San Francisco is leading the way when it comes to the rare but highly coveted cannabis café experience. Of the states that have legalized recreational weed, California is the only one that authorizes retailers to allow on-site consumption by their patrons. But authorizing something isn’t the same thing as mandating it, and most of California’s counties have opted out of the cannabis café experience. San Francisco is the first and only city in the Golden State to issue a permit—Barbary Coast Dispensary was the recipient—allowing a cannabis lounge almost identical to the coffee shops cannabis enthusiasts frequent in the Netherlands.
San Francisco’s cannabis cafes provide patrons, especially tourists, with a safe and legal place to consume their products. In order to receive a permit for a café, businesses must install a complex and expensive ventilation system designed to prevent the skunk of cannabis from escaping the building. The city is also working on regulations that will protect café employees from second-hand smoke. San Francisco’s Office of Cannabis director, Nicole Elliott, has stated that the city will issue more permits for the lounges once these safety measures are developed.
Weed Might be Legal, but Good Luck Finding a Place to Smoke It
One of the most frustrating ironies of legalization has been that the increasing availability of legal weed has outpaced the availability of a legal space to enjoy it. The majority of cities across the country with a regulated cannabis market have also banned both its public consumption and the operation of cannabis lounges.
The reticence to embrace cannabis cafes is based on three common fears. Opponents of the smoking spaces believe that such facilities will result in an increase of cannabis-intoxication related car accidents. There is also concern that cannabis cafes will increase children to drug-exposure, including exposure to patrons exhibiting inappropriate behavior. Finally, residents worry that the presence of a cannabis café would negatively affect their property values and generally diminish the safety of their neighborhoods.
The truth is that people are already smoking in places where the activity is technically banned. For example, though the law makes it seem like smoking in one’s private residence is acceptable, that isn’t the case if the landlord or homeowner association managing the residence prohibits cannabis use. Whether residents obey those rules is a whole other question. Then there are cannabis social clubs, private residences where members can gather together to smoke. These clubs operate in a legally gray area.
The lack of a cannabis-friendly social hub is a particularly problematic situation for tourists. Most of the hospitality industry is cannabis-free, it is illegal to smoke in a public space like a park or beach, it is federally illegal to cross state lines with cannabis or to take cannabis on a plane, train, ship, or bus. There are very few options for tourists who have traveled to a cannabis-friendly city to actually engage in the activity that has invariably played a role in drawing them there to begin with.
Interest in Cannabis Cafes is on the Rise
More cities are opening themselves up to the idea of authorizing cannabis lounges. Unsurprisingly, many of these cities are also in California. Both Lake Tahoe and Oakland already have one lounge each. Alameda will issue two permits. West Hollywood is prepared to give out up to eight. Though they haven’t made official plans yet, Los Angeles and Sacramento are considering the possibility as well.
In Colorado, cities have the choice of authorizing retailers to offer their patrons the option of on-site vaping and edibles consumption. The first dispensary to apply for the license was the Coffee Joint, a café located in downtown Denver. Before the state offered the I-300 permit that makes this kind of cannabis café possible, Colorado was already home to cannabis social clubs. In order to belong to one of these clubs, members had to pay dues for access to the club’s benefits. In addition to creating an economic burden that doesn’t make much sense for occasional smokers, these social clubs are more easily accessible to long-term cannabis enthusiasts, not the novices who form a large fraction of the rapidly expanding market.
In Massachusetts, the Cannabis Control Commission, the state’s cannabis regulating body, seriously considered the addition of cannabis lounges until those ideas were vehemently disparaged by conservative Governor Charlie Baker’s administration. The regulators acquiesced to the dissenters and have delayed plans to authorize cannabis cafes until after summer 2018, the expected time-frame for the state’s launch of recreational sales.
Nevada plans to vote on the possibility of cannabis lounges in 2019, and Alaska will revisit the topic in the near future. Oregon has rejected legislation that would have approved of these cafes. But the trend of saying “no” may soon come to an end. For one, the economic boon cannabis tourism can offer states is tempting enough to give tourists all the incentive they need to book a cannabis trip. For another, on top of being hypocritical, the arguments against the inclusion of cannabis cafes aren’t that convincing.
Proponents of cannabis cafes offer persuasive counters to the claims made by the opposition. For example, every single argument against cannabis clubs also applies to alcohol-serving bars. Even so, bars abound. Additionally, the argument that cannabis clubs will increase the likelihood of cannabis-impaired driving doesn’t address the fact that people who smoke weed are going to do it whether there is a public place for them or not, and whether they make safe driving decisions has much more to do with their individual senses of responsibility than it does with cannabis.
As is typical of many of the criticisms the cannabis community faces, most of the fears surrounding the authorization of cannabis clubs seem to be making a pretty patronizing assumption about cannabis users—namely, that they are irresponsible, immature, and indifferent to societal concerns for safety and decency. The reality is that the people calling for cannabis clubs are doing so because they want to have an age-appropriate, safe, and legal place to consume cannabis. Until the rest of the country wises up, San Francisco’s choice to listen to the market may have made it the one cannabis-city to rule them all.