Every major cannabis municipality in the country has an “elevated” dispensary acting as an access point for consumers historically intimidated by the green cross era of pot shops. Through a soothing mixture of design, curation, education, and customer service, these dispensaries have been creating new audiences, with women over the age of 50 consistently cited among the most engaged and lucrative. While some stores undeniably land the enhanced aesthetic, few seamlessly merge appearance with the medical needs of people entering their autumn years.
In the pastoral coastal community of Carmel-by-the-Sea, where the median age is 63 and the net worth close to $6 million, Synchronicity Holistic has been a safe bridge for an in-need community that once was deeply skeptical about cannabis.
Synchronicity finally opened its doors in December 2019 after founder Valentia Valentine spent the better part of a decade trying to convince the city council and the county board of supervisors cannabis has a vital role to play in the wellbeing of seniors. The 66-year-old serial entrepreneur and philanthropist made cannabis advocacy her focus when, in 2010, she started using the plant to manage symptoms related to multiple sclerosis.
“I knew the story of an affluent, older woman using cannabis to treat her MS would challenge a lot of people’s assumptions around here,” said Valentine, whose impassioned activism quickly made her a familiar voice in the municipality and in local media. “I wanted to show people cannabis is a medicine, and it helped me get out of bed and out of a wheelchair. It gave me my health back, and I knew it could do the same for so many others.”
The Central Valley native and mother of seven was diagnosed in 1989. Both her family and her commercial real estate business were growing as her symptoms—dizziness, difficulty walking, loss of depth perception—began to emerge and dramatically affect her daily life.
“I had a new baby, and I had to hire help to simply hold him because I had symptoms of vertigo,” she said. “As a strong, independent woman, it was humbling to ask for help tying my shoes or getting my leg into the car. I didn’t know how to take that.”
After remarrying in 1992, she relocated her family to the affluent golfing community of Pebble Beach. Despite the rigors of raising a big family, running a business, and battling MS, Valentine became a central figure in her new community, raising $15 million for local nonprofits and opening an over-50s wellness studio in nearby Carmel.
After she broke four ribs in 2010, her doctors at Stanford made a fateful recommendation that would shift the direction of her life: She should visit a Santa Cruz dispensary and try cannabis.
Turned off by the classic OG retail experience but stunned by the immediate health benefits of the controversial plant medicine, Valentine’s entrepreneurial and philanthropic instincts kicked in and she sought to understand as much as possible about the plant and the industry sprouting around it.
“I started thinking there are so many people in my community alone that could benefit from this plant,” she said. “Could the right store with the right approach introduce cannabis to more people like me?”
Her research took her to the CannMed conference in Israel and the father of modern cannabis science, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam. He was fascinated by her MS treatment regimen. Upon returning to the United States, she traveled to every state that had some form of regulated market. Everywhere she went, she saw the same dimly lit headshops and perma-stoned staff.
“Nobody was trying to enhance the customer’s experience or introduce new patients that might be intimidated,” she said. “I wanted to do things completely differently.”
To bring her vision of an opulent, senior-friendly dispensary to life, Valentine hired Scottsdale, Arizona-based interior design firm The High Road Design Studio. Led by founder and principal Megan Stone, The High Road has won numerous awards for elegant cannabis boutiques across ten states. In Synchronicity Stone was tasked with creating “a distinct, brand-driven retail experience, committed first and foremost to serving senior women.”
The specific directive—coupled with Valentine’s personal experiences—gave the store a distinctly functional luxury. Taking its lead from high-fashion retailers like Hermès and Bulgari, the shop’s ambiance is polished and feminine, with checkered marble floors, sleek chandeliers, and Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams chairs. The displays, fixtures, and surfaces are designed to be comfortable for a person in a wheelchair.
Upon entering Synchronicity, customers are greeted by Kevin Armstong, the dapper receptionist who spent forty years as director of security at the local Tiffany’s. In the center of the store is a four-sided, glass-cased concentrate bar, which Stone explained “takes cues from traditional department store perfumery and makeup counters, providing employees plenty of storage and easy access to inventory.” Around the periphery, flower stations feature eighths and pre-rolls from Canndescent and Flow Kana, a beverage bar with Lagunitas and CANN (“people around here can’t get enough of those right now” Valentine revealed), and an edibles bar in High Road’s signature deli style that features brands like Camino, Higher Level, and Pantry.
Education also is vital for those approaching cannabis cautiously and medicinally. A pair of cozy side rooms house a modest library of informative cannabis books and host group education sessions (pre-COVID-19 gatherings included classes on using cannabis for Parkinson’s disease, cancer, and addiction) as well as one-on-one consultations with the store’s in-house pharmacist, David Villareal.
Villareal (who is a partner in Synchronicity) had a forty-year career in pharmacy before he burned out and found himself searching for something more meaningful. His wife, Annie, is a local fitness trainer who helped Valentine rebuild the strength to get out of her wheelchair. When she approached him about an opportunity in cannabis, his initial reaction was a common one for healthcare professionals: fear of losing his license.
“I was the typical Western medicine health professional who was misled into believing cannabis was something to avoid,” he said. “But as time went on and I became more educated, my views changed significantly.”
Villareal’s background in pharmacology helps him steer Synchronicity’s aging and ailing patients around the potential negative side effects cannabis may induce when used alongside other drugs. “It has been a joy to witness patients successfully reduce, and in some cases eliminate, their use of pharmaceuticals,” he said.
Villareal is joined by a staff of ten women, all of whom are either registered nurses or have extensive medical cannabis backgrounds. “I’ve been in this industry and in business for a long time,” said Valentine. “I know the value of hiring the right people and treating people well. I’m honored to be supported by such a group of talented women who care about their patients.”
The respect is unquestionably mutual. “I watched cannabis change [Valentine’s] entire life,” said patient educator Jennifer Hewlett, a former nursing assistant who was Valentine’s primary caregiver. “Financially, she doesn’t have to do this. This plant changed her life, and she wants to create safe access to it for as many people as she can. I feel so blessed to have known her and worked with her over the years. She’s such an inspiration.”
In Stone’s view, Valentine’s experience as a patient imbues Synchronicity with a deeper sense of purpose than the average dispensary. “You can’t fake that desire to make the world healthier through safe access to cannabis,” Stone said. “But then you also add her experience in business and philanthropy with an incredible sense of style, taste, and hospitality, and you get an intangible quality that you feel the moment you walk in and stays with you after you leave.”
In conversation, Valentine frequently references the feeling of indebtedness she has to the Carmel community for supporting her family when she first came to the area. “I came here as a very sick mom, and this community helped me raise my daughters and son,” she said. “Oftentimes sick parents create an unhealthy codependency for the kids. But all the moms rallied around our family to make sure my kids had the same social life as the others. I’ll never, ever forget that.”
Today, her impact as a nationally visible MS patient persistently advocating for cannabis has transcended Monterey County and given hope and guidance to people across the country living with the illness.
“We have people reaching out to us from all over the United States who have read my story, and they want to know what I used to improve my health,” Valentine said. “I give them a version of what worked for me, and we figure out where they can access cannabis safely nearby.”
Asked to consider the transformative influence she is having on those in ill health, Valentine smiled in silence for a moment before revealing, “You know, there’s not a word I can say to convey the profound feeling of knowing you’ve helped somebody. I think this sense of purpose is as powerful as the plant itself.”