Recreational marijuana is legal in 8 states and Washington, DC, but most of those states provide consumers with very few options when it comes to where the cannabis can be consumed. In fact, in most cases, the only option is to consume marijuana on private property while inconvenient, this isn’t a huge deal for residents of those states, but it does make things a little tricky for tourists.  Moreover, it seems like such an ironic stipulation when alcohol, a much more dangerous substance, can be legally served and consumed at so many restaurants.

Cannabis and Restaurants 

Marijuana’s status as a Schedule 1 drug makes it a risky endeavor for businesses to invest in.  One of the biggest hindrances for marijuana businesses is the resistance they face from banks.  Banks see these businesses as too risky to work with, especially since the federal government places the burden of liability on the banking institutions.

This is where the hypocrisy gets frustrating. Banks working with businesses that sell alcohol aren’t expected to monitor those businesses to insure that they aren’t selling liquor to minors, but that type of vigilance would be expected from banks working with companies that sell marijuana. This puts dispensaries in position to lose money. Some dispensaries are forced to deal in cash only, and come tax season, those companies must pay a penalty for that “choice,” even though the lack of bank support made it their only option.

When businesses are forced to use cash, it places employees in a less than advantageous situation

Employees can expect to receive their paychecks in cash and often are not offered the health insurance or retirement benefits more traditional businesses can offer.

These may be some of reasons why the California Restaurant Association (CRA) actually discourages restaurants from accommodating patrons who want to use marijuana while they eat.  The CRA states, “under the current state of the law, restaurants have a strong basis upon which to ban all drug use, including marijuana, at its place of business. Indeed, permitting use of marijuana at your place of business may raise greater liability concerns than prohibiting it.”

While the concerns enumerated by the CRA are reasonable, there are businesses willing to take the risk to steer the industry in a new direction.

Oregon is Testing the Limits

Portland’s World Famous Cannabis Café, a place for marijuana consumers to socially smoke, sold sandwiches and pastries patrons could enjoy during their visit. Cheba Hut, a cannabis-themed sub sandwich shop, opened a location in Eugene, and while that restaurant does not sell marijuana, it certainly embraces the culture.

In 2012, an Ashland medical dispensary, Earth Dragon Edibles, opened its doors with a very cool business strategy.  Medical marijuana patients Cannabis_Subway, Cannabis Restaurantscould eat meals cooked at the institution with cannabis-infused grapeseed oil.  Only a week after Earth Dragon Edibles opened, its business license was rejected because the state concluded that the operation was illegal.  The restaurant tried again, this time requiring medical marijuana patients to bring their own cannabis that the cooks would use to prepare the food patients purchased. However, this business model was not sustainable, and the dispensary was forced to close down due to a lack of business. Before the restaurant was obligated to change its methods, it enjoyed a lot of success.  The shift directly coincided with the business’ failure.

Denver’s Paving the Way

In November 2016, Denver became the first city in the country to give restaurants the opportunity to engage the burgeoning marijuana culture.  Proposition 300 allows adults to consume marijuana alongside their meals or cocktails.

There are a few stipulations to this new law. Like tobacco, marijuana cannot be smoked in a restaurant or public place. Additionally, patrons must bring the marijuana themselves since the state’s law does not allow a single location to sell both alcohol and cannabis. Finally, restaurants must apply for permits and demonstrate approval from surrounding neighborhoods in order to receive licensure.

Denver’s prop 300 could lead to the development of institutions like the renowned coffee shops in Amsterdam.  Those alcohol free businesses sell marijuana and food and are a huge draw for locals and tourists alike.

Coffee shops provide people with a safe, social environment to enjoy good food, company, and cannabis

Denver residents give the proposition mixed reviews.
Proponents argue that establishing public spaces for marijuana consumption will reduce the amount of people who consume marijuana on the sidewalk or street.  Opponents argue that the proposition doesn’t protect children and locals from exposure to cannabis-intoxicated consumers and that restaurant employees will have a hard time identifying No_Smoking_Inside, cannabis Restaurantspeople who have had too much marijuana.  However, the proposition requires restaurants that receive permits to provide their employees with special training for such situations, and prospective restaurants and bars must indicate how they would manage over-intoxicated consumers in their applications.

What does the future hold for pot-friendly restaurants? 

The answer to that question depends on where the laws go at the state and federal level.  As long as marijuana remains a Schedule 1 substance, businesses will face a substantial risk if they choose to invest in the marijuana industry. Furthermore, state laws, particularly in states where marijuana is only legal medically, are prohibitive for restaurants.

Most states that legalize recreational marijuana have provisions banning the sale of marijuana from institutions that also sell alcohol, restaurants may be slow to support the movement

However, as Denver’s proposition 300 shows us, there is a way for restaurants to allow the consumption of marijuana without selling it.

If public sentiment continues to embrace recreational marijuana use, it only makes sense for the businesses and governments that serve the public to adjust their attitudes and regulations to accommodate those shifting views.  Even though current law may make progress difficult, it doesn’t make it impossible.  And as the past decade has shown us, once she gets going, progress won’t be stopped.

Dianna Benjamin

About the author: Dianna Benjamin is a freelance writer, teacher, wife, and mom horrified and fascinated by social justice and our inability--yet constant pursuit--to get it right.