Union Square Travel Agency (USQTA) opened its doors to the public in February, revealing a vision of a recreational cannabis dispensary for New York City as a place of escape and transformation. Photo courtesy Will Ellis.

What Recreational Cannabis Means for Dispensary Design in New York

Following its legalization, the city faces an identity (and equity) crisis when it comes to cannabis retail. 

Before recreational cannabis was legalized in New York State in March 2021, I usually bought my pot from a bodega down the block from my apartment in Brooklyn. Unlike the now-pervasive “weed bodegas,” this particular convenience store didn’t (at the time) blatantly advertise that it sold THC products. It didn’t have a flashy sign proclaiming a name like “Zaza Weed Emporium,” “Kannabis Korner,” or “Smoker’s Hub.” There wasn’t a mural on the interior of cartoon characters like Sailor Moon or Rick and Morty, neon pot leaf signs, or inflatable blunts hanging from the ceiling. But if you asked casually, and if you’d established trust with your bodega guys (#NewYorkCityGoals), they would pull out a black plastic bag from behind the counter and lay out a colorful array of gray-market cannabis products, mostly sourced from California. 

We might be reaching an end to marijuana criminalization, but the criminalization of “bad taste” lives on. 

Over the past two years, bodegas and tobacco shops throughout the city have been converting into unauthorized dispensaries at impressive rates. And they’ve been doing so with an authentic “outsider” aesthetic that looks decidedly different from the stores opened by corporate weed prospectors with design concepts in line with the Office of Cannabis Management’s sterilized guidelines. For the estimated 1,500 unlicensed retailers in New York City, there are only a handful of legal dispensaries: four in Manhattan, three in Brooklyn, three in Queens, one in the Bronx, and one in Staten Island. 

When you can get everything you need from your neighborhood bodega, why would you pick up from a licensed dispensary

For nonprofits Housing Works and The Doe Fund, the argument is that you should visit an authorized dispensary for social equity. As the recipient of the first-ever conditional adult-use retail dispensary license, issued by the Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) under the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, Housing Works opened Housing Works Cannabis Co. (HWCC). Known for its HIV/AIDS and homelessness advocacy, the nonprofit also operates a community health-care center, organizes a number of programs for LGBTQ+ youth, and provides job training and legal services, among others. One hundred percent of proceeds from its cannabis storefront go to such efforts. So while state guidelines stringently regulate advertising, branding, and display design for legal stores, this is a plus side: Under the state’s social equity licensing program, according to Damian Fagon, OCM’s chief equity officer, social equity licenses will help “shape new systems and policies designed to deliver racial and economic justice for generations of New Yorkers.” One of the ways is through reinvestment in local nonprofits. 

In a recent press release, store manager Sasha Nutgent said: “Our nonprofit’s mission remains as urgent as ever. We are eager to take the lead as a social equity model for America’s cannabis industry, specifically with our hiring practices and continued support of individuals and communities disproportionately impacted by the unjust War on Drugs.” 

Housing Works Cannabis Co. (HWCC) received a social equity license through the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA). The MRTA dedicates 40 percent of adult-use cannabis tax revenue to the New York State Community Reinvestment Grant Fund, which helps community-based nonprofits apply for licensing and funding to support communities disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. Photo courtesy Housing Works.

While Housing Works proudly embodies the slogans “Smoking Out the Stigma” and “Make Love, Not Drug War,” elsewhere in the city, the raids and rhetoric being used against illicit storefronts seem to expose a central contradiction of the state’s equity-centered approach to legalization. It appears that many people from the same communities that were criminalized by the drug war are being targeted for opening illegal dispensaries. So far this year, the NYPD, the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, the Office of Cannabis Management, and the sheriff’s office have conducted 207 inspections, made 98 arrests, issued 7,959 violations, and seized some $10 million of unregulated cannabis products. However, it appears that there is some level of caution around getting these shop owners involved in the criminal justice system, with most raids yielding nothing more than a court summons or a small fine. Some shops that were previously shut down have even reopened within 24 hours. 

“The crazy bodega model is very New York, and I appreciate that,” says Christopher Leong of Leong Leong, the architecture firm behind a second legal dispensary in Manhattan, Union Square Travel Agency (USQTA). And there are obvious differences in the two. For one, “the LED lights are so bright. For USQTA, we were conscious not to have visible light fixtures,” he explains. And since state regulations require all cannabis products to be locked behind glass, the lights “create hot spots for your eye,” creating an unpleasant shopping experience. 

After showing their ID to security at the door, USQTA visitors are greeted by a towering sculpture in the shape of a plastic joint with transparent “rolling paper” revealing an array of green plastic toys and objects, from beach balls and sunglasses to laser-cut silhouettes of airplanes and taxis. Photo courtesy Will Ellis.

But this isn’t the only design regulation Leong had to consider when crafting interiors for the dispensary. In March 2023 the Office of Cannabis Management issued a 47-page “Packaging and Labeling & Marketing and Advertising Guidance for Adult-Use Licensees” document that reads as if someone went into an illicit smoke shop and banned everything they saw, from exterior signs that depict anything other than “essential information” to any “symbols, images, characters, public figures, phrases, toys, or games” that may appeal to a younger age group. This means no cartoon murals and no “mascots,” so say goodbye to the friendly image of SpongeBob SquarePants rocking dreadlocks and hitting a bong. 

“We were really keen on developing a project that not only helped to distinguish us from the illicit stores but also to help set a model for a kind of New York City cannabis,” explains Arana Hankin-Biggers, president of USQTA. She hopes the dispensary stands out from its West Coast and New England counterparts by providing a “a New York City flavor” for “higher-end, design-focused dispensaries.” 

Like HWCC, USQTA operates under a social equity license, with more than half the profits going to the Doe Fund, a nonprofit that provides housing, career training, and employment opportunities to formerly incarcerated men. “We wanted to pursue a brand identity that also was complementary to the Doe Fund and the work that they’re doing—something aspirational that speaks to ascension and transformation,” notes Hankin-Biggers. 

Inside, you won’t find any black plastic bag inventory, Bob Marley rolling trays, or pot leaf–patterned wallpaper. Instead you’ll experience a soft minimal space more akin to a luxury jewelry or fragrance store. “There’s so many things happening [in Union Square], so we wanted to create something that really felt like a sanctuary,” explains Leong. “We pulled from a lot of art-based references to make it feel almost surreal. We looked a lot at travel architecture from the 20th and 21st century.” He describes the concealed lighting as emanating more of a James Turrell vibe, and to be sure, the whole dispensary feels more “art gallery” than “head shop.” 

To be sure, USQTA offers an overall pleasant pot-buying experience unlike anything I’ve encountered before in New York or elsewhere. The transitional spaces are thought through, the products it does feel like an escape from the busy street. But when dispensaries start looking like art galleries, it raises the question, whom is this art for? How can shop owners who can’t afford specialized design services legally obtain a license to enter the market without tearing down and throwing out all the “Fire OG 4/20” signs, lights, and decor they already purchased in order to start over with a more palatable aesthetic? 

News articles and opinion pieces over the past year have shown us how much people love to comment on how “tacky,” “trashy,” and “wacky” weed bodegas are, but it’s nothing more than the same battle cry of “good design” we’ve been hearing in interior design sectors for decades. We might be reaching an end to marijuana criminalization, but the criminalization of “bad taste” lives on. Wrapped up in the taste battle is the implication that looks can indicate crime levels and that simple design choices can both affect and reflect safety— for example, the belief that a bodega with opaque windows due to pasted advertisements reads as more “dangerous” than a transparent glass storefront. 

This is apparent in the OCM’s dispensary guidelines around exterior decoration, which state that signs need to utilize plain, uncolored lights “in a number necessary to ensure public safety.” They also can’t employ any bright colors that are “neon” in appearance, defining these as “any color which, when listed in a form of hue, saturation, and lightness, has a saturation value greater than 60 percent.” 

This chromophobia extends to language and font selection guidelines as well. “Standard” fonts are allowed (Times New Roman, Helvetica, Calibri), but certain “angular,” “bubble,” and “graffiti-like” fonts are banned. Even if Helvetica is used, you still won’t find any “colloquial references” to cannabis “including, but not limited to, ‘stoner,’ ‘chronic,’ ‘weed,’ ‘pot,’ or ‘sticky buds.’ ” Sounds a lot like the days when you could get kicked out of a head shop for saying the word “bong.” 

illustrations by Jaxson Stone

Whom are we trying to keep safe with these guidelines? Popular discourse says it’s the children, but from Reefer Madness to D.A.R.E. programs in schools, we’ve heard it all before. Do unembellished signs, minimalist decor, transparent materials, and the banning of “graffiti-style” typography protect kids and eliminate crime, or do they more so signify to wealthy white people that this is the place they can “safely” shop for “cannabis products” with an “experienced budtender” and not a “pot dealer”?

While dispensaries such as Housing Works and Union Square Travel Agency are leading the way in positive change in New York’s burgeoning cannabis industry, these guidelines point to many flaws in our current design system—in cannabis retail and elsewhere—and are just another way to cast the aesthetics of “non-designed” vernacular spaces primarily run by immigrants and people of color as not only potentially dangerous but also “childish,” “naive,” and “inexperienced.” 

Edward Snajdr, coauthor of What the Signs Say: Language, Gentrification, and Place-Making in Brooklyn (Vanderbilt University Press, 2020), embraces what they call “old-school” NYC storefront signs that are defined by their wordiness and long lists of what’s for sale (often filled with misspellings and nonstandard English—for example, “Zaza Zccessories,” “Dissposable Vapes,” and “boncs”). This is in contrast to the “new-school” business signs that feature minimal signage with less font variety and smaller sizes, often with vague one-word monikers. For Snajdr, these sociolinguistic changes to Brooklyn’s streetscape are just one visual example of gentrification; he claims that the old-school signs often signify a more inclusive and welcoming business, while new-school signifies gentrification. Earlier this year the author told a Hell Gate reporter: “It’s great to see that this vernacular, this way of putting language on the street, is coming back. They have chosen this style, maybe to mimic the bodega. But they also are celebrating this register and paying homage to it.” 

Maybe instead of blasting bodega owners for their “tacky signs” that allegedly lure in children with bright colors, we can thank them for their ingenuity and continual ability to adapt to the demands of a rapidly changing city. I’m not saying that New York City dispensaries should all look like hot-boxed versions of the Times Square Disney Store, but they shouldn’t all look like Apple stores either.

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