San Francisco embraces Amsterdam-style marijuana lounges
The smoke was thick and business brisk at the Barbary Coast Dispensary's marijuana smoking lounge, a darkened room that resembles a steakhouse or upscale sports tavern with its red leather seats, deep booths with high dividers, and hardwood floors.
"There's nothing like this in Jersey," said grinning Atlantic City resident Rick Thompson, getting high with his cousins in San Francisco.
In fact, there's nothing like the Barbary Coast lounge almost anywhere in the United States, a conundrum confronting many marijuana enthusiasts who find it increasingly easy to buy pot but harder to find legal places to smoke it.
Only California permits marijuana smoking at marijuana retailers with specially designed lounges. But it also allows cities to ban those kinds of shops.
Unsurprisingly, San Francisco is the trailblazer. It's the only city in the state to fully embrace Amsterdam-like coffee shops, the iconic tourist stops in the Netherlands where people can buy and smoke marijuana in the same shop.
San Francisco's marijuana 'czar', Nicole Elliot, said new permits will be issued once city health officials finalise regulations designed to protect workers from second-hand smoke and the neighbourhood from unwelcomed odours. The lounges are required to install expensive heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems to prevent the distinct marijuana odour from leaking outside.
Other California cities are warming to the idea. Oakland and South Lake Tahoe each have one smoking lounge.
The city of West Hollywood has approved plans to issue up to eight licences; the tiny San Francisco Bay Area town of Alameda said it will allow two; and Oakland and South Lake Tahoe each have one lounge. Sacramento, Los Angeles and other cities are discussing the issue but have not authorised any lounges.
No safe place
Jackie Rocco, the city of Los Angeles' business development manager, said residents and cannabis businesses complain there is "no safe place, no legal place, to use it".
Rocco said Los Angeles officials envision smoking lounges set up like traditional bars, but for now the idea is more concept than plan.
Meanwhile, lawmakers and officials in other states are dithering over the issue.
Massachusetts marijuana regulators considered approval of "cannabis cafes." But the proposal came under withering criticism from Republican Governor Charlie Baker's administration and law-enforcement officials, who claimed among other things that opening such businesses would lead to more dangerously stoned drivers.
The five-member Cannabis Control Commission ultimately yielded to pressure by agreeing to put off a decision on licensing any cafes until after the initial roll-out of retail marijuana operations, expected this summer. Members of the panel, however, continue to support the idea.
"Those who wish to consume cannabis are going to do so whether social sites exist or not, and are going to make driving decisions regardless of where they consume," said Jim Borghesani, spokesman for the Massachusetts chapter of the pro-legalisation Marijuana Policy Project. "Social sites will simply give cannabis users the same options available to alcohol users."
In Colorado, one of the first states to broadly legalise, lawmakers failed in a close vote to make so-called 'tasting rooms' legal. However, cities may do it, and Denver has authorised lounges where consumers bring their own marijuana, issuing a single permit so far.
Nevada has put off a vote on the issue until next year, while lawmakers in Alaska and Oregon have considered and rejected legislation.
San Francisco has allowed medical marijuana patients to smoke in dispensaries for years, though there was uncertainty over whether the practice was authorised when California voters in 1996 made the state the first in the nation to legalise cannabis use with a doctor's recommendation.
The Barbary Coast, which received its state licence in January, first opened as a small medical dispensary in 2013. It expanded and opened its smoking lounge to medical users last year.
On January 11, the shop opened to all adults when it received its California recreational-use licence. The state started issuing those on January 1 and continues to approve dozens of applications a month since voters broadly legalised the use and sale of marijuana.