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Splendor in the Grass

The San Francisco Patient and Resource Center, or Sparc, is not your average pot club. There’s no peephole or scary-looking security guy, no skunky couches or blackened windows. Instead, a collegiate “community liaison” stands by the door answering questions from passers-by and checking membership cards and paperwork. (There’s no fee to join, but you need a doctor’s recommendation to enter.) And with its minimalist oak tables and benches, and jazz on the stereo, Sparc could easily be mistaken for a Japanese teahouse. Welcome to the medical marijuana dispensary of the future.

“Cannabis buyer’s clubs” began cropping up in San Francisco in the late 1990s, after Proposition 215, which passed in California in 1996, removed criminal penalties for people who grew or possessed cannabis for their own medical use. Since then, a hodgepodge of legislative enactments and judicial decisions has more or less legalized the medical use of marijuana; today Sparc is one of 24 licensed dispensaries in San Francisco. In November, residents will vote on Proposition 19, a statewide ballot initiative that could legalize marijuana for recreational use in California.

Sparc’s founder, Erich Pearson, has legally grown cannabis in Sonoma and San Francisco Counties for the past 12 years, selling it to medical dispensaries and supplying it for free to critically ill patients in hospices. (Marijuana has been shown to alleviate nausea, neuropathy, pain and insomnia, and to stimulate appetite.) Two years ago, wanting more direct contact with patients, he decided to open his own dispensary, and in the process created a new model for marijuana distribution.

Pearson enlisted Sand Studios, a local architecture firm, to design a space that would help “remove the stigma around cannabis and make people feel marijuana is normal.” After all, as he acknowledged, “if we’re asking the government and citizens to allow medical cannabis, we have to show them a model they can feel comfortable with.”

The designer Larissa Sand toured a handful of Bay Area dispensaries to gain a better understanding of the business. (“Nothing against marijuana, but fine wine is my drug of choice,” Sand said.) While she was impressed with the sense of community and professionalism among growers and retailers, she found most dispensaries lacking when it came to aesthetics. “There was nothing current,” she said. “I wanted to create something beautiful, to elevate the product and give it the proper milieu.”

To that end, Sparc is spare, modern and well lit. Vaguely bong-shaped lights made of borosilicate science glass drip from the ceiling. Steel shelving holds dozens of apothecary-style wood boxes, each containing a different strain or form of lab-tested cannabis. Along another wall, a similar rack displays baby plants for sale. The sales counter is made of local oak, with inset glass-topped drawers exhibiting buds, salves and edibles like snickerdoodle cookies and “cosmic caramels.” According to Sand, such attention to detail sends a message to regulators and members alike that “this isn’t just some backyard moonshine.”

Of all Sparc’s design moves, Pearson is proudest of the facility’s semitransparent facade — a cascading grid of steel and glass patterned loosely on marijuana’s DNA and peppered with clear aquamarine panes. It was inspired in part by the Twin Peaks Tavern, a still-extant gay bar in the Castro that is said to have been the first in America to have clear windows (rather than blacked out) when it opened in 1972. “A glass facade represents transparency, legitimacy and a sort of coming out of the closet,” Pearson said. “It lets people know we’re not afraid of anything, that there’s no shame in it. It’s therapy for a lot of people.”