,” says Olive.
For members, too, it’s not all about the cannabis. “Part of the medical process is socializing, just getting out of your apartment,” said one member. “I feel privileged to have a place like this to come to. It’s healing.” A woman sharing his vapor bag said that for some people, this may be the only social interaction they have. “When you come and sit down, there’s always a conversation or a game of chess. You have something in common. It’s part of the medicine.” One member has been living with AIDS for 24 years. “To vaporize takes time,” he said. “You have to sit down and relax. It offers a social opportunity. You don’t always have to do it alone, at home, feeling like a drug addict. It’s a blessing.”
Art by Jeremy Fish.
The Vapor Room is open 7 days a week, from 11am to 8pm. For more information, visit www.vaporroom.com, or follow the Vapor Room on Twitter @vaporroom.
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