marijuana dispensaries

11 min read

What is a Dispensary? A Brief History of a Marijuana Dispensary

November 26, 2021

As the marijuana industry is on the rise, new cannabis dispensaries are opening throughout the country. More people get involved in marijuana consumption. They have never visited a dispensary yet and may have some misconceptions about it. So, let’s calm down and talk about dispensaries in detail. 

What is a Dispensary?

First of all, we shall define the “dispensary” term. According to Wikipedia, a dispensary is “an office in a school, hospital, industrial plant, or other organization that dispenses medications, medical suppliers, and in some cases even medical and dental treatment. In a traditional dispensary setup, a pharmacist dispenses medication per the prescription or order form. The English term originated from the medieval Latin noun dispensaria and is cognate with the Latin verb dispensare, “to distribute.” 

In the cannabis industry, a dispensary is a legal place to dispense cannabis and cannabis products. They typically sell a wide range of them, including vapes, flowers, edibles, drinkables, and so on. Their primary function is retailing. 

There are two types of dispensaries: medical marijuana dispensaries and recreational or adult-use cannabis dispensaries. In the United States, cannabis is still illegal at the federal level. However, 36 states allow cannabis for medical use, and 18 states allow cannabis for recreational use. More states are going to legalize marijuana in 2022.

Regarding other countries, marijuana is entirely legal in Canada, the first country to legalize adult-use cannabis. Other countries don’t allow its usage. 

Dispensaries are usually easy to find in places where they have been legalized.

A Brief History of a Marijuana Dispensary

California was the first state to legalize medical cannabis when Prop. 215 went into force in 1996. However, two years before the cannabis legalization in California, two cannabis proponents, Dennis Peron and Mary Jane Rathbun, founded the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, which is considered the first cannabis dispensary in the United States. 

Getting into a cannabis business was a dangerous move at that time. Peron was even shot by police once. Rathbun, also known as “Brownie Mary,” became notorious in 1992 when she was arrested with marijuana-infused brownies that amounted to three pounds. HIV/AIDS patients needed the cannabis edibles for nausea and other harsh side effects. Rathbun and Peron were among the most important influencers in the cannabis legalization process throughout California.  

Since then, thousands of marijuana dispensaries have been established across the U.S., giving Americans access to different kinds of marijuana products. In 2017, Colorado counted 515 cannabis retail stores within its borders, which was the most significant number of registered medical cannabis dispensaries at that time. As of 2020, there were 2129 dispensaries in Oklahoma, according to Statista. 

Global cannabis market research company BDSA predicted that U.S. cannabis sales will reach $47,6 billion in 2026. As of 2021, cannabis sales will surpass $24 billion in the USA. In 2021, Canadian cannabis sales will total $4 billion. According to BDSA, the number will probably grow to $6,7 billion in 2026. 

Local Rules Apply to Cannabis Sales

In most cases, a customer purchases cannabis products at a dispensary but consumes them at home as regulations require. However, local law can allow for on-site marijuana consumption in particular places such as lounges or clubs. But you should keep in mind that generally, public consumption is not permitted, and cannabis lounges remain restricted across the U.S. 

More often, local regulations limit dispensary locations. Cities have a right to ban opening cannabis dispensaries within their borders despite legalization across the state. It results in business owners starting their businesses in other towns and neighborhoods. 

Many states demand dispensaries to be located 1000 feet from schools, educational centers, playgrounds, and other public places. Some cities do not limit the number of dispensaries available for people, but others define a certain number of those having an opportunity to be opened. Some cities even forbid the opening of cannabis dispensaries. 

It is crucial to learn the law related to the amount of cannabis one person can possess and places allowed to consume cannabis. Otherwise, you will draw law enforcement’s attention which will likely have some consequences. 

What Should You Expect When Visiting A Cannabis Dispensary?

Every marijuana dispensary is unique and has its brand design; if it is not a franchise, of course. They usually sell various cannabis products, including flowers, edibles, oils, beverages, and others. Some marijuana dispensaries offer a variety of topicals, tinctures, and concentrates such as wax or shatter for sale. A customer will also find different strains of cannabis to serve a range of needs and provide relief to various health symptoms. 

Indica cannabis strains typically contain more CBD than THC. Consuming CBD-dominant strains makes a patient feel relaxed. These products are beneficial when it comes to pain relief, anxiety, and insomnia. 

Sativa marijuana strains create mostly energizing effects. It is ideal if you need to stay focused. 

If a state allows cannabis home cultivation, dispensaries will probably sell seedlings and cannabis plants to their customers. Qualified budtenders usually help you with enthusiasm to select the proper one from a wide range of marijuana plants available. 

What is a Medical Cannabis Dispensary?

As we said above, the U.S.’s first medical marijuana dispensary was the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club. Since that time, thousands of them have opened their doors across California and the whole country. Some of the states still do not permit opening cannabis dispensaries on their territory. However, the number of states with the legalization prohibiting policy is getting lower. 

The medical marijuana dispensary’s audience is primarily patients. When entering a medical cannabis dispensary, a patient will likely be asked to show necessary documentation. Otherwise, they will not be able to make purchases. 

A patient will need to show an ID card and a medical marijuana recommendation or ID card from a practitioner as proof that they are a medical patient and have a prescription to buy cannabis products. Also, such measures are taken because of the industry itself. The government always pays closer attention to the cannabis businesses. 

What is more, a patient needs to be 18 years of age or older. If they are younger, they need a caregiver who will purchase for them. 

If a customer is another state resident, they also need to provide proof. 

When entering a dispensary, a customer faces a receptionist that has to check them in before allowing them into a dispensing area. Some dispensaries have waiting rooms from where an employee invites patients to a salesroom. While in the salesroom, a patient may consult with a dispensary employee about marijuana products.

Many medical marijuana dispensaries make special offers or discounts to their patients. Regular visitors may save quite a fortune in the long run. 

What is a Recreational Marijuana Dispensary?

A recreational cannabis dispensary tends to tolerate people aged 21+ from anywhere on its premises. Depending on state regulations, medical and recreational marijuana supply can be either completely separate or almost identical. Recreational dispensaries differ from medical ones by not requiring a medical recommendation for buying cannabis.

However, we should mention that taxes on recreational marijuana are relatively high as they shall pay total taxes. In the case of medical marijuana, there is no tax at all or less tax in some states. The result is people renewing their medical cannabis recommendations. 

A visitor will need to prove their age by showing an ID when entering into an adult-use marijuana dispensary. If a dispensary is 2-in-1, both medical and recreational, a receptionist will require a customer’s visit purpose. 

If a visitor has any reason but medical, they can go to the dispensing area to select products. 

Recreational cannabis dispensaries often pay more attention to branding, packaging, and aesthetics to attract customers’ attention. They have more products to let customers choose from. 

How to Open a Marijuana Dispensary?

The cannabis industry is a tricky one being regulated strictly. That’s why it is necessary to be attentive to every little detail. One of the most important things is to be compliant with the law and all regulations. You can check our Markets page, where we have provided you with the requirements of every state and Canadian province. 

Here is the list of everything you should check:

  1. Relevant state acts and regulations. You need to understand what kind of dispensaries, medical or recreational or both, you can open within your state borders and requirements to their location, design, security measures, and so on. 
  2. Restrictions on selling and purchasing cannabis. For instance, you can purchase cannabis only if you are 21 years of age in some states. There are also limitations on the amount a customer can buy in one visit.
  3. The way you can obtain a license. The primary regulator in your state issues licenses. Different kinds of dispensaries require different licenses. Some states require an additional license for delivery or storefront sales. 
  4. Required license fees. You need to pay all fees before applying. Otherwise, your application will not be accepted.
  5. What information you need to provide. There is a list of documents you will need to collect for an application. They usually include identifying information, criminal history, fingerprints, operational plan, and others. 
  6. Restrictions on opening a dispensary. Starting a marijuana business is a bit different than starting a business in any other industry. It can be legal in your state, but it is still illegal at the federal level. There are a number of restrictions related to banking, sourcing, distribution, and others. 
  7. License denial grounds. The government can not issue a license for several reasons: incomplete application, premises non-compliant with regulations, unpaid taxes, etc. It is better to explore them before applying and make sure you have done everything right. 

What Products Will You Find at Dispensaries?

A range of products at dispensaries will vary from state to state. For instance, some states do not allow dispensaries to sell smokable flowers. There is a common thought that dispensaries sell an infinite number of strains. So, a visitor will be surprised to learn that some marijuana stores sell no more than two or three strains. 

However, if we talk about strains, you should know that they are usually divided into sections based on their type: Indica, Sativa, and Hybrid. Product types are the following:

  • The flower remains a favorite marijuana product among consumers. Its potency level is often less than other marijuana products, and unsophisticated consumers prefer flowers to others.
  • Concentrates have a high potency level in comparison with flowers. It is the reason why people sometimes feel intimidated consuming them. 
  • Edibles. People love edibles for their various forms: cannabis-infused cakes, chocolates, gummies, brownies, and others. The effect also varies.  
  • Pre-rolls. A lot of people like pre-rolls because they are moderately inexpensive and discreet.  
  • Topicals are great for those who want to consume cannabis in small doses.
  • Beverages are valuable for their ease of consumption and lower dietary fat than edibles.  

What Do You Need to Shop at a Dispensary?

A dispensary differs a lot from usual retail stores. A list of things you need to shop at a dispensary is also a little bit different. A visitor will need:

  • Valid ID card. To enter into a marijuana dispensary premises, a customer shall have a valid ID card to prove their age. Only after the verification process can they choose products and purchase. If a visitor is a medical patient, they will need a medical card or doctor’s recommendation. 
  • Cash. Cannabis is still illegal at the federal level. Due to that, credit and debit card companies do not allow cannabis purchase. That’s why a customer will need to bring cash to purchase goods. Dispensaries often have ATMs in case a customer forgets cash. But they require fees. However, you can manage to come across a dispensary that has found loopholes and workarounds that allow them to accept credit or debit cards. 
  • A list of desired products. Dispensaries always have shelves and cases full of a variety of marijuana products. Sometimes it can be an embarrassment of riches. That’s why it is better to have a list of products. However, a customer can always rely on a budtender’s helping hand. Before turning to a budtender, they can think about what they want to feel and taste, as consuming cannabis is all about effects and flavors. A wide range of products can provide a variety of them. 


Now you are aware of what a dispensary is and what you can expect from visiting it. Just remember that a cannabis dispensary is a complicated business due to all requirements and regulations. You need to be compliant with the law to avoid fines and law enforcement’s unnecessary attention. There are a lot of pitfalls, but it is still worth a shot.