SPARC gives upscale feel to traditional pot club

February 7, 2011 7:23:51 AM PST
In San Francisco, a pot collective is trying to change the idea of a medical marijuana club as a tiny storefront office in a declining part of town, or a huge but impersonal former warehouse.

From the outside it looks like a trendy neighborhood cafe. The inside gives off the same sort of vibe -- until you check the menu and take a close look at what they're serving.

"Our mission is to provide high quality and affordable medicine," said SPARC Executive Director Aaron Burke.

Medicine of the smokable variety, homegrown, for the clients of the cannabis club called SPARC -- short for San Francisco Patient and Resource Center. It's located in the Mission District.

"A lot of people come to us and say 'I have a lot of pain,' or 'I suffer from nausea,' or 'I have anxiety and I'm looking to take something that I'm not going to feel the next day,'" said Burke.

Unlike most pot clubs, customers at SPARC can smoke the merchandise right on the premises using machines that vaporize the marijuana and pump the vapor into plastic bags. There's very little second-hand smoke and almost no smell. The patients say the whole operation is a cut above the rest.

"It's very quiet, it's very well organized. The staff is so well trained - giving all the necessary information. Not all the stores we have here in San Francisco have that," said SPARC patient Wayne Justmann.

Customers say the prices are pretty good; that's because SPARC grows most of its own medical marijuana and that keeps overhead down. As a non-profit, not only are proceeds pumped back into the business, the club helps support other non-traditional medicine sources. One of them is San Francisco's Quan Yin Health Center -- which lost its city contract to provide acupuncture and Chinese massage to HIV and AIDS patients to budget cuts two years ago.

"It was really unfortunate and around 700 patients lost access to care. And along with SPARC, we have a clinic that they subsidize every week and people can walk in and get treatment," said Quan Yin Center Dir. Carla Wilson.

The clean, modern design of SPARC's Mission Street headquarters and the low key but professional style inside are apparently attracting clients through word of mouth.

"The clientele is incredibly diverse. We've got a large percentage of women. We've got elderly. We've got younger people who are looking for an alternative to prescription medication. So it's quite a diverse patient population," said Burke.

"It's open and clean and inviting and women are onboard. There's many women staff here who are helping to make sure that women feel welcome and safe when they come here," said Wilson.

SPARC may look different but, the rules are the same - customers need a doctor's recommendation and ID.