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The San Francisco CBD Scene

San Francisco is well-known as a city beset by contradictions: great wealth and great poverty, countercultural yet thoroughly establishment, socially liberal and corporate to the bone. CBD seems to fit the profile of all the things San Francisco would love, as a plant-based, holistic remedy (my fingers tremble typing such cliches) closely associated with cannabis. 

But since CBD is, on a national level, currently hamstrung by a mishmash of contradictory federal, state, and local laws (each variously enforced or unenforced by often trigger-happy state and local law enforcement), perhaps its unsurprising that San Francisco ⁠— famed as much for its leftist, vegan, organic, hippy-dippy culture as it is for it’s imposing nexus of regulations and strong-wielded municipal institutions  ⁠— has not welcomed CBD with open arms.

California Public Health officials have already made a name for themselves as utterly intransigent (if not downright authoritarian) regarding CBD: raiding retailers, impounding CBD products, and chasing CBD businesses out of state (to Texas of all places, in the case of popular CBD drink Vybes).

The San Francisco Department of Health, not to be outdone, has forced retailers in the city to pull CBD products, and last year sent warning letters to 1,900 businesses carrying CBD products. 

All of this in spite of the fact that the state legalized marijuana last year! 

Austin, Texas, as a counterexample, has seen an explosion of CBD-related shops and products since the state formally legalized hemp-derived CBD this past June, on top of an already-thriving underground CBD scene. Drive around in Austin and you see countless CBD-focused stores selling oils, tinctures, vapes, etc. Dozens of restaurants feature CBD-infused offerings. 

In San Francisco, there is one CBD-specific shop, and they were ordered by the city to stop selling CBD-infused food and drink. The Steap Tea Bar, a popular Chinatown spot, was similarly forced  to stop selling their CBD-infused bubble tea

That’s right. While the rest of the country (Texas!) gets to dig into CBD, oh-so-liberal San Franciscans are prohibited even from consuming CBD-infused bubble tea.

Waiting for change (it’s coming)

The good news: change is on the horizon. A bill authorizing CBD-infused food and drink (AB 228) was recently approved unanimously by the California State Assembly. It’s expected that the bill will pass, and that Governor Newsome will sign it into law. The bill would then take effect immediately. 

Hopefully it goes through and we’ll see an Austin-like explosion of CBD-centric shops and infused products in SF, but until then, us CBD-heads still have to seek out our goods on the sly. 

My tour of SF’s CBD hotspots

I’ve been seeking out all manner of CBD-infused products in the city for the past few months, and it’s been like hunting a leprechaun. Here’s the cycle: I hear CBD drinks are sold somewhere, I give them a call, they’re either out (cause they’re so popular), or stopped selling them, or have no idea what I’m talking about, or say they have them and don’t have any when I show up. A few times I’ve actually found some. 

But today I have a bonafide list of spots selling CBD-infused drinks and more, and I’m hittin em all up. 

What am I looking for (besides CBD)? I’m looking for a glimpse of authentic CBD culture before it goes even MORE mainstream. Like being a fan of a band before they get huge and the whole dynamic changes, I want to see the culture while it’s still a little underground. I want to see if there is a culture. 

Where exactly does CBD fit in the heart and soul of San Franciscans? How do they use it? Is it purely medicinal? Or just a chill-pill for over-anxious millennials? 

Is CBD culture hippy-artisan (as the city so often purports to be) or corporate-polished (as the city so often is)? 

I’ve got three destinations in mind to get to the bottom of it: Sidewalk Wellness in the Mission, Pentacle Coffee off of Market, and the Kava Lounge on Divisadero.

Sidewalk Wellness: a peek into the future?

This is the epicenter of CBD culture in San Francisco, the only CBD-specific shop in the whole city, who has faced down the wrath of SF’s public health officials (pictured here).

Sidewalk Wellness is the sister-store of Sidewalk Juice, a well-known smoothie and juice bar with a few locations around SF. They sell CBD drinks at Sidewalk Juice as well: Vybes, a popular CBD-infused juice drink that sells at $8.50 a pop, and GT’s CBD-infused Sparkling Wellness Water

Sidewalk Wellness follows the template set up by other CBD-focused stores I’ve seen in various cities across the US: a chic, minimalist, upscale aesthetic, paired with premium price points. Like the boujee coffee shops that SF is known for, these stores are typically gorgeous on the inside and outside, and seem aimed at prosperous young urbanites. On the spectrum of hippy-dippy to corporate-polished, Sidewalk Wellness falls closer to the corporate side. 

The selection seems carefully curated, and their products run the gamut, from CBD-infused bath and beauty products (soaps, balms, lotions, and more) to CBD flower, lollipops, vapes, oils, tinctures, pet foods, and edibles. 

Expect to see these types of stores proliferate across SF as legality clears up.

You can see another preview of what might be to come in New York City, where CBD retailer Standard Dose opened a 3-story wellness center complete with a bar, meditation classes, private spa treatment, and more. At the center of it all is CBD: they offer a broad, multi-brand selection of CBD topicals, ingestibles, and even serve CBD-infused tea at the bar.

What I’m getting at here is that ⁠— drawing from the various CBD-centric stores and wellness centers that I’ve seen popping up across the US ⁠— a vision is emerging of CBD marketed specifically as a sort of high-end stress reliever for urban elites, complete with exquisite polished wood and marble-countertopped venues that ooze boujee. 

Yet I’ve spoken with many passionate CBD users, and in my experience they tend to fall more on (and I speak with affection here) the hippy-dippy, alternative health, homeopathy-ish side. 

I’ve even noticed a certain discrepancy between the clientelle and the environment in stores like Sidewalk Wellness. The CBD-head crowd looks closer to the folks you’ll find in a marijuana dispensary (read: aging hippy and young delinquents) while the ambiance of these CBD-focused stores is similar to a high-end coffee shop (the target audience there being the urban tech crowd). Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that some of the other most common places you’ll find CBD-infused goods are high-end coffee shops.

Is there a gulf opening up between CBD producers, who seem to be going the route of $8 infused beverages marketed as stress-relievers to the uptown crowd, and everyday CBD users, who see it more as an alternative health godsend and holistic remedy that, like marijuana, “belongs to the people” in some abstract sense?

I’m off to Pentacle Coffee to dig deeper.

Pentacle Coffee

There’s no denying that Pentacle Coffee is a gorgeous coffee shop, fitting the general aesthetic described above. My CBD-infused macchiato came to $6.50, not wholly preposterous by CBD-infused-drink standard. 

I love CBD-infused coffee or espresso drinks, and the folks at Pentacle Coffee make an exquisite one. The surge of energy you typically get with caffeine is paired with a chest-deep wave of positivity and clarity. No jitters, no nervousness, when I drink CBD coffee I get zoned in and damn ambitious. I whip out my laptop and write this up on their (surprise surprise!) beautiful polished wood countertops. 

How much does Pentacle Coffee fit the uptown high-end mold I described above? 

They have an art gallery. 

In the coffee shop! 

Yep, your modestly priced caffeinated beverage doubles as a ticket to a cool little gallery with art from local artists that you can purchase. 

I have to admit I love Pentacle after this. The fact that they’ve doubled their coffee shop as a local art gallery is super cool, and the type of touch I was hoping to find on this CBD journey. 

Pentacle’s location reflects the usual San Francisco fault lines: it’s sandwiched between a couple of rundown liquor stores, and the street is chock full of panhandlers living out of shopping carts and cardboard boxes. Peak SF: you walk out of a picture-perfect little coffee shop (it has an art gallery!) into quasi-Third World conditions on the street right outside. 

Perhaps, in the gulf between those two pictures, you can see a reason for the gulf in the San Francisco CBD scene (and the country-at-large): there’s not much market for the “middle” in anymore. This, I think, is where the discrepancy lies between the CBD consumables market that is being created and real-life CBD users. 

The goal of many CBD companies isn’t to get quality, affordable CBD into the hands of people who need it for its medicinal or therapeutic properties. The goal is to find a financially viable market, and in an economy where huge wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small few, the money is to be made in luxury, in selling a high-end experience to people can afford it (rather than an affordable product to people who need it).

Hence the fact that a 4-pack of most CBD-infused drinks will run you $30-40, and that most CBD shops look like they’re from the future.

Meanwhile, a recent study found that 69% of CBD products were inaccurately labelled. It appears we’re seeing two diverging markets: a high-quality, lab-tested consumables market geared at overall wellness and the urban tech crowd in cities like SF and NYC, and a lower quality market of spotty consistency for everyone else.

I contemplated this as I walked out of Pentacle, floating past scenes of crippling poverty, buzzing from my $6.50 energy-and-wellness beverage, on to the famous Kava Lounge. 

What is kava?

Kava, for those who aren’t familiar, is a root from the Pacific Islands that induces mild sedation and euphoria, not wholly unsimilar to alcohol, but not quite as psychoactive or mind-altering. 

The history, politics, culture, and religion of various Pacific Islands is entwined with kava: it’s drunk or chewed during funerals, weddings, and graduations,and other social/political ceremonies, or just consumed as a nightly drink like alcohol at kava bars.

These bars, finally, have travelled around the globe and landed in San Francisco: meet the Kava Lounge. The Kava Lounge is also one of the few places selling CBD drinks.

Gettin’ lit at the Kava Lounge

I immediately love the vibe in here, it’s much closer to the CBD culture I was looking for: the walls are plastered with psychedelic paintings, lots of tie-dye colors, a Pacific Island-style bar, and plenty of cozy furniture. Unlike a normal bar where parties split off into different tables, the seating is communal-style, with plush chairs and benches oriented around circular tables like a fireside. It’s the kind of place designed to break down barriers, both within you and outside you: sip on mellowing drinks and ease into conversation with a stranger. 

This is where my CBD adventure really kicked it up a notch. 

I started out with the Kava Lounge’s sparkling CBD drink, a very tasty tangy-citrusy juice drink with 17mg of pure CBD extract ,and settle into a cozy plush chair. The further into my drink, the further I settle into the chair, but 17mg isn’t quite enough to knock my socks off. Time for some kava.

Kava, for those who aren’t aware, tastes like dirt. I was not aware, and it caught me off-guard. 

To make things worse I got the Pacific Gold kava drink, which is double-concentrated. The bad news: that means double-dirt-taste. The good news: that means double-mellow. 

Less than halfway through and I’m feeling some type of way. I’ve tried Kava before and found it to be mildly euphoric and sedating and I’m getting the same feeling now, but paired with the CBD it’s situated much deeper in my chest and stomach. Less a body high than a couch-lock. I can think of few times I’ve been more comfortable in my life. 

Once I finish the kava drink I feel like a damn puddle on this couch. I’m sinking so far into it I wonder if I’ll just get sucked into the couch cushions and wake up in Narnia. Anxiety is gone. A feeling of peace washes over me. 

Yeah, pairing CBD and kava is bomb af. 

Don’t believe me, ask this random dancing guy. 

Headphones on, flying solo and everything, he was in his zone for a good 30 minutes.

Yep, this is the crowd I was looking for.

The Kava lounge is like a bar for eccentric folks who are less into getting sh*tfaced and more into mellow conversations and psychedelics. Instead of going for the futuristic, minimalist-chic, techie aesthetic, they went for old school hippy (with a Pacific Island flair), and I dig it. 

I also like the communal experience of the Kava Lounge. Something about the super-polished and clean aesthetic of CBD-specific shops is alienating to me. They have the design and vibe of a high-end coffee shop, but coffee shops are also built for meetings and conversation, whereas CBD shops typically lack this communality or shared experience . They almost come off more like a pharmacy or a hospital.

Both CBD-specific shops and the Kava Lounge ultimately have the aim of calming anxiety and giving visitors a proverbial chill pill, but I love that the Kava Lounge gives you a venue to partake. The Kava Lounge is built for comfort and communication. Why not pair your CBD and your kava with an actual conversation? 

For those of us who take CBD for anxiety, social anxiety is often a huge part of it. CBD is a natural social-anxiety tonic, it calms the turmoil in your chest and stomach so that you can think straight and connect with others. Why not take advantage of it and consume CBD in a setting that encourages communication? 

This is the idea of the Kava Lounge, and I hope the future of CBD in SF is more like this.