Totally Legal and Nowhere to Toke: The Social-Use Cannabis Conundrum
In recreational-use states, banning cannabis consumption in bars and cafes shuts out tourists and threatens locals whose landlords oppose pot.
By Ed Murrieta
Voters in four western states legalized adult-use recreational cannabis. But lawmakers in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington say there is only one place to consume it: in private residences whose owners approve of pot.
Activists complain that bans on smoking, vaporizing and even eating cannabis in public places like bars and cafes turn tourists into outlaws and threaten the evictions of residents whose landlords oppose pot.
Lawmakers in Alaska and Oregon are currently working on regulations for their states’ commercial marijuana industries. Cannabis consumption in bars and cafes is banned in both Alaska and Oregon’s draft regulations, prohibitions that rile activists in both states.
Neither state’s 2014 legalization initiative addressed public consumption. Attorneys have advised the five-member Alaska Marijuana Control Board that it lacks authority to approve cannabis lounges in which people age 21 and over can smoke, vaporize or eat cannabis because the initiative that legalized cannabis didn’t explicitly allow them.
Marijuana lounges were not addressed in Washington’s 2014 legalization initiative. Washington lawmakers fixed that in June, passing HB 2136, a ban that makes it a Class-C felony to provide temporary or permanent space for marijuana consumption.
Although Colorado’s Clean Indoor Air Act had already banned any kind of public smoking when the state became the first in the nation to legalize recreational pot in 2012, Denver activists recently pushed but ultimately dropped a controversial public consumption proposal for the city’s November’s ballot.
In Alaska, commercial cannabis sales are expected to start in summer 2016, just as the state’s cruise ship high season begins.
“We get 1 million tourists who pass through Juneau each year and will buy all kinds of products, but have nowhere to consume them,” Juneau resident Zach Bowhay testified to the Alaska Marijuana Control Board last week. “We’re almost forcing people to commit a crime.”
Earlier this year in Anchorage, another Alaska cruise ship port, the city effectively banned pot lounges. Pot is now regarded like tobacco in the city’s ordinance against second-hand smoke — an irritant harmful to employees’ health and therefore illegal.
Adding to Alaska’s pot tourism angst are cruise lines’ strict anti-pot shipboard rules.
Cynthia Franklin, executive director of Alaska’s Marijuana Control Board, said the state regulates marijuana as it does alcohol. Franklin compares pot lounges to “bottle clubs,” bring-your-own drinking establishments that are prohibited by state statutes.
Some cannabis entrepreneurs are, so far, circumventing obstacles to public consumption by privatizing — opening members-only clubs where smoking, vaporizing, dabbing and even eating cannabis takes place out of public view. For a fee and by signing waivers acknowledging the presence of second-hand smoke, members can consume and share — but not buy or sell — in a BYOP, or bring-your-own-pot, model.
In Anchorage, Pot Luck Events is a members-only private club on the northeastern shoulder of downtown — just 1.6 miles away from the cruise-ship port and in the path of disembarking passengers entering Anchorage’s historic district.
Pot Luck offers out-of-towner day passes ($5) plus monthly memberships ($20) and yearly memberships ($200) for locals, governed by 14 rules that, among other things, ban cigarettes, alcohol and hand guns. Pot Luck’s website says “rules were out in place to keep our members and staff safe, happy and healthy.” Pot Luck Co-owner Theresa Collins said the club has more than 600 members. A pot party is scheduled for Halloween.
Club Ned, in Nederland, Colo., near Boulder, is exempt from Colorado’s Clean Indoor Air Act — section CRS 25-14-205 allows smoking in “a place of employment that is not open to the public and that is under the control of an employer that employs three or fewer employees” — because it charges a membership fee and meets the employee threshold.
Outside of Denver, iBake operates two divey membership clubs that charge fees to smoke, vape, dab and eat, and sell junk-food snacks and t-shirts emblazoned with pot puns. On Wednesday, the Englewood (Co.) Liquor and Medical Marijuana Licensing Authority unveiled draft guidelines for potential “marijuana consumption establishments” in the city.
Portland’s World Famous Cannabis Café opened in 2009. Today, it’s legal and doesn’t require licensing under Oregon’s new marijuana law as long as it doesn’t sell the botanical drug and club members consume it out of public view. Located in a storefront around the corner from a medical cannabis dispensary and a grow shop, the club hosts music, comedy and stoner bingo. Visitation fees are $5 to $10.
“We want to catch those people who leave work and go have a beer at their local bar,” said owner Madeline Martinez, a longtime Portland marijuana activist. “Stop by and have a toke.”
Last week, Anthony Johnson, the chief petitioner of Oregon’s legalization initiative and a member of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission’s cannabis rules advisory committee, argued unsuccessfully that the public needs legal and regulated places to consume cannabis.
“These are things that adults in Oregon want to do,” Johnson said. “They voted to be able to utilize it. The state is better off if it’s done in a regulated manner.”
That regulated model may be in San Francisco, which allows medical cannabis dispensaries to provide lounge spaces where authorized customers with doctor’s approval can consume cannabis. A half dozen of the city’s top dispensary lounges provide use of state-of-the-art Volcano vaporizers in environments ranging from artsy-fartsy to couch-comfy to Apple store-sleek. There’s no smoking — only vaporizing and eating. You can bring your own or purchase on premises. Some dispensary lounges are pet-friendly. One validates an hour’s parking. Several are located in are located in near high-traffic downtown tourist, shopping and entertainment attractions.
“Dispensary lounges are an important feature of using cannabis — having the opportunity to enjoy it with your fellow human beings,” said Martin Olive, proprietor of The Vapor Room, a former dispensary lounge that functioned like a community center in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.
The Vapor Room closed under federal pressure in 2011.
“Unlike bars and restaurants, we had a wide range of people hanging out together — a 24-year-old guy with lupus passing a joint to a 75-year-old grandmother with cancer,” Olive said, “and they’re telling their life stories and getting to know one another in a way that would never happen organically in most other places.”
In Vancouver, British Columbia, a cannabis-open city euphemistically called Vansterdam, local officials are cracking down on long-running “safe spaces” where people smoke, dab or vape freely, pressing an anti-smoking bylaw that was amended last fall to ban vaping any substance in public spaces.
Vancouver dispensaries are no longer allowed to be “safe spaces.” Non-dispensary lounges that remain resemble bars, except patrons consume cannabis, not alcohol. Vaporizers and dab tools are provided.
Marc Emery, the Canadian “Prince of Pot” who served five years in a United States federal prison for selling cannabis seeds internationally, said “safe spaces” are necessary in Vancouver, where anti-cannabis housing-ordinance evictions are growing in rapid pace with the number of cannabis dispensaries, now running about 80, most of them illegal. Emery’s 10-year-old Cannabis Culture Lounge (now with two locations) allows all forms of cannabis consumption — smoking, vaping, dabbing, you name it.
“There are many situations in quasi-legal Vancouver where people cannot smoke in their own homes,” Emery said. “The city recently passed bylaws saying you can’t smoke in a public place either, or risk getting a $250 fine. People don’t have any way to consume it without being punished.”
Emery noted that the City of Vancouver owns and operates a safe-needle injection site for users of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, a situation he called “ridiculous and beyond understanding” as long as British Columbia’s largest city forbids public cannabis consumption.
“We are keeping our lounges open,” Emery said. “We are not going to close under any circumstance short of me being dragged off to jail.”
San Francisco’s Olive said cannabis lounges are places where low-income, elderly and terminally ill people who live in federally subsidized housing or shelters that prohibit cannabis can “feel safe and not have smoking cannabis be some real stressed-out thing where they might lose their housing rights.”
Landmark medical cannabis legislation signed by California Gov. Jerry Brown on Oct. 9 does not address statewide medical cannabis dispensary lounges, but at least one voter initiative being prepared for the 2016 ballot would authorize social-use pot lounges.
However urgent advocates frame the need for regulated public places where adults can enjoy cannabis in sociable settings may seem, Keith Stroup, the founder of NORML who is in his fifth decade of cannabis activism, believes pot lounges are premature and their advocates are irresponsible.
Stroup excoriated the sponsors of Denver’s social-use initiative, Mason Tvert and Brian Vicente, both co-authors of Colorado’s legalization initiative, for their lack of research on the political will of voters in an off-year election.
“This was an impulsive act that should never have seen the light of day – at least not in 2015,” Stroup wrote in a post on Marijuana.com.
By withdrawing their initiative, Stroup said, Denver’s social-use advocates “realized what other observers had seen from the start — this was the wrong time to be mounting this voter initiative. Truly amazing that this conclusion was only reached after squandering tens of thousands of dollars and enormous political credibility.”
Meanwhile, in regard to legal adult-use recreational bud, joints, hash, oil, wax, shatter and even edibles in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington: Consume ’em if you’re in a private residence whose owner approves of pot.