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La Mesa as marijuana Mecca

The sales tax is low there

By shopping in La Mesa instead of SD proper, you’ll save a whopping $3.25 on a $100 purchase.
By shopping in La Mesa instead of SD proper, you’ll save a whopping $3.25 on a $100 purchase.

In the Middle East of San Diego County, there lies a kind of marijuana Mecca, a place to which pot pilgrims may peregrinate on a high hajj in their quest to elevate themselves — not through spiritual means, but rather, smokable. Or edible. The city of La Mesa — a modest county jurisdiction once known for its small businesses, community fairs, and historical atmosphere — is of late becoming known for its wide array of weed dispensaries. A quick run down the alphabet shows that this city of 60,000 is host to at least a dozen: BackpackBoyz, Cookies, Dr. Greenthumb’s, EMBR, The Grove, Hotbox, Jungle Boys, Lit, The Reserve, Urbn Leaf (two locations), and Wellgreens. The days of Spring Valley pop-up stores selling $5 grams and knockoff Chinese concentrate to high schoolers have been replaced by a reality where refined, adult shoppers are met with upscale LED signage, licensed lanyard-wearing consultants, brand diversity, and even a bill of sale. Stunningly, many of these places even take card.

The Editor, packed bowl surely in hand, sent word that he wanted me to look into the matter. He imagined a simple research assignment into this apparently atypical accumulation: I was to talk to owners, employees, customers, even local politicians. I chuckled excitedly, rocking back and forth in delight over the realization that I’d be able to re-up on the clock — so much so that the doobie pressed between my fingers released an ember that nearly burnt a hole in my shorts. I took another toke and asked myself: why so many stores? At first puff, La Mesa seemed an odd location for such a high concentration. It’s not a bad part of town, but seemed to me a strange patchwork quilt of Lakeside-style white trash and Downtown suits. What’s the market appeal? I needed answers like I needed more smoke, and found myself bored with playing the role of “Guy who mooches off of his girlfriend’s homegrown stash.” Evaluating the state of contemporary dispos would serve a dual purpose. Sensing I was too high to drive, I placed a call to my good friend and business confidant Newman, requesting that he be my chauffeur for the afternoon.

  • * * *

A light sprinkle peppered Newman’s windshield every few seconds, lingering for a moment before a dying wiper blade screeched its way across the glass and flung the drops down to the cement-scarred floor of Mission Valley. We crept along the I-8 East in a herd of traffic slowed by some dullard’s inability to drive with wet wheels. Then Newman’s force of habit asserted itself, and his RAV4 swung onto the State Route 125 South connection. He still remained in happy antiquity, and I realized I would have to break his heart. Reluctantly, I put Old Yeller down and told him that all our old pickup spots in Casa de Oro had vanished; against all odds, the house of gold had tarnished. A shake of his head was all he allowed himself, but I watched his eyes age a decade as he realized he’d witnessed an era come and go.

Newman used to chief heavily, but gave it up three years ago after a bad trip. He swears he met God, and that the deity — neither man nor woman, but merely an ethereal instance of thought — had told him to never smoke again. Thus, for him, La Mesa was virgin territory. I, however, was returning to a familiar routine. Before my prime romantic game earned me a lovely woman who grows bud, I was quite the regular at an establishment that epitomized this new breed of apothecary. The sort of place that made it undeservingly easy to get ganja, like going to a dentist and getting a dose of ether without him ever reaching for his drill.

Deprived of his habitual path, Newman set about providing us with a destination. His head repeatedly flicked between the road and the phone in his lap as I watched him navigate the App Store™. He pressed the screen in three-letter intervals between glances at the road: W-E-E, he scanned the highway, D-space-M, he checked his mirrors. Of course, a third volley of text wouldn’t be necessary.

“Try as I might to forget how much I smoked, the phone’s always gonna remember,” he said, shoving the phone in my face so that I could tap the re-download icon next to Weedmaps™.

“Focus on the road, you fuck,” I snapped, snatching his phone.

“Just find us a place where you can get your shit. Let’s get this over with. I ain’t tryna let weed waste another day of my life.”

I opened the app and a collection of stores on La Mesa’s quasi-industrial Center Street caught my eye. The tight grouping caught at the abnormality The Editor was after. I picked one of the stores at random and began directing Newman towards it. I was surprised they could exist so close to one another without competition driving all but one out of business. One might be set up within the shell of a forgotten auto body shop, and another might be housed in a pristine new stucco box, but whatever the cosmetic differences, surely the formula was the same?

  • * * *

The dispensaries popped into view like a seagull’s shit on blacktop as we started driving down Center. Newman, eager to be through with our adventure, didn’t wait to arrive at our scheduled destination, not when there was one closer to hand, and we heard screams from the rolled-down windows of an oncoming minivan as he haphazardly cut them off to enter the parking lot. The hum of his Toyota’s engine disappeared, and I was already an eager few paces from the car before I realized that I didn’t sense him following me. I doubled back and approached his window.

“C’mon, G, let’s get it,” I said, inviting him to come with me.

La Mesa is becoming known for its wide array of weed dispensaries. A quick run down the alphabet shows that this city of 60,000 is host to at least a dozen.

He refused to meet my eyes: “Nah, man, shit still freaks me out. I’ll be walking down the street and catch a whiff and start worrying I’ll freak. I ain’t tryna go into hell and accidentally meet the devil, nahmsayin?”

“A’ight, do your thing then.”

As I entered, I was greeted by the faux-friendly visage of a young blonde; the smile she flashed me came and went so quickly that I questioned whether or not it had been my imagination. Her beauty became more pronounced as I noticed its hired juxtaposition: a colossal guard in the corner. His gut was bigger than his gun, but both were intimidating. The blonde, now aloof, struggled to find the social second wind needed for eye contact as I handed her my ID.

“Returning?” she asked.

“Yeah. It’s been a minute.”

“Well, welcome back.” She giggled a bit — making it all the more obvious that she was currently enjoying the store’s inventory.

“Thanks. Today I’m actually writing an article about the DPs around here,” I spoke toward her tits, trying to impress them with the promise of journalistic practice.

“Really? That’s literally smart.”

She carefully pecked away at her keyboard while studying my ID. I wondered what sorts of things she found figuratively smart, but decided to curb my asshole tendencies and not harsh her buzz — or my chances with her in the future. Any girl getting high at work is one I’d like to get to know a little better.

After Colossus the Guard lazily swung a handheld metal detector about my waist, I was permitted to enter deeper into the business. Shelves paraded colorful brand signage at regular intervals around the inner walls of the store: STIIIZY, PLUG PLAY, Freeway, West Coast Cure. It wasn’t the diversity among available brands that impressed me, but rather, the diversity among the unnecessary bullshit that each section had to offer. Keychains, T-shirts, enamel pins — it seemed people would rather spend their money on anything except that which would better society. Then again, the people walking around flaunting their favorite brand on a hat are the same ones you see paying $45 a gram, and we shouldn’t expect too much from them.

In the center of the shop loomed a square perimeter of counter space, enclosing a slew of beautiful women. When one of the sirens behind the counter found herself free of interaction, she seductively called out the name of her next mark. A contrast became immediately apparent between the lovelies behind the counter and the overwhelming majority of customers: men, many of them of the greasy, stinky, or hefty variety. Every drug is an escape, and weed is no different.

I started a staring contest with the wall. After about five minutes, I lost; my concentration broken by the sound of my name being called. I found myself awash with anxiety as I realized I hadn’t prepped for my impending interview. Turning to face the counter, I was greeted by a short Latina with hair parted a little too far to the right and dark brown eyes, wearing a covid mask with the store’s logo. Lacking preparation, I decided to try a more conversational tone. I was, after all, a legal, paying customer, not an interrogator looking to make a bust. Those days were over.

“What can I help you find today?” she asked, smiling under her mask.

“Looking for the less pricey eighths; got anything twenty-five and under?”

“Yeah, over here. You into indica, sativa, or hybrid?”

“Hybrid.”

We walked in tandem on opposite sides of the counter toward the discount section.

“You ever noticed how many DPs are around here? It’s crazy.”

“Uh, yeah. There’s a lot over here.”

“Any idea why?”

A slight change in posture suggested that she was about to engage in an actual ponderance, but then an easy answer presented itself, and she went with it: “It’s probably the tax. The sales tax is low here in La Mesa, or something.”

I pulled out my notebook and jotted down prompts for further investigation, fruit of our cordial interaction, as they came to me: What kind of tax? Did it all go to the same governmental leeches? What was the breakdown? Then, between the brim of my hat and the top of my notepad, I noticed her opening the glass display case containing a selection from local hydroponic growers, collected in small mason jars. She took out three samples and silently directed me to inhale their aromas. Instead, I brought out my phone, opting to visually inspect her selections with the aid of its flashlight. It’s never about the color or the strength of a flower’s odor; rather, the amount of texture and crumble created by the ornaments of keef hung from each tree.

“Any plans for the day?” Salesfolk love that question. Lacking any hint of genuine curiosity, her inquiry served merely to sweeten my impression of the establishment; nothing like a little feigned friendship for the sake of brand building.

What once was a large tire-warehouse now stood as the block’s biggest dispensary. Known as EMBR to some, paradise to others.

I put my index finger to the glass of the one selection that twinkled under my phone-light, “Just smoking, ya know?” I was, admittedly, sad to think of how often she must be met with this response.

She rang up my eighth of flower, providing me an opportunity to further the success of my mission by prying about the tax.

“What kind of taxes are you charging me on this stuff? And how much is it?”

“It’s on the receipt. It’ll be twenty-eight dollars.”

My social ineptitude informed me that I’d feel awkward pressing her, so I just handed her the cash and began writing again. She noticed me detailing our interaction and looked to an employees-only doorway in the corner of the store. The doorway housed a bearded, owl-faced man. I watched them communicate through a series of glances and nods before Owl Face pinned his gaze to my notebook and then slowly raised his eyes to mine. His look implied a subtle fuck off, but I was already collecting my purchase in a white paper bag sporting Hermes’s caduceus. On the way out, I slid a dollar into the tip jar, hoping the blonde would start stripping, but she just waved her hand. Life doesn’t seem to reward generosity like it used to. But then again, she probably gets plenty of men like me, flirting with their wrinkled bill folds.

As I stepped into the out-of-doors, the sun stepped out from the behind-the-clouds, and the bright shock of it almost blinded me to the fellow trying to make his way past me. He was a tall man, mid-twenties or early thirties, wearing what smelled like knock-off cologne. As my pupils constricted to block the sun’s glare, more of his features became apparent: his black beard was long but well maintained, and his hair was neatly curly. I stopped him, eager to add a customer’s thoughts to my story.

“Hey boss, can I ask you something?”

“Uh … yeah, ‘sup bro?”

“Listen, I’m tryna write an article, and I’m hoping you can help me.”

“An article?”

“Yeah, like for the news.”

I learned that his hunting grounds had been established through ease of access, as he was a La Mesa resident. Repetitive animal instinct was all that maintained his loyalty to this location; it wasn’t the eye candy or the curated inventory. Someone or something brought him here once in an act of fate, and it created a cycle. This guy was a customer for life because it was easy.

  • * * *

By the time I returned to the car, Newman was impatient to leave. “We done here?”

“Nah, we got a lead to chase.”

“Whatchu’ mean, man?” He anxiously shuffled his hands along the steering wheel; I could tell he wanted to get as far away from this pot stuff as he could.

I laid down the basic shape of my investigation on behalf of The Editor and brought Newman up to speed with my findings from this first stop. I uncrumpled and handed him my receipt; it was a crossword of percentages and taxes, giving us little to go on.

He inspected it thoroughly and began to question me: “Sales tax?”

“Believe that shit?”

“Interesting … So, what’s the rest of this? La Mesa tax? State tax? Jesus, they really get every penny outta this legal BS. Who the hell shops here?”

“Assholes,” I stated bluntly. Another person might have answered, “Law-abiding citizens who are happy to support local businesses and willing to endure government regulation in order to buy and enjoy marijuana without the threat of criminal charges or black market violence.” But I was thinking of those vanished days of $5 grams in Spring Valley.

I looked towards Newman, then past him, through the driver’s side window, at another dispensary, this one busy enough to maintain a near-constant flux of patrons through its front entrance. This time, we both set out, and over the next 500 feet, we passed four sets of beer bellies, cargo shorts, and flip flops; six dogs; two dog walkers; three young men wearing baseball caps backwards; a pair of pigeons sharing a Five Guys® wrapper, Lady-and-the-Tramp style; and an unaccompanied, elderly black woman pushing herself backwards in a wheelchair. The aroma of marijuana is not a cologne or perfume marketed to any audience in particular, but rather a fragrance to be enjoyed by all walks of life. “I’ll be out here, man,” said Newman as he pulled up to the side of the building and busted out his signature cross-armed wall-lean next to an accessibility ramp.

I was welcomed by a friendly security guard, this one more Wal-Mart greeter than tough guy, before joining a sign-in line. Ahead, behind an elegantly grained marble countertop, two sensational young ladies were checking and scanning IDs, scoping out the customer base, and warming them up for sales with a bit of playful banter. A flutter of social anxiety told me to leave my notebook in my pocket; the employees at the previous store probably thought I was some kind of narc. Once inside, I noted that the corner of the store held units incubating plant life — plastic pots filled with budding seeds, future promises of elevation. I looked through the various display cases before gravitating toward a selection of pre-rolled joints. I get the appeal of such a product, the same way I get the appeal of pre-sliced bread. But to me, the construction of one’s smokable is both an art to be practiced and a labor to be undertaken, such that the resulting indulgence is individual and earned.

A woman approached the display case I was eyeing and issued the familiar, “Indica, sativa, or hybrid?”

Instead of answering, I immediately began to rattle off my prepared probing of the unsuspecting budtender (a term I rather dislike). She was more forthcoming than I expected, though a hint of hesitation was present in her answers. She spouted the usual self-promo line: stuff about having the lowest tax rates in the city. That didn’t sound right: shouldn’t tax be a civic constant? But she was a saleslady, not a business owner, and so she steered the conversation back to the matter at hand.

“Well, most of our base is returning, about three-quarters of ‘em, actually. We like to think they come here because of familiarity and the vibe. Way better than those trap shops.” — EMBR

“So, can I sell you some flower, though?”

“Yeah … Got any oil concentrate?”

She pointed me to a glass-enclosed drawer full of golden goop. Admiring the display of ambrosia was like looking at the fresh meats section in a grocery store deli. But, unlike my local Vons, the DPs didn’t take my EBT, and I was quickly running out of cash. I picked the cheapest half-gram in the display and vowed to stop paying for my dialogues and just get straight to the interrogation.

I looked around the shop and noticed a certain ruggedness in the employees, something that reminded me a little of the illegal dispensaries that I frequented in high school. “What about those old dispensaries in Spring Valley and around here?” I asked. “What’s the story with them? I doubt y’all ran ‘em outta business.”

“Man, nowadays you can only hold down those trap shops two weeks tops before the Feds raid ‘em,” she replied, sounding a little annoyed.

I was thrust a white paper bag and, as I turned toward the door, “Next!” rang out from over my shoulder—an almost identical handoff with a better exit.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on what about these places put me off. The crisp exterior of this particular store conjured feelings I might experience at a car dealership. Brand promotion had entered the equation, along with businesslike efficiency. I used to be very friendly with my dealers, now it was someone who knew my name because of a smart device and a picture of my ID.

  • * * *

I had grown weary from walking the Green Brick Road. But while I was inside, Newman had made a discovery on his phone. “Yo, check it out. While you were in the bin, a Google-mapping expedition showed that, for ten DPs along the La Mesa 91941-91942 zip code border, the average distance between any two is 1973.34 ft. The smallest distances are here, along Center Street, with minima being 960.03 ft. and 751.05 ft. All these measurements feature a ± 4.68 ft. uncertainty because Maps is trash, but you get the point. What’re they sayin’ in there, man? Why the hell are there so many?” Wonder is the beginning of wisdom; we pressed on.

We were led to a tucked away corner of the industrial area where what once was a large tire-warehouse now stood as the block’s biggest dispensary. Known as EMBR to some, paradise to others, a liberated sun reflected heat off the bricked exterior and evaporated the remnants of rain into an urban petrichor. I was waved into the store by a portly security guard listening to a soccer match over Mexican radio.

“Thanks boss.” I turned to find Newman waving to the guard as he passed, following behind me into the store, curiosity overcoming his unease. Inside, a friendly stoner lady, complete with beanie, nose ring, and ear gauges, welcomed us, iPad in hand. Newman was a rookie to the licensed world, but a veteran trap shop attendee. His eyes slowly swept around the shop. I watched him studying the customers, the staff, the flatscreen TV menus, the inventory; I imagine the leap was jarring. He left almost immediately.

“What can I help you with?” The Stonette spoke from behind me as my head followed Newman out the door.

“Well, I’m hoping you could give me some information,” I prepped for subtle hostility.

“Sure, what’s up?”

“Writing a piece for the Reader about La Mesa’s dispensaries. Got a few questions.”

“Shoot.” Things were looking up.

“What’s the deal with there being hella dispos here in La Mesa? Have you noticed how many there are around here?”

She quickly went to work explaining the economic machinations, and their consequences, of city and state tax rates for weed and non-weed items. Every eligible sale (not just pot) in the state of California gets hit with a sales tax of 6% and every sale in San Diego County gets 1.75% on top of that. In addition to this, every weed-related sale in the state gets an extra 15% tacked onto that 7.75% total. This puts us at a minimum 22.75% sales tax on weed purchases in California. From there, each city can impose its own added weed tax, which is why it varies throughout San Diego County. San Diego voted this weed tax to 8% while La Mesa voted it to 4%. So, any sale of weed in the city of San Diego faces a 30.75% total tax rate while any pot purchase in La Mesa faces one of 27.5% (for those actually following the arithmetic, La Mesa chooses to have its own citywide sales tax of 0.75% on all purchases). By shopping in La Mesa instead of SD proper, you’ll save a whopping $3.25 on a $100 purchase.

I followed the math lesson with a bit of social studies: “Okay, and what about competition? How can y’all afford to be so close to one another”

“Hmmm, there’s not really any. Like I said, tax is pretty flat across the board, so the prices are too. Shops collect in industrial areas because the rent is cheaper.”

“So, how do you get customers in here, then? If there’s no competition, how do you get new clientele?”

“Well, most of our base is returning, about three-quarters of ‘em, actually. We like to think they come here because of familiarity and the vibe. Way better than those trap shops.”

“Yeah, it’s a great vibe,” I said with a smile.

And just like that, I had my information—didn’t even need to fork over my ID. I thanked her for her time and left, buying a pair of wraps on the way out. It’s too bad I didn’t give her more money; she certainly earned it. She even was nice enough to give me an intelligible sample receipt breaking down the above info. Thank you, beanie lady.

Outside, Newman sat hunched over, elbows on his knees, as if he were processing a national tragedy. He looked devastated.

“Alright bro, we’re done. Let’s bick it.”

  • * * *

As we headed home, I picked up hints of angry sarcasm as Newman talked of the joys of driving West down El Cajon, or University, or the I-8 as the sun sets. He donned a stashed pair of sunglasses and a hat from the backseat. I was used to tuning him out, and sunk into the passenger seat content, mission accomplished. I finally had all the pieces of the puzzle, from the tax rates on the sample receipt to a sense of competition and pricing. There was no cannabis cabal present in La Mesa’s hills eager to drive business there. It was natural, organically birthed by the central drive of any business: profit. In this case, it was provoked by the maximization of tax breaks and minimization of rent. Surprisingly, there was no sense of opposition or market rivalry in the areas with the most dramatic overcrowding of dispensaries.

I wished Newman well on his way, but his car was already rolling forward before I had completely shut the door. My apartment welcomed me with a stillness that let me know I was alone, providing me the perfect opportunity to relax with my expedition’s secondary yield. I bit through the packaging and delivered one of the twin blunt wraps to my rolling tray, though not before taking great pleasure in the olfactory indulgence of the chemically fragrant berry infusion. The wrap got stuffed with hybrid until it was bursting at the seams. No filter. I used a toothpick to paint the outside with concentrate, and my creation was complete. Fuck a security deposit. I sparked that bitch inside.

The Editor wanted me to get into the nitty-gritty with political leaders and community organizers, but I had my story. I was glad to have met this new breed of average guy who visits this new breed of apothecary — even if I didn’t fully agree with him. As I sit here in my apartment writing, blunt in mouth, I can’t begin to fathom the lengths some will go to not associate with the good-old-fashioned home grower who slings for $10 a G. Is this the beginning of a brave new era or the end of a great one? The blunt continues to burn, my eyes gaining weight by the second. This feels like a good place to stop, I’m going to go lie down.

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By shopping in La Mesa instead of SD proper, you’ll save a whopping $3.25 on a $100 purchase.
By shopping in La Mesa instead of SD proper, you’ll save a whopping $3.25 on a $100 purchase.

In the Middle East of San Diego County, there lies a kind of marijuana Mecca, a place to which pot pilgrims may peregrinate on a high hajj in their quest to elevate themselves — not through spiritual means, but rather, smokable. Or edible. The city of La Mesa — a modest county jurisdiction once known for its small businesses, community fairs, and historical atmosphere — is of late becoming known for its wide array of weed dispensaries. A quick run down the alphabet shows that this city of 60,000 is host to at least a dozen: BackpackBoyz, Cookies, Dr. Greenthumb’s, EMBR, The Grove, Hotbox, Jungle Boys, Lit, The Reserve, Urbn Leaf (two locations), and Wellgreens. The days of Spring Valley pop-up stores selling $5 grams and knockoff Chinese concentrate to high schoolers have been replaced by a reality where refined, adult shoppers are met with upscale LED signage, licensed lanyard-wearing consultants, brand diversity, and even a bill of sale. Stunningly, many of these places even take card.

The Editor, packed bowl surely in hand, sent word that he wanted me to look into the matter. He imagined a simple research assignment into this apparently atypical accumulation: I was to talk to owners, employees, customers, even local politicians. I chuckled excitedly, rocking back and forth in delight over the realization that I’d be able to re-up on the clock — so much so that the doobie pressed between my fingers released an ember that nearly burnt a hole in my shorts. I took another toke and asked myself: why so many stores? At first puff, La Mesa seemed an odd location for such a high concentration. It’s not a bad part of town, but seemed to me a strange patchwork quilt of Lakeside-style white trash and Downtown suits. What’s the market appeal? I needed answers like I needed more smoke, and found myself bored with playing the role of “Guy who mooches off of his girlfriend’s homegrown stash.” Evaluating the state of contemporary dispos would serve a dual purpose. Sensing I was too high to drive, I placed a call to my good friend and business confidant Newman, requesting that he be my chauffeur for the afternoon.

  • * * *

A light sprinkle peppered Newman’s windshield every few seconds, lingering for a moment before a dying wiper blade screeched its way across the glass and flung the drops down to the cement-scarred floor of Mission Valley. We crept along the I-8 East in a herd of traffic slowed by some dullard’s inability to drive with wet wheels. Then Newman’s force of habit asserted itself, and his RAV4 swung onto the State Route 125 South connection. He still remained in happy antiquity, and I realized I would have to break his heart. Reluctantly, I put Old Yeller down and told him that all our old pickup spots in Casa de Oro had vanished; against all odds, the house of gold had tarnished. A shake of his head was all he allowed himself, but I watched his eyes age a decade as he realized he’d witnessed an era come and go.

Newman used to chief heavily, but gave it up three years ago after a bad trip. He swears he met God, and that the deity — neither man nor woman, but merely an ethereal instance of thought — had told him to never smoke again. Thus, for him, La Mesa was virgin territory. I, however, was returning to a familiar routine. Before my prime romantic game earned me a lovely woman who grows bud, I was quite the regular at an establishment that epitomized this new breed of apothecary. The sort of place that made it undeservingly easy to get ganja, like going to a dentist and getting a dose of ether without him ever reaching for his drill.

Deprived of his habitual path, Newman set about providing us with a destination. His head repeatedly flicked between the road and the phone in his lap as I watched him navigate the App Store™. He pressed the screen in three-letter intervals between glances at the road: W-E-E, he scanned the highway, D-space-M, he checked his mirrors. Of course, a third volley of text wouldn’t be necessary.

“Try as I might to forget how much I smoked, the phone’s always gonna remember,” he said, shoving the phone in my face so that I could tap the re-download icon next to Weedmaps™.

“Focus on the road, you fuck,” I snapped, snatching his phone.

“Just find us a place where you can get your shit. Let’s get this over with. I ain’t tryna let weed waste another day of my life.”

I opened the app and a collection of stores on La Mesa’s quasi-industrial Center Street caught my eye. The tight grouping caught at the abnormality The Editor was after. I picked one of the stores at random and began directing Newman towards it. I was surprised they could exist so close to one another without competition driving all but one out of business. One might be set up within the shell of a forgotten auto body shop, and another might be housed in a pristine new stucco box, but whatever the cosmetic differences, surely the formula was the same?

  • * * *

The dispensaries popped into view like a seagull’s shit on blacktop as we started driving down Center. Newman, eager to be through with our adventure, didn’t wait to arrive at our scheduled destination, not when there was one closer to hand, and we heard screams from the rolled-down windows of an oncoming minivan as he haphazardly cut them off to enter the parking lot. The hum of his Toyota’s engine disappeared, and I was already an eager few paces from the car before I realized that I didn’t sense him following me. I doubled back and approached his window.

“C’mon, G, let’s get it,” I said, inviting him to come with me.

La Mesa is becoming known for its wide array of weed dispensaries. A quick run down the alphabet shows that this city of 60,000 is host to at least a dozen.

He refused to meet my eyes: “Nah, man, shit still freaks me out. I’ll be walking down the street and catch a whiff and start worrying I’ll freak. I ain’t tryna go into hell and accidentally meet the devil, nahmsayin?”

“A’ight, do your thing then.”

As I entered, I was greeted by the faux-friendly visage of a young blonde; the smile she flashed me came and went so quickly that I questioned whether or not it had been my imagination. Her beauty became more pronounced as I noticed its hired juxtaposition: a colossal guard in the corner. His gut was bigger than his gun, but both were intimidating. The blonde, now aloof, struggled to find the social second wind needed for eye contact as I handed her my ID.

“Returning?” she asked.

“Yeah. It’s been a minute.”

“Well, welcome back.” She giggled a bit — making it all the more obvious that she was currently enjoying the store’s inventory.

“Thanks. Today I’m actually writing an article about the DPs around here,” I spoke toward her tits, trying to impress them with the promise of journalistic practice.

“Really? That’s literally smart.”

She carefully pecked away at her keyboard while studying my ID. I wondered what sorts of things she found figuratively smart, but decided to curb my asshole tendencies and not harsh her buzz — or my chances with her in the future. Any girl getting high at work is one I’d like to get to know a little better.

After Colossus the Guard lazily swung a handheld metal detector about my waist, I was permitted to enter deeper into the business. Shelves paraded colorful brand signage at regular intervals around the inner walls of the store: STIIIZY, PLUG PLAY, Freeway, West Coast Cure. It wasn’t the diversity among available brands that impressed me, but rather, the diversity among the unnecessary bullshit that each section had to offer. Keychains, T-shirts, enamel pins — it seemed people would rather spend their money on anything except that which would better society. Then again, the people walking around flaunting their favorite brand on a hat are the same ones you see paying $45 a gram, and we shouldn’t expect too much from them.

In the center of the shop loomed a square perimeter of counter space, enclosing a slew of beautiful women. When one of the sirens behind the counter found herself free of interaction, she seductively called out the name of her next mark. A contrast became immediately apparent between the lovelies behind the counter and the overwhelming majority of customers: men, many of them of the greasy, stinky, or hefty variety. Every drug is an escape, and weed is no different.

I started a staring contest with the wall. After about five minutes, I lost; my concentration broken by the sound of my name being called. I found myself awash with anxiety as I realized I hadn’t prepped for my impending interview. Turning to face the counter, I was greeted by a short Latina with hair parted a little too far to the right and dark brown eyes, wearing a covid mask with the store’s logo. Lacking preparation, I decided to try a more conversational tone. I was, after all, a legal, paying customer, not an interrogator looking to make a bust. Those days were over.

“What can I help you find today?” she asked, smiling under her mask.

“Looking for the less pricey eighths; got anything twenty-five and under?”

“Yeah, over here. You into indica, sativa, or hybrid?”

“Hybrid.”

We walked in tandem on opposite sides of the counter toward the discount section.

“You ever noticed how many DPs are around here? It’s crazy.”

“Uh, yeah. There’s a lot over here.”

“Any idea why?”

A slight change in posture suggested that she was about to engage in an actual ponderance, but then an easy answer presented itself, and she went with it: “It’s probably the tax. The sales tax is low here in La Mesa, or something.”

I pulled out my notebook and jotted down prompts for further investigation, fruit of our cordial interaction, as they came to me: What kind of tax? Did it all go to the same governmental leeches? What was the breakdown? Then, between the brim of my hat and the top of my notepad, I noticed her opening the glass display case containing a selection from local hydroponic growers, collected in small mason jars. She took out three samples and silently directed me to inhale their aromas. Instead, I brought out my phone, opting to visually inspect her selections with the aid of its flashlight. It’s never about the color or the strength of a flower’s odor; rather, the amount of texture and crumble created by the ornaments of keef hung from each tree.

“Any plans for the day?” Salesfolk love that question. Lacking any hint of genuine curiosity, her inquiry served merely to sweeten my impression of the establishment; nothing like a little feigned friendship for the sake of brand building.

What once was a large tire-warehouse now stood as the block’s biggest dispensary. Known as EMBR to some, paradise to others.

I put my index finger to the glass of the one selection that twinkled under my phone-light, “Just smoking, ya know?” I was, admittedly, sad to think of how often she must be met with this response.

She rang up my eighth of flower, providing me an opportunity to further the success of my mission by prying about the tax.

“What kind of taxes are you charging me on this stuff? And how much is it?”

“It’s on the receipt. It’ll be twenty-eight dollars.”

My social ineptitude informed me that I’d feel awkward pressing her, so I just handed her the cash and began writing again. She noticed me detailing our interaction and looked to an employees-only doorway in the corner of the store. The doorway housed a bearded, owl-faced man. I watched them communicate through a series of glances and nods before Owl Face pinned his gaze to my notebook and then slowly raised his eyes to mine. His look implied a subtle fuck off, but I was already collecting my purchase in a white paper bag sporting Hermes’s caduceus. On the way out, I slid a dollar into the tip jar, hoping the blonde would start stripping, but she just waved her hand. Life doesn’t seem to reward generosity like it used to. But then again, she probably gets plenty of men like me, flirting with their wrinkled bill folds.

As I stepped into the out-of-doors, the sun stepped out from the behind-the-clouds, and the bright shock of it almost blinded me to the fellow trying to make his way past me. He was a tall man, mid-twenties or early thirties, wearing what smelled like knock-off cologne. As my pupils constricted to block the sun’s glare, more of his features became apparent: his black beard was long but well maintained, and his hair was neatly curly. I stopped him, eager to add a customer’s thoughts to my story.

“Hey boss, can I ask you something?”

“Uh … yeah, ‘sup bro?”

“Listen, I’m tryna write an article, and I’m hoping you can help me.”

“An article?”

“Yeah, like for the news.”

I learned that his hunting grounds had been established through ease of access, as he was a La Mesa resident. Repetitive animal instinct was all that maintained his loyalty to this location; it wasn’t the eye candy or the curated inventory. Someone or something brought him here once in an act of fate, and it created a cycle. This guy was a customer for life because it was easy.

  • * * *

By the time I returned to the car, Newman was impatient to leave. “We done here?”

“Nah, we got a lead to chase.”

“Whatchu’ mean, man?” He anxiously shuffled his hands along the steering wheel; I could tell he wanted to get as far away from this pot stuff as he could.

I laid down the basic shape of my investigation on behalf of The Editor and brought Newman up to speed with my findings from this first stop. I uncrumpled and handed him my receipt; it was a crossword of percentages and taxes, giving us little to go on.

He inspected it thoroughly and began to question me: “Sales tax?”

“Believe that shit?”

“Interesting … So, what’s the rest of this? La Mesa tax? State tax? Jesus, they really get every penny outta this legal BS. Who the hell shops here?”

“Assholes,” I stated bluntly. Another person might have answered, “Law-abiding citizens who are happy to support local businesses and willing to endure government regulation in order to buy and enjoy marijuana without the threat of criminal charges or black market violence.” But I was thinking of those vanished days of $5 grams in Spring Valley.

I looked towards Newman, then past him, through the driver’s side window, at another dispensary, this one busy enough to maintain a near-constant flux of patrons through its front entrance. This time, we both set out, and over the next 500 feet, we passed four sets of beer bellies, cargo shorts, and flip flops; six dogs; two dog walkers; three young men wearing baseball caps backwards; a pair of pigeons sharing a Five Guys® wrapper, Lady-and-the-Tramp style; and an unaccompanied, elderly black woman pushing herself backwards in a wheelchair. The aroma of marijuana is not a cologne or perfume marketed to any audience in particular, but rather a fragrance to be enjoyed by all walks of life. “I’ll be out here, man,” said Newman as he pulled up to the side of the building and busted out his signature cross-armed wall-lean next to an accessibility ramp.

I was welcomed by a friendly security guard, this one more Wal-Mart greeter than tough guy, before joining a sign-in line. Ahead, behind an elegantly grained marble countertop, two sensational young ladies were checking and scanning IDs, scoping out the customer base, and warming them up for sales with a bit of playful banter. A flutter of social anxiety told me to leave my notebook in my pocket; the employees at the previous store probably thought I was some kind of narc. Once inside, I noted that the corner of the store held units incubating plant life — plastic pots filled with budding seeds, future promises of elevation. I looked through the various display cases before gravitating toward a selection of pre-rolled joints. I get the appeal of such a product, the same way I get the appeal of pre-sliced bread. But to me, the construction of one’s smokable is both an art to be practiced and a labor to be undertaken, such that the resulting indulgence is individual and earned.

A woman approached the display case I was eyeing and issued the familiar, “Indica, sativa, or hybrid?”

Instead of answering, I immediately began to rattle off my prepared probing of the unsuspecting budtender (a term I rather dislike). She was more forthcoming than I expected, though a hint of hesitation was present in her answers. She spouted the usual self-promo line: stuff about having the lowest tax rates in the city. That didn’t sound right: shouldn’t tax be a civic constant? But she was a saleslady, not a business owner, and so she steered the conversation back to the matter at hand.

“Well, most of our base is returning, about three-quarters of ‘em, actually. We like to think they come here because of familiarity and the vibe. Way better than those trap shops.” — EMBR

“So, can I sell you some flower, though?”

“Yeah … Got any oil concentrate?”

She pointed me to a glass-enclosed drawer full of golden goop. Admiring the display of ambrosia was like looking at the fresh meats section in a grocery store deli. But, unlike my local Vons, the DPs didn’t take my EBT, and I was quickly running out of cash. I picked the cheapest half-gram in the display and vowed to stop paying for my dialogues and just get straight to the interrogation.

I looked around the shop and noticed a certain ruggedness in the employees, something that reminded me a little of the illegal dispensaries that I frequented in high school. “What about those old dispensaries in Spring Valley and around here?” I asked. “What’s the story with them? I doubt y’all ran ‘em outta business.”

“Man, nowadays you can only hold down those trap shops two weeks tops before the Feds raid ‘em,” she replied, sounding a little annoyed.

I was thrust a white paper bag and, as I turned toward the door, “Next!” rang out from over my shoulder—an almost identical handoff with a better exit.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on what about these places put me off. The crisp exterior of this particular store conjured feelings I might experience at a car dealership. Brand promotion had entered the equation, along with businesslike efficiency. I used to be very friendly with my dealers, now it was someone who knew my name because of a smart device and a picture of my ID.

  • * * *

I had grown weary from walking the Green Brick Road. But while I was inside, Newman had made a discovery on his phone. “Yo, check it out. While you were in the bin, a Google-mapping expedition showed that, for ten DPs along the La Mesa 91941-91942 zip code border, the average distance between any two is 1973.34 ft. The smallest distances are here, along Center Street, with minima being 960.03 ft. and 751.05 ft. All these measurements feature a ± 4.68 ft. uncertainty because Maps is trash, but you get the point. What’re they sayin’ in there, man? Why the hell are there so many?” Wonder is the beginning of wisdom; we pressed on.

We were led to a tucked away corner of the industrial area where what once was a large tire-warehouse now stood as the block’s biggest dispensary. Known as EMBR to some, paradise to others, a liberated sun reflected heat off the bricked exterior and evaporated the remnants of rain into an urban petrichor. I was waved into the store by a portly security guard listening to a soccer match over Mexican radio.

“Thanks boss.” I turned to find Newman waving to the guard as he passed, following behind me into the store, curiosity overcoming his unease. Inside, a friendly stoner lady, complete with beanie, nose ring, and ear gauges, welcomed us, iPad in hand. Newman was a rookie to the licensed world, but a veteran trap shop attendee. His eyes slowly swept around the shop. I watched him studying the customers, the staff, the flatscreen TV menus, the inventory; I imagine the leap was jarring. He left almost immediately.

“What can I help you with?” The Stonette spoke from behind me as my head followed Newman out the door.

“Well, I’m hoping you could give me some information,” I prepped for subtle hostility.

“Sure, what’s up?”

“Writing a piece for the Reader about La Mesa’s dispensaries. Got a few questions.”

“Shoot.” Things were looking up.

“What’s the deal with there being hella dispos here in La Mesa? Have you noticed how many there are around here?”

She quickly went to work explaining the economic machinations, and their consequences, of city and state tax rates for weed and non-weed items. Every eligible sale (not just pot) in the state of California gets hit with a sales tax of 6% and every sale in San Diego County gets 1.75% on top of that. In addition to this, every weed-related sale in the state gets an extra 15% tacked onto that 7.75% total. This puts us at a minimum 22.75% sales tax on weed purchases in California. From there, each city can impose its own added weed tax, which is why it varies throughout San Diego County. San Diego voted this weed tax to 8% while La Mesa voted it to 4%. So, any sale of weed in the city of San Diego faces a 30.75% total tax rate while any pot purchase in La Mesa faces one of 27.5% (for those actually following the arithmetic, La Mesa chooses to have its own citywide sales tax of 0.75% on all purchases). By shopping in La Mesa instead of SD proper, you’ll save a whopping $3.25 on a $100 purchase.

I followed the math lesson with a bit of social studies: “Okay, and what about competition? How can y’all afford to be so close to one another”

“Hmmm, there’s not really any. Like I said, tax is pretty flat across the board, so the prices are too. Shops collect in industrial areas because the rent is cheaper.”

“So, how do you get customers in here, then? If there’s no competition, how do you get new clientele?”

“Well, most of our base is returning, about three-quarters of ‘em, actually. We like to think they come here because of familiarity and the vibe. Way better than those trap shops.”

“Yeah, it’s a great vibe,” I said with a smile.

And just like that, I had my information—didn’t even need to fork over my ID. I thanked her for her time and left, buying a pair of wraps on the way out. It’s too bad I didn’t give her more money; she certainly earned it. She even was nice enough to give me an intelligible sample receipt breaking down the above info. Thank you, beanie lady.

Outside, Newman sat hunched over, elbows on his knees, as if he were processing a national tragedy. He looked devastated.

“Alright bro, we’re done. Let’s bick it.”

  • * * *

As we headed home, I picked up hints of angry sarcasm as Newman talked of the joys of driving West down El Cajon, or University, or the I-8 as the sun sets. He donned a stashed pair of sunglasses and a hat from the backseat. I was used to tuning him out, and sunk into the passenger seat content, mission accomplished. I finally had all the pieces of the puzzle, from the tax rates on the sample receipt to a sense of competition and pricing. There was no cannabis cabal present in La Mesa’s hills eager to drive business there. It was natural, organically birthed by the central drive of any business: profit. In this case, it was provoked by the maximization of tax breaks and minimization of rent. Surprisingly, there was no sense of opposition or market rivalry in the areas with the most dramatic overcrowding of dispensaries.

I wished Newman well on his way, but his car was already rolling forward before I had completely shut the door. My apartment welcomed me with a stillness that let me know I was alone, providing me the perfect opportunity to relax with my expedition’s secondary yield. I bit through the packaging and delivered one of the twin blunt wraps to my rolling tray, though not before taking great pleasure in the olfactory indulgence of the chemically fragrant berry infusion. The wrap got stuffed with hybrid until it was bursting at the seams. No filter. I used a toothpick to paint the outside with concentrate, and my creation was complete. Fuck a security deposit. I sparked that bitch inside.

The Editor wanted me to get into the nitty-gritty with political leaders and community organizers, but I had my story. I was glad to have met this new breed of average guy who visits this new breed of apothecary — even if I didn’t fully agree with him. As I sit here in my apartment writing, blunt in mouth, I can’t begin to fathom the lengths some will go to not associate with the good-old-fashioned home grower who slings for $10 a G. Is this the beginning of a brave new era or the end of a great one? The blunt continues to burn, my eyes gaining weight by the second. This feels like a good place to stop, I’m going to go lie down.

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