The Apothecarium dispensary review: The Castro’s one-stop weed shop
If you look out from the second-floor perch of 194 Church St., the original home of California’s first dispensary and the birthplace of cannabis legalization, you can make out the outsized face of Harvey Milk, The Castro’s hometown hero. A series of Warhol-esque, large-format prints depicting his face hang in the windows of The Apothecarium, a long-running Bay Area dispensary chain.
The Apothecarium’s Castro location feels authentically San Franciscan, with nods to the deep history of the neighborhood, but, in reality, the once family owned business has become the poster child for Canada’s rapid acquisition of American cannabis businesses.
When Canada became the second country to legalize marijuana on a national level (behind Uruguay) last summer, maple leaf money flooded the US market. Today, some of America’s most recognizable brands are funded by that other North America.
The owners of Apothecarium, still a community-oriented shop, sold to a publicly traded Canadian cannabis corporation called Terrascend in 2017. Ryan Hudson stayed on as CEO along with other founding members, showing little sign of corporate influence. Wherever the money is coming from, the shop’s community ethos remains.
In addition to the portraits of Milk in the window, the 5,200 square-foot showroom is covered in pride decorations for the month of June. A small gallery space dedicated to Mark Estes, a local artist who died of AIDS in 1991, serves as a reminder that legalization was born out of a need to treat victims of the AIDS epidemic. On its website, The Apothecarium proudly displays the logos of the many local organizations it has given money to since the shops inception in 2011.
The first thing you’ll notice when you walk in -- aside from the massive front desk -- is the sheer size of the space. Vaulted ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows exaggerate the already expansive open layout. Stepping into The Apothecarium feels like walking into a CB2 catalog. Marble countertops, gold-and-glass display cases, and matte black light fixtures lend a modern, but homie aesthetic to what could easily feel like a big box store for weed. Like those big box stores, The Apothecarium is attempting to be a consumer catchall. Just to the left of the front desk, there are books on cultivation, handmade ceramic pipes, designer lighters, and all of the Apothecarium merch you can stomach.
A long, marble counter fills the back of the room with large, book-bound menus dotting its surface. Like the shop itself, the menu is sprawling and thorough. The store’s dedication to helping casual consumers and patients find just the right product is clear. The staff is friendly, knowledgeable, and professional (see: not so stoned they can barely see), a shocking rarity in an industry with so many complexities. Our budtender gave us an overview of the menu and steered us toward a number of high THC strains with citrus notes, at our request, offering lessons in dosage laws and sun grown vs. indoor cultivation along the way. She explained the differences between gel caps and tinctures and let us peep the buds before we purchased. The Apothecarium has everything you could want -- a solid selection of vapes, flower, extracts, and edibles -- and probably a few things you’ve never heard of.
Judging from our visit, The Apothecarium has service on lock. We walked out with far more than we’d intended, contemplating a second purchase as we headed for the door, a testament to the shop’s sales staff and disturbingly effective merchandising.
What else would you expect from a pair of compulsive shoppers in a one-stop weed shop?
Our final haul included an eighth of Intergalactic Magic, a Sativa-dominant hybrid from Flow Kana, a pre-roll from Canndescent, and a cold brew from Somatik. We had to talk ourselves out of buying a brand new ceramic bong and a book on home cultivation.
According to CEO Ryan Hudson, the idea for The Apothecarium came to him while waiting in line at a medical dispensary long before recreational cannabis was on the agenda. Both he and the elderly women in-front of him found themselves confused and overwhelmed by the wall of weed in front of them.
“That was my ‘lightbulb moment’ — when I decided to create a dispensary where she could find quality cannabis and also the information and support she needed to use it safely and effectively, in a welcoming, non-judgemental environment.”
You can certainly find the products you want here, and with plenty of information to boot — the store offers weekly educational workshops and prides itself on extensive employee training — but there’s something almost too polished and effective about the retail experience. Stay here long enough and you’ll get the sense that you’re just a fixture in a staged living room, decorated to make you spend. The creep of corporate influence isn’t immediately obvious here, but this a money making enterprise after all, and a meticulously merchandised one, at that. This might be the only dispensary in SF with a gallery named after a gay man who died of AIDS, but it’s also the place that once offered discounts to deep-pocketed engineers, lawyers, and CEOs to attract business to its SOMA location.
If you’re looking to shop local, you might want to look elsewhere. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a dispensary with massive selection and a history of community engagement, by all means, make yourself at home.