Cannabis may have been legalised in two states in the US, however it still retains a stigma that makes it difficult to be taken seriously. Legitimate businesses in locations where the sale of cannabis is legal will have a hard time rebranding themselves as reputable and respectable as the image of the hippy stoner is hard to shake.

Whilst still classified as an illegal substance, the cannabis trade never needed to focus on its branding or image, it was more about not getting arrested. For decades the goofy stoner iconography has been prevalent, from pot-leaf motifs, to tie-dye t-shirts to Shaggy from Scooby Doo. Product packaging was limited to little cellophane baggies, and store locations were often one creepy guy skulking around the back of a public building.

When the sale of marijuana first became legal, architecture and design was not made a priority, pot sellers were instead far more focused on getting product on their shelves and then into the customer's hands. The result was marijuana stores that looked like cheque-cashing centres; simple white rooms filled with metal folding chairs and the odd piece of ikea-bought decoration. With counters fitted with bulletproof glass, marijuana dispensaries were not helping to shed the image of pot as a harmful drug for degenerates.

With the pot industry now poised to grow faster than the smartphone industry, we are likely to see a whole new commercial industry emerge around the marketing and sale of legal marijuana.

The architecture of a well-designed dispensary

The days of blacked-out windows and discrete and ominous-looking stores are long gone, and architects have an opportunity to create an entirely new image for how cannabis dispensaries can be seen. A far cry from the coffeeshops of Amsterdam, most modern dispensaries take on an organic yet clinical look, similar to a high-end pharmacy or boutique cosmetics store. The staff working in legal dispensaries are both knowledgeable and approachable, and the architecture of the store needs to reflect this new open and safe image.

A San Francisco-based dispensary called SPARC has come to be known as the “Apple store of pot”, winning an American Institute of Architects Award in 2011. Designed by Sand Studios, a high-end architecture firm also based in San Francisco, SPARC features a clean and modern open interior with the open-shelved look of an upscale retail outlet.

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Colorado was the first state in the US to legalise marijuana, and has seen the most benefits of legalised pot sales. The roaring success of the marijuana trade has brought increased competition for vendors, and has made design and branding increasingly important for business. As competition heated up, retailers started looking for ways to distinguish themselves, and the idea of turning the once-shameful drug deal into a cozy retail experience caught on.

Denver-based Roth Sheppard architects, overseen by then current Architect of the Year (as named by the American Institute of Architect’s Colorado Chapter), Jeff Sheppard, were commissioned to design and create a new retail space for the retail chain, Ajoya's new Louisewille cannabis store, in a way that would transform the marijuana shopping experience. The white minimalist interior of the new Louisville showroom provides a clean canvas for displaying a plentiful selection of cannabis products.

The spa-like atmosphere is a significant contrast to the typical cluttered retail environment of the past, inviting customers to enjoy a more calming and relaxed shopping experience. Since the purpose of pot is to create a calming and relaxed feel, it stands to reason that shoppers would respond to this in favour of a rushed or stressful shopping environment.

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Custom built furniture displays top quality products, while knowledgable and friendly staff offer an opportunity to learn more about cannabis and deliver a superior shopping experience.

The new Ajoya store makes it clear that cannabis dispensaries can be as sleek as anything in the local shopping mall - a trendy boutique that aims to make the buying experience as pleasant as using the products that are for sale.

Author Ryan Mungia looks at the evolving aesthetic of marijuana stores in his book ‘Pot Shots’, in which he postulates that as marijuana becomes more and more acceptable, more dispensaries will employ architects and designers “as a way to offer their customers a sense of legitimacy and cache to what many still consider to be a questionable industry.” If you find this concept interesting, enroll in the Cannabis Bank architecture competition and put your creativity to the test, designing either a medical or recreational marijuana dispensary depending on its legal status in your own country.

The Cannabis Bank architecture competition is an opportunity for architecture enthusiasts to explore how architecture could potentially influence society. Without restrictions on site selection, all participants must focus on is creating a strong yet versatile identity for their designs, allowing it to be recreated in any country and still be instantly recognisable.

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