Travelogue for Looney Labs' San Francisco Tour 2001
by Andrew Looney

1: Parties at Friends' Houses
2: Gaming Events at Game Stores
3: Game Demos at Med-Pot Clubs
4: The Haight-Ashbury Street Fair
5: The Tonga Room
6: Other Random Acts of Tourism
7: Father's Day is Family Time
8: My Overall Favorite Moment

Part Three: Game Demos at Medical Marijuana Buyer's Clubs

If you've read much of my activism page, you know how strongly I support Drug Law Reform. It should therefore come as no surprise that I've been keenly following the development of the cannabis "buyer's clubs" that began to spring up in California ever since the passage of Prop 215 in 1996. Naturally, I was interested in visiting one of these places, if possible, during our trip.

Moreover, if you've read our Corporate Philosophy page, you probably noticed the statement regarding pot-smoking game-players as potential customers, rather than criminals. Having learned that our games actually do appeal to stoners, and that no other game companies are currently targeting this large but virtually invisible demographic, we've been trying to find ways of getting our games played within this hidden community. Some of the fruits of these efforts are that our card games are now offered for sale in several of these emerging institutions. And given this, we were invited to visit two of these clubs for game demo afternoons just as we were by area game stores.

The first thing I noticed was the combination of security and anonymity. In retrospect it's not surprising, operating as they are on the very fringe of the law... but I still didn't expect them to be quite so invisible. We were in a game store directly across the street from one of these clubs two days prior to our official visit there, and even though we knew it was over there and even walked right by it, we weren't really sure exactly of where it was until we went in, a couple of days later.

While there were many small differences between the two clubs we visited, there were many similarities, too. Both seek to blend into their backgrounds as much as possible, with bland storefronts and innocuous names like "The Berkeley Patient's Group" and "The San Francisco Patient's Resource Center." Both keep attentive receptionists (i.e. guards) at their doors and only admit those with proper ID (or escort). Of course, we didn't have IDs, but since we were special guests, we were given the VIP treatment. (Both clubs had created flyers announcing our visit and urging their clientele to come "Meet the Minds Behind the Madness" and to "Learn how to play some of the best games around!")

While drab looking on the outside, the clubs are beautiful spaces once you get past security. Unfortunately, I don't have much in the way of photos here... the people in these establishments tend to wig out a little when you start taking pictures. One of the clubs even had a flat "no photos" policy, and while I did have limited permission to shoot film in the other club, I decided not to bother trying. You'll have to make do with these "word pictures" instead.

The first club we went to is housed in what seems to have once been a hamburger stand or similar free-standing restaurant. The main room has large windows all the way around, windows which have been blocked with curtains so that you can't see any of what happens inside from the street. From the outside, the gray building with blackout curtains set behind a barbed wire fence looks more like a military bunker than a place to buy medical marijuana; but inside, it's just what you'd expect. Everything's painted in bright colors, notably purple, and tie dyed banners brighten up the other side of the drab curtains. The space is set up like a little cafe, with lots of chairs and little tables, each with a vaseful of flowers and a large waterpipe (or "bong" as they are often called) in the center of the table. In the back corner, I immediately noticed one of those funky massage chairs (in use) near a sign that said "Free Backrubs."

The scene is similar at the other club. Outside, the only sign is on the awning, which reads "St. Martin De Porres Chapel - a catholic service agency." But inside, it looks like a coffeehouse in Amsterdam. Being in the middle of a city block downtown, they didn't have the window problem to contend with and instead they've got these wonderful murals of trees painted along the two large side walls. Christmas lights and folded paper cranes hang from the ceiling here, and since this club is run by a group of priests and nuns, there's also a small altar in one corner. Every afternoon at 4:20, prayers are offered and the patients are blessed.

Since we weren't registered medical users, the club wouldn't have been allowed to sell us pot even if we'd been seeking to buy some. One room we didn't get to see at either club was the so-called "bud room", where the members actually receive their herbs. But at the same time, both clubs provided the members who attended our demos with some of their finest locally grown pharmaceuticals, to enjoy during our event. One club provided our tables with a big metal bowlful of buds, to let members roll up and enjoy as they played our games, and at the other, a guy behind the counter kept bringing over these enormous joints for the patients at our tables to pass our around. Never has the crowd at one of our demos been so mellow!

The various patrons of these clubs represent a cross-section of the full spectrum of society. Important looking people in suits come and go, as do scruffy-looking losers who compare notes with each other on the food at the area homeless shelters. Many visitors are clearly legitimate medical users, often arriving in wheelchairs, while others seem like ordinary, healthy stoners who come here because... well, because they can. One does have to wonder if a lot of people aren't getting stoned on pretty flimsy "medical" grounds. I felt like asking everyone about their medical conditions (but didn't, since it would be so obviously rude).

One thing I did ask repeatedly about was how the recent Supreme Court ruling was affecting them. By and large, the answer I got back was "not at all." Although a couple of the clubs have apparently either closed up or changed hands, in order to protect the specific individuals already involved in federal cases, most of the clubs are defiantly staying open. Wayne, the director of the downtown club, made a point of setting aside some time for us to meet with him in his office before our event, and he told us all about the current situation.

Wayne looks and sounds like a politician, and his offices are a tightly run organization that could just as well be selling muffins as medical marijuana. Behind his desk is a bulletin board covered with newspaper clippings with headlines like "Card-Carrying Medical Pot Users Like the Protection." Wayne tells us that while the Feds may have ruled against them, they have the full backing of the local governments, who are trying hard to honor the will of the voters who passed Prop 215, and they fully expect to stay open, come what may.

Things seemed a little more tense over in Berkeley. Here, they had fliers posted everywhere that read "We are open because we believe in your right to medical marijuana. However, it is possible that law enforcement may come to the Berkeley Patients Group. In that case it is extremely important that EVERYONE follow certain guidelines. MOST IMPORTANTLY, the ONLY response ANYONE should give to law enforcement is... I WILL REMAIN SILENT. I WANT TO TALK TO A LAWYER. It is fine to give your name and ID. Also remain calm and follow directions. No matter what they say... we guarantee this is your best defense. Finally, the BPG has lawyers working with us who will assist us if anything should happen."

And of course, I got a little paranoid and wondered if today would be the day they got raided, and we'd get hauled off to jail in the midst of our vacation. But happily, nothing happened. Instead, we spent a couple of lovely afternoons hanging out with the highly-medicated patrons of these clubs, teaching them to play Fluxx, Aquarius, and Chrononauts. And they liked it! At both clubs we found regulars who often played games, with regular cards or chess pieces, who wanted to learn our games and had a great time playing them. "I've seen these on the counter, but I didn't know what they were," we heard repeatedly. "Now that we know how to play, we'll be playing these games every day!"

On the night before our tour ended, we went back to the San Fran Patient's Center one more time, to attend a "215 Celebration" in honor of Ilia's 80th birthday, Ilia being a sharp old lady and member of the club who just happens to have been smoking pot for over 65 years. The party was hosted by the famous Dennis Peron, Father of Prop 215, who urged his troops to push harder than ever, rather than to retreat, in the face of last month's unjust ruling by the courts. "With this decision, the government has finally admitted that they are waging war on the sick and dying," he said. He also waxed nostalgic on the old days, and how far they've come since then. He said he remembered the $10 ounce and was trumped by Ilia, who said it was just a dollar an ounce in '34, when she started.

It's just amazing what's happening out there. Marijuana prohibition is crumbling before our eyes.


copyright © 2001 By Andrew Looney.

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