Queering Cannabis


“Queer demarcates not a positivity but a positionality, vis-à-vis the normative, a positionality that… is in fact available to anyone or thing that is marginalized.” – (Halperin)

Queering Cannabis is an installation-based project informed by the queer roots of legal cannabis architecture. Here, Queering Architecture is defined as the process of destabilizing typological and socio-spatial norms, to question the rigidity of a space’s identity or identities it perpetuates to increase the agency of its occupants. Functionally, Queering both transfigures an original into a new state that reveals aspects of the original, and appropriates space, form, and associations to juxtapose, call out, and alter what the dominant culture has abandoned.

Despite the growing relevance of recreational dispensaries, currently there is a severe lack of architectural inquiry that critically looks at the socio-spatial development of the cannabis storefront. Furthermore, heteronormative discussion of dispensaries willfully ignores or overlooks the queer roots of legal cannabis architecture in the HIV-positive LGBT community of San Francisco.

The project posits that the queering of architecture (or space at large) offers an actionable design attitude, which works in opposition to the erasure that has taken place through the typification of the cannabis dispensary over time and current policies that stigmatize the consumption of cannabis. Sitting somewhere between performance, tagging, and protest, Queering Cannabis initiates a sequence of enactment, loss, and construction informed by the symbolic queerness of smoke, ash, and residue.

Specifically inspired by the smoke-filled interior of the first cannabis dispensary, the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, the project explores the transfigurative quality of smoke, ash, and residue to both mark and create space. Formally it appropriates the confessional to call out Seattle’s draconian public policies, which orient the public consumption of cannabis as a taboo, through found confessionals that have been caste out of cannabis ash infused resin, or Cannafessionals.


What prompted the project?

The impetus for Queering Cannabis was two-fold. Having moved from the American East Coast to the cannabis-progressive Pacific Northwest to pursue my studies, I found it hard not be fascinated by the presence of cannabis dispensaries. Legalization has allowed dispensaries, particularly recreational dispensaries, to colonize the urban landscape. However, typical discourse on dispensaries evades architectural theorization, instead focusing on the anxieties of planning, political, medical and legal ramifications. I wanted to explore a topic that I felt the discipline has overlooked.

While exploring, I quickly found that heteronormative discussion of dispensaries willfully ignores or overlooks the queer roots of legal cannabis architecture San Francisco’s HIV-positive LGBT community. Given the queer inflected history of the dispensary, I became interested in using it as a site to test my concept of Queering Architecture, where queer space is reframed as an attitude toward design.

What questions does the project raise and which does it address?

Queering Cannabis can best be understood as an illustration of the concept I define as Queering Architecture. Queering Architecture is the process of destabilizing typological and socio-spatial norms that questions the rigidity of a space’s identity or identities it perpetuates to increase the agency of its occupants. Queering Architecture was born out of an attempt to respond to several questions regarding the possibility of queer space. Specifically, I began by asking: What is queer space? Is it possible for queerness to be embodied in a building or landscape? Or, as per Brian McGrath’s installation title for the 1994 Queer Space exhibition in New York, is it true that There Is No “Queer Space,” Only Different Points of View? Theorists, like Reed postulate that queerness is “… an ineffable ideal of oppositional culture, [it] is so fluid and contingent that the idea of a concrete queer space is an oxymoron.” Leveraging the qualities of queer space described by theorists such as Reed, Betsky, Halperin, and Ahmed, Queering Architecture oreints queer space as an attitude toward design, something that is actionable. It leaves in its tracks a queered space.

How did you approach the research part of the project? How were these architectures, analysed and categorised?

According to Désert “queer culture [or space] would not be queer if there were no other culture [or space] from which to establish its difference.” In effect, the relative queerness or queering of a space would be most easily identified through its contrast with other spaces. Therefore, to illustrate Queering Architecture as an actionable design attitude through the recreational cannabis dispensary, the research part of the project took the form of a cannabis catalog, or Canna(log), which established a set of traits and trends which I intend to queer.

To elicit the developing and unique characteristics of the dispensary, cataloging and indexing focused on the Pacific Northwest’s existing urban dispensary stalk. Design-centric cataloging methods, such as mapping, drawing, photography, and collages were used to elicit the traits of the recreational dispensary. To illustrate the gradual typification, or straightening, of the recreational dispensary, I contextualized current trends with the inclusion of the first and most explicitly queered dispensary, the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club.

What is specifically problematic about these spaces?

The Canna(log), in tandem with mapping Seattle’s contemporary cannabis policy, illustrates several issues with the contemporary dispensary that I attempted to queer, so to speak. The trends towards an efficiency of plan, in-and-out purchase, and a hiding and separation of the user from the cannabis product has all but eradicated the sociality of the initial dispensary. Ironically, this has reinforced the taboo of consuming cannabis while expediting its purchase. On the urban scale, this is evidenced in Seattle through the effective separation of spaces in which consumption and purchase of cannabis occurs. Effectively banning public consumption of cannabis, the city enforces a “Don’t Ask Don’t Smell Policy” where cannabis must be consumed in privately owned space out of site and smell of the public.

What informed the choice of Seattle as site where to explore the speculation?

Despite the legal status of cannabis throughout the Pacific Northwest, Seattle’s urban dispensaries served as the main source of my investigation due to their relatively long status as ‘legal’ recreational cannabis dispensaries.

What defined the materiality of the installation as one which derives from smoke, ash and reside? How does this relate to notions of experience?

In the context of this project, Queering Architecture transfigures an original form into a new state that reveals aspects of the original. The symbolic queerness of smoke, ash and residue is informed through their transfigurative potential: hiding users from view, staining the ceilings of occupied dispensaries, and saturating space with smell. Much like queerness is a positionality against the status quo, smoke, ash and residue are similarly contingent on the normative preference towards light, fire, and cleanliness. In turn, these transfigurations reveal what is purposefully absent from modern dispensaries, signs of the body consuming cannabis. The celebration of these queering materials is reinforced by the prevalence smoke and ash that played in the atmosphere of the SFCBC, first queer dispensary. Specifically, in the Cannafessionals occupants can confess their skills and share in conversation collectively. In doing so, they unknowingly enact the embedded programmatic memory of the SFCBC. The cannabis smoke generated by this enactment fills the cavities of the Cannafessionals, obscuring on-lookers view into them. All the while, the residual staining and residue build up from consumption serves as a barometer that says yes, others have smoked here

With the amount of states and countries legalising cannabis how should we as architects address the design of these spaces and experiences?

As one of North America’s quickest growing industries, recreational cannabis dispensaries are already a six-billion-dollar economy. We as designers cannot abdicate their design to pages of public policy. In looking back their earliest iteration in the SFCBC, we should leverage their potential as a third space for socio-spatial occupation. However, given their historical and arguably continual status as a subversive space, since cannabis still is illegal federally, architects should see dispensaries as an opportunity for subversive design that is inherently engaged with the agency of the public and the socio-spatial power of design.

What is for you the architect's most important tool?

The ability to see is by far and away the architect’s most important tool. We must critically view spaces for what they are and what they will become, which includes the power structures that attempt to decide what manifests. Whether it is with drawing, reading, or conversation, if we remain blind to that power then we risk becoming the pen with which it writes.