PICTURED: Leaf Dispensary in Thousand Oaks. Photo submitted

by Alex Wilson

David MacFarlane has witnessed huge changes in the legal cannabis market since helping found one of Santa Barbara County’s first medical marijuana collectives in 2007.

What started off as a group of medical marijuana patients sharing what they grew in the hills above Santa Barbara has led to the sleek Leaf Dispensary in Thousand Oaks, slated to become one of the Conejo Valley’s first adult-use dispensaries on Aug. 5.

Natural healing

MacFarlane grew up in Thousand Oaks and became interested in the healing properties of the plant before opening the Santa Barbara Care Center in Goleta. Starting out, he didn’t envision a multi-location business carrying dozens of slickly packaged cannabis products.

“I did it for the love of what it did for people. I grew up in a family where my dad was a chiropractor and all about holistic health, medicine, and natural healing and I was always raised in that manner,” he said.

David MacFarlane. Photo submitted

It was around 2006, when the medical marijuana movement was gaining steam, that he was inspired to get involved. Proposition 215 was approved in 1996, giving Californians the right to grow their own medical marijuana. State Senate Bill 420 passed in 2003, helping clarify how collectives could operate under a framework recognized by state leaders, if not federal officials.

“I found the cannabis plant very intriguing. I studied it and the medicinal values that it brought,” MacFarlane explained. “I saw that there was a movement happening, and I wanted to get behind it. So I took a stand for safe access for medical marijuana patients in the state of California, and I helped pioneer and pave the way to where we are today.”

Cannabis club

The Santa Barbara Care Center was originally a collective of cannabis patients with doctor’s recommendations who grew plants to be shared with other patients.

“It was like a cannabis club of medical marijuana patients,” MacFarlane said. “It was really unique. We got great relationships with the actual patients. It was a very different time. There was no testing, so we took it upon ourselves to do our own quality control.”

MacFarlane said he’s proud he could help people when access was still a challenge.

“We had a patient who had an inoperable brain tumor and she never thought in a million years that she would turn to cannabis ever in her lifetime to help her,” he explained. “And it turned out it was the only thing that ever gave her any relief towards the end of her life.”

MacFarlane said he’ll never forget the gratitude that the patient expressed before dying from cancer. “She came to me as the owner and thanked me for taking a stand and going through what I did to create this avenue and this path of safe access to cannabis. And it turns out she was a district attorney up in northern California that spent most of her career putting people away for cannabis. She was a wonderful lady, and her eyes were opened to actually what the cannabis plant can do, and the medicinal value it has for people.”

MacFarlane now runs three dispensaries, with the original location in Goleta. Lompoc’s Leaf Dispensary was the first adult-use dispensary in Santa Barbara County when it opened in 2018. 

But he admitted that sometimes he misses the old days before the cannabis industry became corporate and, in his view, overregulated and overtaxed. For example, MacFarlane said, some of the cultivators he worked with in the early days still grow cannabis but sell it on the illicit black market because they don’t want to pay taxes.

Changing times

The second Leaf Dispensary opened in Thousand Oaks in February, but only for medical marijuana patients with a doctor’s recommendation. Over the course of several years, as Thousand Oaks city leaders were considering allowing cannabis sales, the market radically changed, making medical-only dispensaries mostly a relic of the past, according to MacFarlane.

Leaf Dispensary showcases major cannabis brands. Photo submitted

Leaf’s medical-only provision stifled sales, since people could go to the San Fernando Valley or Port Hueneme to buy cannabis with only an ID showing they were over 21. MacFarlane said about half of his potential customers who walk through the doors turn away upon learning they need a doctor’s recommendation. He said many are afraid their names will end up in a government database or believe their personal information could be exposed.

He and the operators of a second medical dispensary in Thousand Oaks, Legendary Organics, recently convinced a majority of city council members to change the rules and allow adult-use sales starting Aug. 5. 

Leaf Dispensary in Thousand Oaks. Photo submitted

“It’s been a long process and we’re just really happy that we stuck with it. I can’t thank the city staff and the city council enough for what they’ve done to allow us to have a chance to compete in a market that’s in other communities,” said MacFarlane. “To give us a chance to give the same services that other jurisdictions are providing to their citizens, and now we get to give them to the citizens of the Conejo Valley.”

The Leaf founder wants people to feel comfortable when they come to the dispensary, especially if they’re skeptical about cannabis having any redeeming value. “Seeing how this industry has evolved and the misconceptions of cannabis to some people out there. They still have a, ‘This is just a head shop, a pot shop,’ attitude, and seeing how it’s come to this higher end, cannabis evolution,” he said. 

 A grand re-opening celebration is set for Leaf Dispensary in Thousand Oaks on Saturday, Aug. 6, starting at 9 a.m. Vendors will be offering special deals, and there will be food trucks in the parking lot.

“It’s just a day of celebration for us, finally breaking through and coming to where the state has evolved,” he said. “It’s almost like another day of 420.”

Leaf Dispensary, 3321 Grande Vista Dr., Thousand Oaks, 805-376-0051, leafthousandoaks.com