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Why this new Santa Rosa dispensary represents the future of cannabis stores

Before entering the groovy inner sanctum of Doobie Nights, Santa Rosa’s newest cannabis dispensary, Brandon Levine paused in the so-called “Portal of Wonder.” He is the executive director of this psychedelic, 3,700-square-foot space on Santa Rosa Avenue, which is celebrating its grand opening Friday and Saturday.

Pointing to a modernistic lectern where a smiling employee will regulate the flow of traffic into the main sales room, he said, “It will be like checking in for a flight, almost.”

Doobie Nights is definitely a trip, a radical departure from the nondescript, clinical environment of most cannabis dispensaries. Its white walls are bedecked with sculptural elements, each wrapped with LED lighting.

“And then, over the top of that, you have the pictures we’re projecting” onto those walls, said Damon Craig, the general manager of Doobie Nights. Those vistas included, during a reporter’s midweek visit, shimmering galaxies, a lush tropical island, the pyramids of Egypt, a spectacular waterfall and a snow-covered forest.

Add a soundtrack of eclectic tunes, pumped through electrostatic speakers, and you have a multi-sensory experience on par with the hallucinogenic boat ride in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

Crain, 42, had quit his corporate job and “retired,” to run a sustainable farm on his spread near Safari West. But the Tubbs fire of October 2017 claimed his house and laid waste to those plans. “So I decided to go into retail for awhile, and see what I could do.”

Often underwhelmed by the drab shopping experiences at many other marijuana dispensaries, he understood why some people would rather sit at home and order their products online “than go out and have a horrible shopping experience.”

Instead, he and Levine would give customers an “amazing” experience. “I wanted to break the mold completely,” Crain said. To do that, they’ve dropped a cool $1.5 million so far on the lease and trippy, eye-catching interior.

Their original idea was for a dazzling pot emporium featuring “a kind of ’70s, retro” vibe, he said. But that niche, they realized, would be “too limiting,” he said.

“So what do you do that’s not limiting? Well, you could paint the walls white and project different things on ‘em every day. That’s not limiting,” Crain said.

California is the world’s largest legal marijuana market, with sales of licensed cannabis likely exceeding $3 billion in 2019, according to industry analysts. Cannabis tourism - visitors from out of state and other countries boarding vans and embarking on curated cannabis “crawls” - is a fast growing segment of that economy. Doobie Nights was designed with those tourists in mind.

“Tourism’s going to be huge for us,” said Levine, who is also the CEO of Mercy Wellness, a cannabis dispensary in Cotati.

Victor Pinho agrees with him. As the founder of San Francisco-based Emerald Farm Tours, Pinho is always searching for “new ways and new places” to enjoy cannabis, and intends to make Doobie Nights a regular stop for his clients.

“This is not being done anywhere else,” said Pinho, who praised the store’s “cutting edge” marriage of commerce with an “artistic, creative vision.”

“This is what the marketplace is requesting,” he said. “I think we’re going to see a lot more of what they’re doing.”

Levine and Crain hired artists renowned for their set designs at music festivals ranging from Coachella to the Boom Festival. In addition to the four $25,000 projectors casting images on the walls, the main room features an interactive touch-screen wall on which customers can summon information about products and then, if they wish, order them.

Also arresting: a clear, plastic half dome, roughly the diameter of a hula hoop, protruding like a solitary eye from the north wall of the main room.

“It looks like a security dome you see on the ceiling at Kmart,” Levine said. This dome, however, features integrated LED lighting, and can be programmed to come alive with dancing strands of bright yellow that remind the staff of a certain, Sonoma-based Food Network chef.

Said Levine, “We call it Magic Guy Fieri.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com

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