Dispensary vs Black Market Cannabis

Dispensary vs Black Market Cannabis

Editor’s Note: The State of Michigan has completed another bone-headed regulatory move that will put more money in the black market. Michigan, which has possibly the most complicated regulations of all legal states, has ‘declared’ ‘caregivers’ can no longer move their product from the medical market to the adult-use market. Guess where this product and its associated dollars are going to go? One has to wonder about dispensary vs. black market cannabis, and why you might select one over the other.

We can obtain cannabis in a far different way than we did 10 or so years ago. Back then, my access to cannabis came through my dealer. My dealer sold one or two (if I was lucky) kinds of weed. I trusted him. I knew he had a high-quality product, even if I didn’t know its exact origin. There weren’t that many kinds of cannabis back in the 70s and early 80s. Mostly it was ‘Columbian’ or ‘Michoacan’ or if you were especially lucky, Panama Red. The dealer started to lose some business as more and more states legalized marijuana for either medical use or ‘recreational’ use. Now there are medical dispensaries (if you have a medical card), adult-use dispensaries (you have to be 21), or you can grow your own. That’s a time consuming and complex process, so most people are happy to go to a black market dealer or a dispensary.

Strain Explosion

Only having a few kinds of cannabis available at one time began to change in the late 1980s. Sinsemilla was introduced to the market as growers in California began cultivating the highest quality cannabis. Plant breeders started to introduce more cultivars (strains) to the market. Great cannabis became a domestic product in the U.S. Today there are multitudes of cultivars for purchase at most any dispensaries, let alone all the concentrates, oils, salves, balms, edibles, potions, lotions, etc. This product assortment makes dispensaries amazing marketplaces.

I’m a flower consumer. I like it and believe it’s the most natural way to consume cannabis.

Dispensary vs Black Market Cannabis

Today the question is this:

Is the bud you get from a legal dispensary as good or better as the bud you get from your favorite dealer?

Let’s dive into this subject.

How We Get our Cannabis

There are only three ways to get your weed; A legal dispensary, a black-market dealer, or growing it yourself. All States with medical and or adult-use cannabis use dispensaries. That’s how people get their weed legally.

At the dispensary, you’re probably talking to someone you’ve never met before. Only seldom do dispensaries offer real cannabis training and the ‘budtenders’ typically don’t have deep knowledge of cannabis. It’s not much different at a wine shop. If you have a question, you may or may not (probably not) talk to a person with real knowledge.  Dispensary cannabis is a ‘known’ quantity and quality. ‘Known’ is because the weed has supposedly been tracked from seed to sale…I call it ‘seed to weed‘.

Your dealer is probably someone you’ve known and trusted for years.

The Legal Cannabis Industry

The legal cannabis industry has a problem. Actually two problems; Regulation and big business. Regulation is a HUGE problem in almost all the medical and adult-use legal states. Most regulatory agencies are acting as though they wish cannabis would just go away. It’s here to stay and regulatory agencies need to wake up to this. The regulatory environment has become a hodge-podge of rules and regulations that are frequently a boon for large grow operations while cutting out smaller growers with their onerous regulations and often crazy expensive costs to entry.

The regulators, for the most part, have created very high barriers to entry. They are not regulating for equality. They’re regulating for the easiest way to do things, which means impenetrable rules, insane regulations, and lots of red tape. These agencies also promote capricious regulations and very high taxes. High barriers to entry for both growers and dispensaries mean only people who can afford access into the market are people with very deep pockets or big business. The problem with big business and large grow operations is the ‘large’ part. Yes, they’re capable of producing large quantities of cannabis with high levels of THC or CBD. The problem is homogeneity.

Dispensary vs Black Market Cannabis. What are the Differences?

Dispensaries can be cool. They have a lot of different types of cannabis, edibles, concentrates, and extracts. That’s their job. A dispensary is a retailer, no mistake about it. What about the quality of their weed? Most of the weed I’ve tried from dispensaries are indoor grown (resource intensive) by big companies.

Big operations have different needs. I’m going to draw a line in the sand and call a big grow having at least 1,000 plants in flower with more being raised all the time. Large growers frequently have several installations. Big grow operations can take the harvested cannabis, trim it very tightly and sell fairly uniform size buds.

Smaller grows, which are mostly hand operations are frequently outdoor grows. They have the advantage of having a lot of handwork done on the plants. Handwork, in this case, means trimming and pruning the plants for bigger fuller flowers. Big grow operations also need to maximize the weight of the flower they harvest. That doesn’t necessarily make for the best product.

The Advantages of Dispensary Cannabis

when thinking about dispensary vs. black market cannabis, we need to recognize dispensary cannabis has several advantages. It’s legal. it’s also been tested for pesticides and other potential impurities. Other than this, dispensary weed is usually grown by large operations. The advantage of large operations vs. small growers is scale. A large operation can grow cannabis for as little as ~$200/pound to ~$500 per pound. Per gram, this works out to be between 4 cents and 10 cents. This is the cost before amortization, equipment like lights, irrigation systems, or labor after the plant is harvested.

When a plant is ready to harvest, it gets cut down. Then it’s dried and cured. This is a 5-6 week process. Then the flowers are separated into buds, trimmed of extra leaves, big stems, and other parts that aren’t going to the consumer. Big grow operations want consistency in their product. That makes for easier sales. It also makes for a “blander” product, for lack of any other way to say it.

Rarely is the effect of corporate weed unique. It is, in my experience, a pretty generic buzz. I believe, high THC percentages are partly to blame for this. When you smoke weed with a 25-30% or even higher THC percentage, the abundance of THC in the plant takes away from the overall quantity of terpenes and other substances that are naturally found in the plant. So it might be nice to get so high fast, but it certainly doesn’t produce a unique buzz. The stratospheric THC percentage takes over and you start to feel sleepy. It doesn’t matter whether it’s ‘sativa’ or indica.’ Corporate cannabis is a plain-jane experience. Yes, it gets you very high. But it generally does so with no finesse.

The Advantages of Black Market Cannabis

When you buy illegal cannabis from your dealer, you’re breaking the law. OK, so you’re breaking the law. Potheads have been a mostly independent group that didn’t care if it broke laws to enjoy their favorite plant. Don’t think it’s not a big deal and not right, but until dispensaries get their act together on quality and regulators get their heads out of some very dark places and allow for small businesses (much the same as the wine industry), the black market will remain and remain strong.

Black market cannabis is of somewhat unknown origin, but your dealer and grower want you to come back for more. That means, no moldy, dank, mildewy weed. No pesticides or herbicides. Black market growers have to be more careful with their growing techniques. They also tend to be smaller, operating more like boutique wineries.

Most legal states don’t accommodate small growers. The barriers to entry are too high: both regulatory and financial. It’s not right and until the States license growers the same way they license wineries, there will continue to be a black market with smaller, specialized growers. Black market growers are also prone to use techniques that take more care, but produce better flower at the end of the day.

A large, legal grower is not going to try dry farming outdoors or no-till farming outdoors, and there’s at least one grower working no-till indoors. These techniques can produce far better cannabis flower than large indoor commercial grow operations. So the bud you’re buying from your black market dealer is probably better than what you generally get at a dispensary.


You have a choice; Either buy your bud in a legal dispensary, go to your black market dealer, or grow your own. In a legal dispensary, you sort of know what you’re getting. Adult-use is legal in 10 states and the District of Columbia (although you can’t tell it when you’re there). Medical cannabis is legal in 33 states and several U.S. territories. Where medical cannabis is legal, there are many dispensaries. Medical cannabis is no different from adult-use cannabis. It’s an identical product. Cannabis is cannabis, whether it’s ‘medical’ or ‘recreational’ other than a made-up law.

Remember though, when you’re thinking about whether dispensary vs black market cannabis is best, if you buy from a black market dealer, even in an adult-use legal state, you’re still breaking the law.

Is the black market weed better than what you get at the pot shop? You have to decide that.

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    • John
    • April 17, 2020

    You left out getting organic grown weed from friends that have been growing at home and trading with other neighbors for years. Common around here. Like sharing a harvest of really good lettuce or potatoes. Does not enter the economy from a measurable way, which is very good. Exceptional article.

      • Annie
      • April 17, 2020

      Yes! I love my friend’s most recent Girl Scout Cookies harvest. 🙂

      • Steve Haskin
      • April 18, 2020

      I didn’t leave it out. The reason homegrown wasn’t mentioned other than in passing was that >95% of all people who consume cannabis flower get it from their dealer or dispensary. Heck, I’d grow my own, except I’m never in the same place long enough to really cultivate plants. I don’t even have houseplants. I did grow a plant a long time ago. It was stellar and we named it “Alice” as in “Alice in Wonderland” and it’s been a benchmark. Really psychedelic and amazing, but alas, that’s not an option for me any more.

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