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The Boardwalk. The beaches. The redwoods. The weed.

Long a hotbed of cannabis and counterculture, Santa Cruz County boasts the largest number of cannabis dispensaries per-capita in the entire state. Each and every type of user—recreational or medicinal—is sure to find exactly what they need at any of the many cannabis retailers right here in Surf City.

The birthplace of the legendary Haze strains, including the well-known Purple Haze and Original Haze of the 1960s, Santa Cruz has a rich history as a leader in cannabis culture. By the early ’90s, local activists were leading the medical marijuana movement, thanks to the trailblazing Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM), which became the first such collective given nonprofit status in the U.S.

With essential contributions from WAMM co-founder Valerie Corral, the passage of Proposition 215 led California to be the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996. A newly legitimate cannabis industry was born almost overnight. With the recent advent of legal recreational marijuana, the California cannabis market has bloomed into an institution worth billions of dollars. And it’s growing fast—so fast that some industry insiders proclaim that we’ve entered a “golden age of weed.”

Public support for all forms of cannabis legalization is growing across the nation. A recent Quinnipiac study found that a full 93% of Americans support nationwide medical marijuana legalization, and 62% support full federal marijuana legalization. Other states and districts are looking to California to see how it’s done, and the booming recreational industry has also attracted a new breed of consumer to the marketplace: the cannabis tourist. New customers and long-time users from all over are flocking to Santa Cruz County dispensaries, encouraged by the abundant safe and regulated dispensaries.

A First-Timer’s Guide 

For some just dipping their toes into cannabis culture, visiting a dispensary for the first time can be a confusing and downright nerve-wracking prospect. The sheer number of choices can seem overwhelming: “Who do I talk to?” “What questions should I ask?” “Will I sound stupid?” “What the heck is that?”

But the truth is, local dispensaries are used to a lot of new users walking through their doors each day. Local budtenders are trained and do their best to help people figure out what will work best for them in the most comfortable way possible. New customers are given guidance, and time. No question is stupid.

The cannabis sold at Santa Cruz County dispensaries isn’t your grandma’s weed—but could still be quite enjoyable for grandma! Since the 1960s and ’70s, cannabis has only been getting stronger, with the average strain tripling in potency and level of THC jumping from around 5% to 25-30%. While terms like CBD, Indica, THC, and Sativa garner a ton of attention, scientists and growers still do not possess a thorough understanding of how the hundreds of individual and varied components in cannabis work together, or how they interact with the human brain and body. Cannabis science is just emerging; it’s truly a golden-green age for researchers, growers, pharmaceutical companies, recreational users, and everyone touching the cannabis industry.

The good stuff goes by many names—dank, fire, chronic, etc.—but in local cannabis dispensaries, it’s simply called “top shelf.” Most shops operate on a tiered system, and create a wall or display with groups of strains at different price levels. The best cannabis is on top. No bunk or schwag here, just premium sticky icky. The main indicators of top shelf and high-quality flower are smell, feel, look, and flower structure. For smell, the stronger the aroma of flower, the better. For look, a high-end bud will sparkle with a wide array of colors, boasting a surface magically coated with little glistening trichomes—gorgeous little crystal-like structures partly responsible for the plant’s effects and flavor. If you carefully squeeze a bud between your fingers and it’s slightly spongy or sticky, you’ve likely found top-shelf stuff. 

The cool part is you really don’t have to be a marijuana detective in Santa Cruz County. There are hundreds of potent, cultivated strains on the shelves of local dispensaries, and every retailer will have top-shelf product. It’s usually worth splurging a bit just to ensure that you’ve scored some of the dankest weed ever created.

Cannabis is emerging from the shadows, and it’s a great time to discover what’s available here in Santa Cruz County. Be safe! This list of local dispensaries will get you on your way.


115 Limekiln St., Santa Cruz, 420-3227,

Central Coast Wellness Center

7932 Hwy. 9, Ben Lomond, 704-7340,


3088 Winkle Ave., Santa Cruz, 475-5506,

Curbstone Exchange

6535 Hwy. 9, Felton, 704-7151,

Herbal Cruz

1051 41st Ave., Santa Cruz, 462-9999,


3600 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz, 471-8562; 533 Ocean St.,

Santa Cruz, 515-4114,


1104 Ocean St., Santa Cruz, 515-7363,

Santa Cruz Naturals

9077 Soquel Drive, Aptos, 688-7266; 19 San Juan Rd., Royal Oaks, 722-2018,

Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance

2827 S. Rodeo Gulch Rd. Unit 6, Soquel, 431-6347,

Therapeutic Healthcare Collective

5011 Soquel Drive, Soquel, 713-5641,


3561 Soquel Drive, Soquel, 471-8289,

West Cliff Wellness

1100 Fair Ave. Unit B, Santa Cruz, 345-0281,