It’s Not Legalization If There’s No Place To Smoke It

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When people think of cannabis legalization, they often assume there will be places analogous to bars or Amsterdam-like “coffee shops” where folks can buy their treats, hang out, and smoke.

They're wrong.

The actual implementation of legalization so far is proving the opposite. Amendment 64 and Initiative 502 in Colorado and Washington have both exposed a glaring oversight: the lack of legal places where adults can consent to enjoy and be exposed to cannabis smoke or vapor.

The trend in legalization has slammed directly into an opposing trend — draconian anti-workplace smoking laws. The smoking bans have won. The result is that no “public consumption” provisions in legalization laws have been narrowly interpreted to implement widespread bans on this elemental form of cannabis culture.

As I report for Culture magazine:
“Cannabis has always had a communal aspect to it. Being with friends is among users’ most favored activities, surveys have shown. Since the ‘70s, the Netherlands has led the way with its popular coffee shops in Amsterdam. Those shops became models for safe access in California in the early ‘90s, notes Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML.

Dennis Peron’s San Francisco Cannabis Buyer’s Club allowed on-site consumption in 1991, and to this day many—but not all—California dispensaries include anything from one or two vaporization stations to full-on lounges with bongs, dab rigs, papers, flat screen TVs and munchies. “That’s always been my vision,” said Gieringer. Yet even progressive Oakland bans lounges at its eight licensed dispensaries, and that legacy of discrimination continues in Colorado and Washington. “
A vapor lounge like this one in San Francisco would be illegal in the "legal" pot states of Colorado and Washington. - DPA
  • DPA
  • A vapor lounge like this one in San Francisco would be illegal in the "legal" pot states of Colorado and Washington.

Experts say these bans deprive citizens of the basic right to assemble, and push law-abiding folks — especially tourists — into much more hazardous behaviors like eating edibles alone in a hotel room and freaking out like Maureen Dowd.

Last week, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes moved to address the oversight by proposing vape lounges in his city. Washington’s statewide regulators have banned them.

Holmes called the bans on pot pubs “nanny state” thinking, in an interview he conducted with me in December. “These are adults makings these choices, why are you regulating against it?”

In Colorado, no public consumption provisions have led to an explosion in public smoking tickets in Denver, from 184 in 2013 to 668 in 2014.

Brookings Institution's John Hudak found that tourists who visit have no place to consume legal weed. They can’t do it at the store where they bought it, nor the hotel they’re staying at. Street smokers get a ticket, so tourists often choose to eat an edible in their room instead and sometimes flip out.

Banning such a basic activity like getting together for a joint means novices often have no supervision by regular smokers. It’s much harder to over-consume marijuana in a joint, because the onset of effects can be measured in seconds, and people stop consuming. By contrast, novices eat edibles, feel nothing for an hour, eat more, and feel ill. Hudak calls it “perverse”.

Holmes notes the policy  also has racist and classist undertones. Rich, white people are the most likely to own a private residence — which is the one place you can legally consume marijuana (assuming there’s no kids around). But many adults who are legally able to buy cannabis live in multi-family homes or apartments where smoking is contractually prohibited by landlords. “Where do they go if they don’t have a private home?” Holmes asks.

California and the next legalization states have a chance to fix the issue by specifically legalizing lounges. There must be a way to ensure the voting public "there won't be plumes of pot smoke blowing around kids' parks," Holmes said, while letting adults gather behind closed doors.

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