Hardly any new dispensaries have opened in San Francisco since recreational cannabis became legal last year. But one dispensary that did is an old friend from the earliest days of medical marijuana.
The Vapor Room was a Haight Street marijuana mainstay since 2004, one of the city’s original medical cannabis dispensaries. Although it was shut down in 2012 amid a federal crackdown on medical marijuana shops, it’s been reincarnated in a stylish new space at Ninth and Mission streets.
And just like at the original Vapor Room, you can legally blaze up inside the store.
“I’m really blessed and lucky to come back,” Vapor Room president Martin Olive tells SF Weekly, reminiscing on the 15-year-long, strange trip of one of San Francisco’s O.G. dispensaries.
When the Vapor Room first opened in 2004, there were only about half a dozen dispensaries in town. These were plastic-furniture-and-folding-table operations that did not resemble the upscale, boutique dispensaries we see today.
Olive decked out the original Vapor Room at Haight and Steiner with vintage 1970s lounge furniture. “It had that stoner-uncle’s-basement sort of a vibe,” he tells us.
“There would be some 80-year-old lady whose doctor gave her a medical cannabis recommendation, getting a joint passed to her by some 25-year-old Lower Haight kid with his hat on backwards and baggy pants.”
Back then, it was perfectly legal to get high inside a dispensary, and the Vapor Room lived up to its name by providing in-store vaporizers for smoking out. The strict permit and regulation requirements of today did not yet exist.
“If you found a willing landlord, you were set to go,” Olive says.
That changed in 2012, when a Justice Department crackdown on California medical marijuana shops threatened the closure of the Vapor Room, plus other Bay Area cannabis hotspots like Oaksterdam, Harborside, and Shambhala.
By then there were marijuana rules and regulations, but San Francisco’s earliest cannabis laws were short-sighted. Permits were tied to street addresses and not to business owners, making it all but impossible for dispensaries targeted by the DOJ to reopen.
“If your landlord evicted you because you received a letter from the DOJ, or if your building burned down, or any of a number of problems that could happen with the space, that permit could not be moved to another location,” Olive explains.
The Vapor Room lost its location, and its Haight Street permit went up in smoke.
“When we shut down, the liquor stores, bars, sandwich shops, and clothing stores all said, ‘Those 300 people you brought to the neighborhood every day, they’re not coming here anymore,’ ” Olive says. “Everyone saw a dip in sales.”
He was determined to reopen a brick-and-mortar Vapor Room store, but it would take nearly seven years. The Planning Department shot down his 2015 request to resurrect the shop at Geary and Larkin streets. So the Vapor Room set its sights on a vacant Ninth Street spot that had long been a nondescript sandwich-and-bagel shop called Coffee Mine.
“It was in serious disarray,” he laughs. “There was black mold, there was a lot of stuff going on.”
But Vapor Room had one big advantage over other aspiring dispensary applicants. Since it applied for its new medical marijuana permit in 2016, the permit request was already in the pipeline before the Board of Supervisors passed an onerous set of dispensary regulations in late 2017. This allowed the Vapor Room to sidestep rules that have prevented any new dispensaries from being approved last year.
Admittedly, the new Vapor Room is tiny compared to its previous iteration. But Olive collaborated with designers from Divisadero Street gallery The Perish Trust to create an airy, open space that never requires customers to stand in a line.
“I didn’t want to replicate the original Vapor Room,” he says. “We came up with this bodega-style idea where people can shop at their leisure.”
You can also smoke at your own leisure, as the new Vapor Room has one of San Francisco’s few on-site cannabis consumption permits. So go ahead and pass that joint to the 80-year-old lady next to you.
The Vapor Room, 79 Ninth St., 415-626-2100 or vaporroom.com