Berkeley Patients Care Collective Turns Ten 

And SPARC receives an unprecedented international award.

Berkeley Patients Care Collective, a boutique medical cannabis dispensary on Telegraph Avenue, turns ten years old this week, so its co-owner Erik Miller is retiring to Thailand with his filthy millions, right? Not exactly. The collective, which serves seventy to one hundred members a day, has to settle a $500,000 tax bill from the State Board of Equalization this year. Every day, local sin taxes take 2.5 percent of gross receipts on top of Berkeley's 9.75 percent sales tax and a 2.5 percent wholesale tax on the nonprofit's purchases from its growers, Miller said. "I drive an eighteen-year-old Volkswagen," Miller said. "It's not a get-rich-quick scheme and it never was. If I wanted to make loads of money I would have gotten into real estate back then."

Miller and two friends opened the collective on April 4, 2001 — five years after California legalized medical marijuana. Under then-president George W. Bush, Drug Enforcement Administration raids occurred much more regularly. "The very beginning was pretty sketchy," recalled Miller, 43. "We'd open up and wonder if it's going to be our last day. It was exciting and scary."

The little dispensary occupies a space on Telegraph no bigger than a corner store, and operates under a pharmacy model, meaning no on-site consumption or other services. The organization's strategy survived the Bush administration, and the collective cheered the victory of Barack Obama in 2008, as it watched in awe as a medical cannabis economy sprouted across the country into an estimated $1.7 billion industry this year. "We were very underground," Miller recalled of the store's beginning. "I remember calling people who had listed our dispensary and asking them not to put us in their magazine. Now, we have a Twitter feed."

The past decade has literally been a lifetime for early collective patients with AIDS and cancer, who used cannabis to treat nausea and pain. "We've lost patients along the way that had terminal illnesses. Friends that are gone. It really hurts," Miller said. "It has made me realize, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' I've seen so many people, young or old, get sick with chronic conditions. I've never had any job before where people come in and go, 'Thank you, you guys are saving my life.'"

The collective has always focused on top-end product, and the dispensary commemorated that fact last year with cannabis cards, patterned after baseball cards, which became something of a phenomenon. Pot prices, meanwhile, have gone down a little over ten years, but competition among high-quality growers has gone up. Cultivators now fear further price decreases could end the home-grow market, Miller said.

While more neophytes join a perceived gold rush on marijuana, Miller said that 2012 and beyond hopefully will hold more of the same for Berkeley Patients Care Collective. "I think the hype of this 'green rush' is a bit much. People who are really into it for the right reasons are going to persevere," he said. "The get-rich-quick schemes generally don't work out.

"BPCC doesn't have any world domination plans," he continued. "We like being a smaller place that has the time to spend with patients individually."

On Monday, the collective celebrated in a characteristically low-key fashion — offering little fanfare, but free marijuana to members.

Club Wins Design Award

The path to decriminalizing marijuana might involve cleaning up weed's somewhat skuzzy image. To that end, award-winning medical cannabis dispensary designer Larissa Sand of Sand Studios in San Francisco says she's interested in working with more clubs after her design for the San Francisco Patient and Resource Center won top honors from the International Interior Design Association last month.

The design association will bestow the Will Ching Award for commercial design by a small firm on Sand Studios on June 12 in Chicago. SPARC's minimalist, eco-friendly design beat out 52 international entrants, as judged by a former design association president and principals of several major firms, making SPARC the first medical cannabis business to ever win an international interior design award.

Sand said she had no reservations about designing for a weed collective. "I met the clients and thought they were wonderful," she said. "I don't smoke myself but I've had girlfriends who've had chemotherapy — two girls I've known had breast cancer and used cannabis to treat the nausea and illness from it — so I really believe in that."

A medium-size operation situated on Market Street near gritty 8th Street, SPARC features ironwork and opaque glass in clean horizontal lines. Inside, recessed LED light bathes the custom concrete and recycled oak interior with indirect white and blue hues. The original concrete floor was stripped and polished into a gleaming, smooth surface. Operators can switch the LEDs to nine different color settings (they turned it to orange for the Giants during last year's Word Series), said SPARC spokesman Nicholas Smilgys.

Large flat-panel LCD screens affixed to the walls detail the day's menu, gleaming down on four medication stations with custom concrete benches and $1,000 Volcano Vaporizers.

Medical marijuana storefronts can be dark, foreboding places, but SPARC "wanted to make it so that it really honored the people going there," Sand said. "It was very important for this client to project the sense that we were creating art. It's not cheap. We didn't go posh, though. It's a very simple design with ecological materials."

The design association award adds to medical marijuana's credibility, Sand added. "I'd love to work on more projects like this," she continued. "If this helps get me more, that's great."

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