At first glance, the Barbary Coast lounge in San Francisco looks like any other speakeasy-inspired hipster bar. With red wallpaper and red banquettes, it feels like the kind of hidden gem you’d slip in to for a customized cocktail.
But the patrons here aren’t sipping gin — they’re smoking, vaping and eating cannabis. Barbary Coast is one of the few legal spots in the U.S. where people can consume cannabis outside of their homes. That’s because although cannabis is legal in two-thirds of the states, there are few places where people are legally allowed to use cannabis publicly.
Because there are no federal standards, all the various states and localities that have legalized cannabis are coming up with their own rules and regulations.
Many states do not yet allow cannabis to be purchased and consumed in the same location. Most prohibit cannabis consumption in public, relegating it instead to private residences or clubs. In Las Vegas, for example, it’s illegal to consume cannabis anywhere on the Strip, whether in a hotel room, bar or casino, even though cannabis is legal for medical and recreational use in Nevada. Seattle is dealing with a similar problem — it’s legal to buy cannabis but legally complicated to smoke it unless you own your own home.
Even in Canada, which legalized cannabis use nationwide in October, a significant number of municipalities have outlawed public consumption. And many of the cities that do allow some public use have imposed stringent rules about exactly which public spaces are legal and which forms of cannabis are legal to be consumed in those spaces.
But as cannabis becomes more widely used, consumers are going to want public places to consume it — just like alcohol. There have been dispensaries where people can smoke going back as far back as 2010. The Barbary Coast is primarily a dispensary with a lounge tucked inside.
Pretty soon, though, that won’t be enough. And we’re beginning to see legislators take action to put new rules into place that will allow true cannabis cafes — public spaces, much like bars, where people can buy and consume cannabis in a social setting.
Late last year, a group of state assemblymen and county commissioners from Nevada toured San Francisco’s cafes and lounges to see how they’re run. They are determined to push through legislation to allow cannabis cafes in their own state.
Massachusetts’ state government is partnering with cities interested in allowing places for “social consumption” of cannabis to create rules and study the impact of the businesses.
In Oregon, state legislators are working to change state laws to allow cannabis cafes and lounges. Because state law requires cannabis to be used in private, many consumers, including tourists and renters in smoke-free buildings, have no place to use cannabis products. That means the state and its cities also will have to revise their current clean-air regulations, which were designed to protect the public from second-hand tobacco smoke.
New Jersey’s legalization bill includes provisions for bring-your-own social lounges and would allow hotels to designate up to 20% of their rooms as cannabis-friendly.
In California, San Francisco currently has the most cannabis lounges, but Los Angeles may take the lead this year. Los Angeles County has been taking applications for social cannabis businesses since January 2018. West Hollywood, a small city tucked into the sprawling Los Angeles county, amended its municipal codes and zoning regulations to allow public consumption in designated cafes and smoking lounges. It began taking applications in April last year, and then, just before Christmas, announced it had granted 16 licenses for cannabis cafes. Half are for edibles-only cafes, and the other eight are for lounges which will allow smoking, vaping and edibles.
Another big move: West Hollywood will allow chefs to infuse cannabis into pre-planned and on-demand menus for onsite customers at new restaurants. As the cafes come online over the next 12 months, West Hollywood will have more than double the number of cafes and lounges of any other city.
In many states, these new regulations may have trouble passing through conservative legislatures. Seattle’s city attorney has been working for several years to find a way to allow cannabis lounges but has been stalled by Republican resistance in the state legislature. In an effort to derail pending legislation that would have made cannabis cafes and lounges legal, Republicans passed a bill in 2015 making it a felony to consume cannabis on the premises of any business.
But as cannabis becomes increasingly socially accepted, these voices of dissent will be outnumbered by people who understand that consumers want to be able to use cannabis socially in the same way they go out for a drink. The cannabis lounge will soon be as prevalent as the neighborhood pub.