Every afternoon at 4:20 sharp, “Steve” leaves his office in San Francisco. After a day spent shuffling multi-million-dollar investments, many of his firm’s ace financial planners scurry to join the sexy clientele at the nearby W hotel’s XYZ bar. But Steve, 35, doesn’t go with them. (Some names in this story have been changed.) He doesn’t drink. And with his 24-year-old “Hawaiian Tropic–hot” wife waiting at home, he’s not on the prowl. Instead, to revitalize his mind and body, he slips in his iPod earbuds and walks 30 minutes to his favorite state-sanctioned cannabis club.

Decked out in bachelor-pad chic, the subterranean lounge is populated by a menagerie of regulars nodding lazily to the dub reggae pulsing from the speakers. Steve approaches the fluorescent-lit glass counter and buys a gram of Purple Urkel. He hands over 15 bucks and sinks into a red velvet couch, wadding his Gucci jacket into a ball. From his briefcase he pulls out clear cellulose rolling papers from Brazil, and he twists up a joint.

Steve doesn’t have glaucoma, aids, cancer, or any other ailment commonly associated with medical marijuana. But when he wanted to avoid the “harsh side effects” of the Valium his shrink had prescribed for his stress, he sought out a “pot doc” from the growing field of activist physicians who consider cannabis a legitimate salve against disorders like anxiety. Today a doctor’s note gives Steve access to the state’s rapidly expanding roster of cannabis clubs (there are about 300 now).

Encouraged by recent tweaks to California’s pot-friendly laws, connoisseurs across the state are suddenly abandoning their dope dealers to sample the clubs’ exotic, high-grade strains of sativas and indicas, concentrates like hash and kief, and edibles like caramels and krispies and lollipops. One writer in Los Angeles, “Blake,” notes, “It’s the difference between buying a six-pack of Coors Light at your local 7-Eleven and selecting a fine Pinot Noir at a snooty wine shop.” “John,” a 29-year-old entertainment lawyer in L.A., boasts that his local emporium sells “the most amazing selection of the sickest fucking nuggets you can find anywhere on God’s green earth.” His eyes light up, and his voice takes on a fiery staccato: “It’s like Amsterdam, only better.”

In 1996, California passed the Compassionate Use Act (Proposition 215), granting physicians the authority to recommend weed for “any . . . illness for which marijuana would provide relief.” For eight years, the typical state-sanctioned cannabis consumer, of whom there were about 30,000, was a gravely ill patient. But no longer. Thanks to recent clarifications of Prop 215 (and a U.S. district court injunction protecting pot docs), the threat of arrest has nearly vanished. Since 2004, an estimated 250,000 new “patients” have discreetly boarded the brownie bus, many of them enthusiasts who pay up to a few hundred dollars a year for doctor’s notes that permit them to buy rarefied weed at a cannabis club. The doctors’ “recommendations” ostensibly combat such ailments as insomnia and headaches. One pioneering pot doc wrote notes to “treat” stuttering, writer’s cramp, and corns.