By Lois Beckett, The Guardian
When Kika Keith and her daughter opened a cannabis dispensary in South Los Angeles last year, they faced a design challenge: how could they create a store where older Black customers, who had seen all the ravages of the “war on drugs”, would feel comfortable making a purchase?
It had been a tough battle for Keith to open a dispensary as a Black woman, in a post-legalized marijuana market where most of the business owners had become white men. She and her daughter, Kika Howze, wanted their store, Gorilla Rx Wellness Co, to reflect their focus on neighborhood investment and their hip-hop aesthetic.
But they didn’t want to emulate the sleek hip-hop branding of youth-focused cannabis companies like Cookies or Stiizy, the kind of “shiny” dispensaries that had “music videos playing with girls’ breasts out”, as Keith put it.
They would have Los Angeles-born hip-hop stars like Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolboy Q on their soundtrack, but they wanted their dispensary to feel like a grocery store, with products more reminiscent of a Whole Foods vitamin aisle.
“We want to model what a community-first dispensary looks like, and at the head of our community is our elders,” Keith said.
More than five years after California voters approved the sale of recreational marijuana, the legal weed market still faces plenty of economic and social challenges. But there’s also a wide variety of legal dispensaries across the state working to erase the stigma of criminalization and attract new cannabis consumers.
What California’s legal marijuana stores actually look and feel like has been a key part of that redefinition. New entrepreneurs like Keith are continuing to push the boundaries of dispensary design, particularly when it comes to appealing to a broader range of Black consumers, while simultaneously pushing back against the “whitewashing” of the legal cannabis market.
“Corporations conveniently forget that a lot of cannabis culture is centered around Black culture,” said Ebony McGee Andersen, the chief operating officer of Josephine & Billie’s, another South Los Angeles dispensary operated by and for Black women. “You can’t fake that. You can’t appropriate that.”
Across California, there have been all kinds of experiments in legal dispensary design – some more successful than others. The past five years has introduced giant weed tourist attractions like Orange County’s Planet 13, a marijuana theme park of a store that features a fake smoke-filled VW party bus with surf boards on top, and Deli by Caliva, a chain of dispensaries modeled after 1950s-style neighborhood sandwich counters.
There was, briefly, a luxury shop within a Beverly Hills department store called The High End, which sold luxury French rolling papers and $1,100 bongs. (The department store, Barneys, filed for bankruptcy later that same year.)
In Los Angeles, one of the clear winners in the race to define the aesthetic of the legal dispensary has been MedMen, a national cannabis company often referred to as the “Apple store of weed” for its sleek Scandinavian design and digital service.
But as new companies try to find space in the challenging legal market, opening another dispensary with the same bland “Apple store” aesthetic is not enough, said Melanie Coddington, the Oakland-based founder of Sungrown Studio, which specializes in dispensary design.
“Consumers want to know the owner’s story now,” said Coddington, who has designed at least 20 dispensaries across the country since 2019.
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