Legal cannabis lounges’ time has come

Editor's note: This article originally appeared on the San Francisco Chronicle's GreenState blog on July 28, 2017.

Eight years into Colorado marijuana legalization, one of the newer issues society must define and regulate is social consumption in settings like bars, dance clubs or tasting rooms. Some advocates are even wondering whether this should include social events like festivals or concerts. When you picture people consuming marijuana almost anywhere they can drink, you get a sense of how complicated this policy problem could become.

Restricting or banning public consumption has been a consistent feature of early cannabis legalization policy. It sounds simple, but determining what is "public" can be contentious. Even though marijuana legalization often gets conflated with alcohol regulations, it is difficult to reasonably argue the intent behind legalization was to allow cannabis use wherever alcohol can be consumed.

But as the industry matures, it is similarly unreasonable to compel legal marijuana users to consume it exclusively in private residences. The issue becomes thornier when you consider the tourist population using marijuana at hotels, B&Bs and VRBO-type properties. It becomes even thornier when you consider the socio-economic, racial, and ethnic implications implicit in issues of ownership versus renting. Smoking cannabis in these temporary dwellings may be unwelcome or forbidden, leaving few options for tourists or renters to consume safely, responsibly—and legally.

To date, there has not been a solution that works for everyone, and individual cities and states will likely enact policies that fit their unique situations. But as elected officials and regulators begin constructing workable answers, several issues surface.

The first challenge is determining where people can consume. Research around simultaneous consumption of marijuana and alcohol is still sparse, and many jurisdictions understandably start with the premise that consuming both will increase impairment. This widely accepted assumption spurs public safety concerns. Even if you do not agree with that sentiment, it is a belief held by many citizens to whom public officials are accountable and responsive.

Moreover, what constitutes “visibly intoxicated” has been established in alcohol law for some time; staffs at bars and restaurants know not to continue serving these patrons. But stereotyping jokes aside, there currently are no established standards for identifying patrons who are high.

Next up: smoking cannabis remains the predominant means of consumption, but most states have strict standards that ban smoking — of any kind — in public places. Policymakers must consider exemptions that allow marijuana smoking or that limit the cannabis products people can use in bars, restaurants, casinos, and the like to non-smokeable products, i.e., vaporizers and edibles. Once government determines what is allowed, it also must decide how many servings of each product are permissible, a tricky prospect because many manufacturers only create cannabis-infused products with multiple servings per package.

Government's slow response to the social consumption issue makes sense given its other regulatory priorities. But consumer demand for social consumption options has led enterprising individuals to open “private clubs” or “tasting rooms” that operate, at best, in a legal gray area in most jurisdictions. This ambiguity means licensed, adult-use establishments cannot or are reluctant to provide product, so “private clubs” tend to allow patrons to bring their own cannabis or they get their marijuana from unregulated or criminal segments of the marketplace, similar to how Dutch coffee shops receive cannabis. This arrangement raises obvious concerns for most state and local governments. Even if a state or city permitted limited social consumption, it still would have to determine how to get approved products from the regulated market into those locations.

These challenges are not going away, and governments must tackle the social consumption issue quickly. They must decide if they will ban it, freely allow it, or—most likely—permit it with specific restrictions, such as forbidding simultaneous alcohol consumption or requiring all consumed products to be purchased on site.

Taking a hands-off approach will only lead to more public health and safety problems, and most governments will err on the side of caution. But it would be helpful if these lawmakers civically engage their constituents—consumers; advocates; entrepreneurs; and, yes, opponents alike—to understand better how this issue resonates. The ultimate goal must be to cooperate with them proactively find safe, workable methods of public consumption that reasonably are reasonably regulated and put public health and safety first.

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