It’s unlikely that the architect who designed a mortuary and chapel for the corner of Telegraph Ave. and 30th Street a century ago imagined that the building would one day become one of Oakland’s more popular cannabis dispensaries.
Three years after launching on a quiet stretch at KONO's northern edge, Telegraph Health Center now employees 35 people, mostly locals. “At all times, anywhere from 85 to 87 percent of my staff are Oakland residents,” said general manager Helen Cobb.
“It was important when we opened our club that we honored and acknowledged this community,” she added.
Cobb started her cannabis career about a decade ago as a grower in the Emerald Triangle, the nexus of Northern California’s pot industry. “I was vending up there to various clubs and got to know a few of the folks."
“I eventually started talking business with them and found that they were lacking some business sense."
After managing dispensaries in Santa Rosa and Sonoma, she worked at Oakland Organics for nearly five years before opening THC with others in August 2014. Cannabis growers and distributors have a strong sense of community, said Cobb, which is a boon in an industry that’s in a gray legal area.
“There’s certainly always the cloud of the federal government considering us a criminal,” said Cobb, “which makes banking a little bit more of a challenge than in most industries.”
Without access to normal merchant accounts, dispensaries can’t accept credit cards and must handle large amounts of cash. Additionally, their employees can’t receive direct deposits and have limited access to payroll services.
“If we have a bank in place, we have to be very discreet with them about what we do for a living when we go in and work with them,” said Cobb. “It definitely creates an air of discomfort from a business standpoint.”
Although Cobb was unfamiliar with the city’s plans to study the prospect of creating a public bank with Richmond and Berkeley that would, among other things, offer the cannabis industry better access to financial services, she said the idea was “very interesting.”
“There’s a great deal of above-board and below-board competition that makes life very interesting for us,” Cobb said. “Not that competition isn’t fabulous, but not everyone abides by the same laws. So for those of us that do, it’s important that we abide by the structure that’s set before us.”
There’s plenty of room within the guidelines, said Cobb, “so it always saddens me when I see people push that border.”
Cobb said dispensary operators are bonded by being outsider entrepreneurs. “We’re all patients, so we all need places to medicate safely and get together and have a good time, but on a professional level, we understand how hard we’ve all fought to get to this place.”
To engage with the community, THC is a First Fridays sponsor “because we’re right here on the edge of the event,” said Cobb. The dispensary also partners with food banks and the veterans’ service nonprofit Swords to Plowshares, in addition to working directly with cancer patients to supplement their treatment.
“We’re working with city council members and folks who have specific needs, so the community can bring those ideas to us,” Cobb said. “We’re open to lots of things.”
Legal recreational marijuana will bring momentous changes to the industry, said Cobb, but the way forward is still unclear.
“We will no longer have vendors who are able to to come to us during open business hours that we can choose from — there’s going to be more of a distribution chain.” Whether THC will sell medical and recreational pot out of the same facility or open a spinoff, “I just don’t know yet what our model is going to be,” she said.
“It’s a very uncertain industry, just because of the basics, but now we have a brand-new administration in the White House that every day we’re hearing something different coming out of there,” noted Cobb.
“And then we have California laws. There’s a lot of things in play right now,” she said.
Telegraph Health Center (510-808-5121) is located at 3003 Telegraph Ave. and is open from 10–8.