One of the next frontiers in the political battles for marijuana smokers is the need to provide venues where marijuana smokers can socialize with other marijuana smokers in a marijuana-friendly lounge. Under current laws in Washington, Colorado, Oregon, and the District of Columbia, it is perfectly legal for smokers to possess specified amounts of marijuana, but they are only legally allowed to exercise their newly won freedom in their home or as a guest in someone else’s home.
Holland-style coffee shops, or marijuana lounges were not legalized by those early voter initiatives.
This is particularly important to the many tourists who visit those states, as most will have nowhere legal to smoke their legal cannabis. Most hotels don’t allow cannabis consumption, and public marijuana smoking is outlawed – meaning there are a lot of people with no place to go to enjoy their legal bud.
That is about to change.
Can you imagine for a moment what the alcohol scene would look like today if alcohol drinkers were precluded from drinking at bars, and only allowed to drink alcohol in a private home? That would largely eliminate the lively night life scene in every city in America, and it would surely result in the rise of speakeasies, clandestine illegal bars similar to those that arose in several states before the end of alcohol prohibition.
It is equally absurd to suggest that the tens of millions of Americans who smoke marijuana, once it is legalized, will have to limit their marijuana smoking to private homes. There is absolutely no policy justification for this limitation, and smokers will always find a way around it.
The choice: Regulate smoking lounges or smoke-easies will proliferate.
It is the nature of a free market. If the government does not license and regulate the market, those willing to operate in the “grey zone” will fill the void and develop venues where marijuana smokers can socialize with other marijuana smokers. There are currently smoke-easies operating in many cities, in states that have legalized marijuana. But because these are not technically legal, the state and local jurisdiction does not receive the tax revenue, nor can they regulate the qualify or safety of the product. When marijuana is being sold illegally, the products are not tested in a certified laboratory for molds and pesticides, nor is there any way to assure the labeling is accurate as to the strength of the drug.
Marijuana smoking is a social activity better enjoyed with friends, so the only real question is whether these marijuana-friendly clubs will continue to be clandestine, or whether they will be licensed and regulated and above ground.
A licensed and regulated system, with age controls, is far preferable to grey market “smoke-easies.”
This push for smoking lounges is currently being principally fought in Alaska, within the state agency developing the rules for legal marijuana in that state; and in Denver, where two versions for social marijuana use were competing for the November ballot.
The situation in Alaska.
First, let’s look at the Alaska situation. Last November, the Alaska Marijuana Control Board issued draft regulations to define when and where “on-site consumption” would be permitted. The proposed regulations have for several months been open for public comment and were expected to be approved this past week, but that vote has now been delayed until October.
While the proposed regulations are still tentative, marijuana cafes would be permitted in Alaska only in conjunction with an existing marijuana retail store, on the same premises, either indoor or outdoor, but with a separate entrance and separate serving area. A separate license would be required for on-site consumption.
Customers could purchase small amounts of marijuana (1 gram of marijuana, edibles with up to 10 milligrams of THC, or .25 grams of marijuana concentrates) to consume on-site and would not be permitted to bring their own marijuana to smoke on-site. Strangely, an early version of the regulations said the legal smokers would be required to leave any unfinished marijuana behind to be destroyed, although this was met with some strong opposition, and has now been deleted. Customers would now be permitted to reseal their unused marijuana and take it with them. Also, marijuana “happy hours” would not be permitted, although marijuana lounges would be permitted to sell food and non-alcohol beverages.
It appears that Alaska may well become the first state to license marijuana lounges, some of which could be up and running within a few months. It is incredibly important for the legalization movement nationwide for a couple of states to move forward to experiment with new marijuana-friendly venues, to serve as a living experiment, which other states can evaluate when they are facing these same issues down the road. If the initial experience with marijuana lounges is generally successful, and if the lounges do not present any unintended consequences in the communities they serve, other states that legalize marijuana will want to incorporate this specific wrinkle in their policy.
Alaska is set to be our first social use club demonstration.
The Denver, Colorado experience.
Denver presents a different situation, as there the effort to legalize social use venues is being fought by way of a city-wide voter initiative. In fact, there were two competing marijuana lounge initiatives being circulated this fall.
One (proposed by Denver NORML and the Committee for the Responsible Use Initiative in Denver) that would have established licenses for marijuana only (no alcohol) social use clubs and for special events, was a grass-roots undertaking, and despite a valiant effort, the sponsors fell short of the required number of registered voters (5,000), so that proposal will not be on the ballot this fall.
Jordan Person, the chief advocate, said she was surprised by the number of rejected signatures for the group’s private clubs initiative, adding that it underlined the need for more voter registration drives.
“You know, we’re not going to stop,” she told me, arguing that private clubs are the better solution to the need for places where people, including tourists, can consume marijuana together.
The second proposal for social use clubs was proposed at the last minute, offered as a competing initiative by the Cannabis Consumption Committee, an industry group that had qualified a similar measure for the ballot in 2015 before pulling it from the ballot at the last minute, in a failed attempt to work with the City Council. Over a thirty-day period, with industry funding, the group managed to collect 10,800 signatures to qualify.
(One would naturally ask why there would be competing social use voter initiatives; were they so different that a reasonable compromise could not have been reached, offering a united social use initiative? The answer, of course, is that individual personalities and egos naturally get involved, and in this case, despite an extraordinary effort by Denver NORML attorney Judd Golden and Executive Director Jordan Person to reach an accord with the industry group, in the end, a compromise was not possible. So we were left with two competing social use initiatives being circulated for signatures in Denver.)
The initiative that did qualify for the ballot would permit certain bars and restaurants to obtain a social use license in which marijuana edibles and vaporizers could be used, but no marijuana could be smoked (because of Colorado’s strong indoor clean air act), and approval would have to be obtained from neighborhood groups and business improvement districts before any such license could be awarded. This requirement may well prove a somewhat challenging proposition in today’s world of NIMBY (not in my backyard), as neighborhood groups may be fearful of the social consequences of allowing marijuana products to be consumed in conjunction with alcohol.
The proposal would establish a four-year pilot program, requiring the city to study the measure’s effectiveness. By the end of 2020, the City Council could allow it to expire, make it permanent or tweak its provisions.
So we are left in Denver with a proposal that we should all support, as it moves us a little closer to the goal of being allowed to smoke marijuana with friends in a social setting, outside a private home. But it remains to be seen how many neighborhood associations are likely to allow the issuance of licenses. Nonetheless, it does recognize the need for responsible marijuana smokers to have a place to congregate where they can socialize with other smokers. And we should all do what we can to get the Denver social use initiative approved by the voters in November.
It’s certainly not a perfect social use initiative, assuming the goal remains to treat marijuana like alcohol, but as this is new territory for the legalization movement, we should use this proposal to try to demonstrate that social use clubs are a viable alternative to the current policy of limiting marijuana smoking to a private home.
The most current polling suggests the proposal is favored by a clear majority (56 percent) of voters in Denver.
Laboratories of democracy.
As former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, “a state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” The city of Denver and the state of Alaska are exercising that important role as we move forward with new and improved versions of legalization. What we learn from these initial experiments with marijuana social clubs will inform subsequent cities and states in the coming years.