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Store designers look to the greener grass of legalised cannabis retailing in Canada

By Peter Crush

It’s a product that Canadians spend almost the same amount of money on ($5.6bn, or £3.5bn), as they do on buying wine – but until recently it was illegal. On 19 June however, all that changed when a historic bill was passed paving the way for Canada to become the first G7 country, and only the second country in full since Uruguay in 2013, to legalise cannabis.

The decision to decriminalise ‘weed’ across the pond comes hot on the heels of a long-running debate about it in the UK. The Liberal Democrats fought the last election promising to legalise it, while most recently, the case of 12-year old epilepsy sufferer, Billy Caldwell (having his medicinal cannabis oil confiscated by UK customs), has prompted home secretary Sajid Javid to commit to reviewing the sale of cannabis for recreational use.

Some now predict the UK could eventually follow Canada’s lead, with the Adam Smith Institute estimating the government could generate £750m-£1billion in taxes if cannabis were regulated like alcohol. This creates an interesting retail conundrum. How exactly do you present, promote and display a product that has hitherto been underground, and in the UK at least, still comes with the threat of five years’ in prison?

“It’s a tiny area of specialism, but one that will absolutely grow,” predicts Megan Stone, founder of High Road Studio – one of the world’s only design agencies specialising in bringing cannabis to consumers. Herself a medical cannabis patient, she believes the retail experience should be distinctly subtle, and more about “bringing dignity” to consuming cannabis. To this extent, she already works with the likes of US state-licensed dispensary chain TruMed in Arizona (where medical cannabis has been allowed since 2010), and Trulieve – Florida’s first licensed marijuana chain.

“Products themselves are much more varied that people think – they come as joints, oils, balms,” says Stone, “and while there are key restrictions that present challenges – such as having to be in locked glass cases – with the right props and risers, we believe there is the potential to present the product almost like jewellery – something that is revered.”

Because US buyers still need to be signed off by doctors to buy products, Stone says the difficult retail task is to avoid glorifying the experience people get from it, such as the ‘trip’ like euphoria the drug gives, while also not resorting to hippy clichés.

That said, she argues there is still plenty of freedom designers can use. “For Trulieve, it’s the dispensary store environment that we also help create,” she says. “And we won’t shy away from interesting imagery – for instance presenting a wall-sized kaleidoscope-style image, actually made from photographs of the leaves of the marijuana plant.”

Although Stone accepts this could conjure up psychedelic, hazy, trip-like connotations (see picture), she says it makes a bold point. “We’re essentially getting people to look at pot,” she says, “and about it being from nature, and being healing in quality.”

For other brands, like TruMed, its treatment uses textured walls and floors, and Stone says priority should still be given to the brand colours of particular clients. “We definitely avoid any black-market associations, around it making people ‘stoned’,” she says, “and we also insist that we get product at eye-height, so people literally, and metaphorically see it from their ‘point of view’. After that though, we don’t feel constrained.”

In Canada two thirds of cannabis users are over 25 – firmly adults rather than children. In 2015, only 6% of cannabis users were between 15-17 years. Stone says: “Design for this product really does need to have an important educational role… Almost uniquely, cannabis is the only product in the world where retail is the only way people can buy it, so this is the only time they can get to learn about it. All our treatments carry space for explanation, and this is vital.”

What Stone does concede though, is that this is only the start of a new retail product segment, and that over time, some of the design priorities may change: “We’re at the beginning here,” she explains. “When you introduce people to this product, at the moment, they need to find something else in their mind that it is, or should be, equivalent to. But there is nothing. Cannabis doesn't kill you, like alcohol or tobacco, and it doesn’t give you cancer. Hopefully, the retail mood will change – to even incorporate more of the fact that people can have a better time using it. This will be part of the evolving brand story, but it’s one that will come. At the moment clients are more focused on creating a wellness-based experience.”

As for what might happen in the UK, where legal tobacco products must still be displayed under a shroud of secrecy (since 2012 all large shops and supermarkets have had to hide cigarettes from public view, extending to small stores in 2015), Stone is unsure. “Some people will always say prominently displaying cannabis will give people an excuse to do drugs,” she says. “We all – as a creative community – need to get to a point where yes, we display, but also we create a brand story that everyone can be comfortable with.”