How to Navigate the New World of Cannabis 

At 7 Stars Holistic Healing Center in Richmond, it's all about educating customers.

Since the New Year, cannabis dispensaries have been open to the general adult public, which means that many people are visiting their local pot shop for the first time or for the first time in years. And what they're finding is a whole new, glittering and confusing world of cannabis, filled with hundreds of choices.

Dispensary employees are now introducing newbies to cannabis and its many forms so customers can find the products that best suit their needs. Fortunately, Bay Area dispensaries have a long tradition of working with people with little knowledge about cannabis or which products are going to be best for them.

"We put a high value on education," said Zee Handoush, executive director of 7 Stars Holistic Healing Center in Richmond. "We try to understand what the patients and customers' needs are and then do our best to not only get them what they need but also help them get a full understanding of why that particular product will be helpful to them."

Providing information about cannabis and its medical value is one of the most important services 7 Stars provides, Handoush said. He offers regular seminars tailored for specific groups, such as veterans, Parkinson's patients, and seniors. "We recently held a product information day here and 80 vendors came in to talk to patients," said Handoush. "The vendors did not sell anything or give away any gifts — just education. We had 800 people show up — city councilmembers, city administrators — it was a huge success."

It's particularly important for patients dealing with debilitating symptoms from serious illnesses to understand which products can make their lives easier or how cannabis might allow them to reduce their use of powerful pharmaceuticals that often have unwanted side effects.

Jay Marcelli (not his real name), a 65-year-old artist who for 15 years has been dealing with worsening symptoms of multiple sclerosis, said he likes gummy edibles, but now, on the advice of his budtender, he saves money by baking his own brownies with a cannabis-infused coconut oil. "They've been so helpful to me," Marcelli said. "I haven't been able to work for seven years, and they helped me find the most economical options."

There is also a new type of customer — those who like using cannabis recreationally and medically. Richmond residents Veronica Godinez, 26, and Casey Chesser, 24, have dual reasons for using cannabis. Godinez uses cannabis recreationally but also relies on it for back and joint pain and as a sleep aid. Godinez eats Kiva chocolate bars to help her sleep and uses Sweet Orloff cannabis topical creams for pain. "I wasn't reacting well to ibuprofen. I couldn't keep it down," Godinez said. "When I started looking at medical cannabis, there were a lot of options."

Chesser uses cannabis for anxiety and as a sleep aid, but she's primarily a recreational user. She is also keenly interested in cannabis marketing. "I like to keep track of new edibles and keep up with packaging, cool accessories, and the 'funness,'" said Chesser, who relies on knowledgeable budtenders to keep her up to date on the latest products. "How else will you know what's back there without a good budtender?"

The industry has changed a great deal since 2009 when 7 Stars opened. "Back then, nearly 100 percent of what we sold was flower. Now, it's about 40 percent. The rest is edibles, tinctures, topical creams, and infused bath salts," Handoush said. "So, there are a lot of choices."

Making a basic flower choice can be difficult. Some cannabis is grown outdoors, some indoor. Nearly all cannabis now sold in dispensaries is tested for pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers, so it can be considered "organic," but even in the organic category there are different philosophies: no-till, sustainable, etc.

The next thing is determining the strain. Customers have a variety of options depending on their needs, and cannabis comes in two basic types: sativa and indica. The sativa strains tend to have a strong uplifting high and are typically better for people who are suffering from depression or fatigue, while the indica strains are more relaxing and might be better if used for pain or insomnia.

Strains high in Cannabidiol, or CBD, have little or no psychoactive effects and are good for people looking to treat seizures, anxiety, and pain. And customers can choose from products that combine one or more strains. These days, the strain rations are all printed on the packaging. "The common thing is sleep disorders," Handoush said, referring to customers of 7 Stars. "We all have stress in our lives and that causes sleeplessness, and without sleep little problems begin to show, aches, pains, and sometimes much more serious issues."

Finally, there are different levels of potency, ranging from 5 mg of THC — the psychoactive molecule in cannabis — all the way up to medical-use-only concentrated tinctures that contain 1,200 mg (which breaks down to about 40 mg per eye droplet). In terms of flowers, at dispensaries, the percentage of THC ranges from 5 percent to as high as 30 percent. Under California's new regulations, which went into effect on Jan. 1, a single cannabis edible may contain no more than 10 mg of THC.

In fact, at 7 Stars, the most important thing that cannabis consultants try to determine is proper dosage. Dispensaries don't want new customers to have a bad experience that can come from ingesting too strong of a dose, because that may dissuade a person from coming back. "We have healthy, young football players who have a strong reaction to a 5 mg gummy and 90-year-old women who need a much higher dosage because their systems are used to strong pharmaceuticals," Handoush explained. "We usually recommend that new customers start off with a very low dosage — 5 mg — and then work their way up if needed."

After determining the strain and dosage needs, the next thing is the delivery method. For customers who have been heavy smokers, Handoush recommends edibles or vaping, which is a smoke-free method of inhaling. There is a huge selection of edible options that include baked goods, confections, ice cream, gummies, oils, nut butters, and honeys. "You have to be careful with edibles because the effects can be much stronger," warned Handoush, who samples all edibles that 7 Stars sells so he can better inform his customers.

There are also a host of topical creams and even infused bath salts, which is one of the better ways to absorb cannabis. "A warm bath opens the pores, which is a good absorption method for sore muscles and tension," Handoush said.

Handoush said it is his responsibility to educate recreational customers who are just interested in getting high and partying. "Sometimes, if you ask them a few questions, they can rethink what why they are using cannabis," Handoush said. "If you press them a little and find out when they like using cannabis and what their mood is at that time, they can learn about themselves and that can help them understand more about cannabis and help them make the product choices best for them."

For Handoush, the industry is driven more by education than profits. "I am very blessed to have found something I really love to do, and what I love to do is educate." 

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