The Downward Dogs of the Drug War 

The best dispensaries offer free yoga, legal clinics, and even hyperbaric chamber therapy. Enjoy!

Imagine if the health-insurance industry's $15 billion in annual profits had to flow back to its customers in the form of free back rubs, yoga classes, and legal advice. This right-wing nightmare of hippie socialism isn't pure fiction. It's reality in at least one health-care sector: weed.

The federal tax code, California law, and guidelines established by former Attorney General Jerry Brown have molded many medical cannabis dispensaries into something akin to community health centers. Large, regulated clubs in the Bay Area and beyond must operate as nonprofits, discharging net revenue in the form of patient services. The best ones go nuts with the concept.

Harborside Health Center in Oakland, for example, has free yoga, massage, and various talk-therapy classes. San Francisco Patient Resource Center offers free meditation classes, legal advice, and jazz nights. Even at Hercules Health Center in the East Bay, patients can see a chiropractor or, better yet, try out the dispensary's hyperbaric chamber.

Yup. Hercules Health Center has a hyperbaric chamber — a human-size capsule that can be pressurized to levels many times higher than the Earth's atmosphere. Such chambers are primarily used to treat decompression sickness, gangrene, and carbon monoxide poisoning. Since there's not that many medical weed-using scuba divers with gangrene and CO poisoning, we're guessing it's used for other illnesses, from multiple sclerosis to migraines.

We had twice heard about Hercules Health Center's chamber, so we decided to take a drive. Twenty minutes north of Oakland, up Highway 80, the town of 20,000 is easy to overlook. Hercules Health Center embraces that vibe. Just off of John Muir Parkway, the popular dispensary is invisibly ensconced in the back of a generic medical office park.

You can't even smell weed in the crisp, air-conditioned hallways of the two-story warren. But in the back corner of 500 Alfred Nobel Drive, in Suite 195, a chiropractor's office door was open, and Hercules Health Center staff guided new patients through intake. Return visitors checked in with a smile. A UPS guy dropped off a delivery with a grin.

Behind the reception desk, club specialists conduct thirty-minute massages on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1-6 p.m. The chiropractor is in Thursdays, 1-6 p.m. Oxygen therapy and the hyperbaric therapy is available every day after 1 p.m.

Since we didn't have the bends, and it wasn't 1 o'clock yet, we didn't get a session in the chamber, though we've heard good things. Next door, Hercules Health Center takes the chiropractor's office feel and adds some weed. Rasta clothing and jewelry is for sale, and two counters sport the club's selection of edibles, concentrates, and three tiers of flowers. The place is cool, clean, well-lit, and quiet. Strong air conditioning eliminates any odors.

Which brings us to the weed: lab-tested, pricey, and limited. Top-shelf eighth-ounces are $60. Ouch. A 20-percent-off new patient discount brings a bag to $48 — cash-only with an ATM on-site. Another ouch. The club rewards early birds with a free pre-roll for visiting 10 a.m. to noon, but the joint is made of club shake.

The top-shelf is legit, though. They had exemplary cuts of the Bay Area's in-vogue hybrid, XJ-13, which mixes hit sativa Jack Herer and mysterious indica G-13. We saw Ken Estes' GDP, but the club's Blueberry OG had the best nose. Reeking of berry, the big, dark, dense, resiny NorCal knock-out strain has been in development since the Seventies. It relaxes muscles, quells anxiety, and stirs appetite. Will cause drowsiness.

With Berkeley Patients Group closed, thousands of East Bay patients are fanning out and some are ending up at satisfied at Hercules Health Center. Weedmaps.com gives it 4.5 out of 5 stars on 106 reviews. The club even throws in a free bottle of "Xternal," a topical cannabis spray.

The roughly two-year-old dispensary is a union shop under the UFCW Local 5 and a member of the Hercules Chamber of Commerce. It also seems to be operating despite a 2006 city ban. Amid the raids in Oakland and protests in Sacramento, Hercules Health Center has seemingly been overlooked, for now. The infuriating reality is that the biggest, most well-regulated clubs — the ones with the most free services — have been targeted first by the feds.

Seeds & Stems

A California bill to regulate dispensaries statewide passed a huge hurdle, Thursday, May 31, when it cleared the state assembly. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano's bill to create a seed-to-sale permit system for medical pot now heads to the state senate for debate in June and July. Patient groups like Americans for Safe Access lobbied heavily for the legislation. They believe more statewide regulation will assuage US attorneys, who are raiding and seizing dispensaries and farms. Colorado's much tighter medical marijuana program has drawn less federal ire than California's, activists note.

Berkeley Patients Group — the major East Bay dispensary closed by federal threats May 1 — has begun serving collective members as a delivery service. The club announced the restart of service with a letter to patients on May 29. Berkeley Patients Group is delivering seven days a week, and lists its menu online as well as in an app for smartphones. A number of persecuted dispensaries in the Bay Area have closed their doors and gone delivery-only since the federal crackdown began in October.

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