When Attorney General Jeff Sessions effectively rescinded the Cole Memorandum earlier this year, everyone in the cannabis industry wondered what was next.
The short answer? Business as usual.
Nearly 10 legal cannabis consumption lounges have opened for business since Sessions, in a letter dated January 4, authorized US attorneys in cannabis-legal states to crack down on the plant according to its status as a Schedule I controlled substance. Some of the lounges — spread across Denver, San Francisco and parts of Massachusetts — offer so-called private membership plans, admittedly to skirt lack of clarity in state law, while others are open to the public for adults who are of legal cannabis consumption age.
One thing all interviewed lounge owners had in common thus far: Success and a consistent customer base.
Kyle Moon of Worcester, Massachusetts opened The Summit Lounge on February 8, with a goal of promoting a relaxing social environment for cannabis consumers in the greater Boston area. A membership-only club, The Summit has had an overwhelming number of customers flock to its two-room apartment-style premises, prompting Moon to plan for opening as many as three additional clubs over the next few months.
“It has been nonstop, seven days a week,” he says. “We’re always busy with events or just people hanging out.”
In Denver, Rita Tsalyuk of The Coffee Joint welcomes nearly 400 daily customers to her boutique-style establishment, situated next to a cannabis dispensary overlooking the South Platte River. Coffee Joint lounge-goers can vape or enjoy edibles for an entrance fee of $5 if they bring their own cannabis products, or for free if they use cannabis purchased next door at 1136 Yuma Dispensary. What they can’t do legally is smoke the plant on the premises, as per city ordinance.
Customers expressed a combination of gratitude for proprietors’ trailblazing efforts to open such facilities, and relief for finally having a legal area outside of their own homes to consume cannabis in some form.
“It’s really a service to the community more than anything,” says frequent Coffee Joint attendee Yolanda Ramirez. “While it seems like a basic right on the surface, we haven’t been allowed to do this before.”
Ramirez, 54, who says she vapes cannabis to help with anxiety, stops by The Coffee Joint as much as three days a week on her lunch break before returning to her office at a downtown Denver accounting firm, or after work to “medicate and recharge” before heading home for the evening. A 12-year resident of Wheat Ridge, a western suburb located around eight miles from her downtown Denver office, Ramirez says vaping before returning to work or her 20-minute drive home through traffic has been “a godsend.”
Massachusetts resident Shane O’Connor can relate. Once commuting as much as 20 minutes from his home in nearby Holden to his office in Worcester, O’Connor says he now spends his happy hours chatting with colleagues while consuming cannabis as a paid member of The Summit Lounge.
“Just the convenience,” O’Connor says. “It’s nice to have somewhere besides my living room and back porch to do this.”
While cannabis lounges have provided a service and outlet for some cannabis patients and consumers, its biggest demographic remains left out in many legal establishments.
In Denver, the local ordinance allows only for the consumption of edibles, concentrates and electric vaping, leaving out cannabis flower altogether. The same goes for licensed, non-membership lounges in Massachusetts. As a “private membership” club, Moon can skirt the law at The Summit Lounge, and he acknowledges that he’s operating “in a gray area.”
Marijuana flower consumption at cannabis lounges is allowed only by state law in California, and even there, municipalities have authority to ban the plant.
With more than 60 percent of the estimated 55 million regular cannabis consumers in the United States preferring to smoke flower, according to a 2017 poll by Yahoo News and Marist College, that means most people are still restricted to their homes for their marijuana consumption.
Nevada Senator Tick Segerblom, widely regarded as the godfather of cannabis in the Silver State, says if Las Vegas and Reno open marijuana lounges as planned in 2019, he hopes state and local laws will allow for flower smoking. He calls the current practice of vaping and edible consumption “definitely restrictive.”
“You’re talking about more than half of marijuana users still not being allowed to consume there,” Segerblom says. “What they’re doing in Denver and other cities is a good start, but there’s a long way to go.”
While cannabis consumption lounges have thus far thrived where they’ve been allowed to open, the lingering fallout from Sessions’ letter has caused some cannabis-legal states to balk at the idea of public smoking areas.
In Nevada, Clark County Commission Chair Steve Sisolak and City of Las Vegas attorney Bryan Scott both directed their respective government agencies to pump the breaks on plans for consumption lounges, after going as far to draft local ordinances late last year.
Instead of opening for business in March as originally planned, Nevada officials are instead taking a “wait and see” approach in hopes of opening their first lounges in 2019, Scott says.
“The Sessions memo threw us all off,” he explains. “I think collectively, we want to see what happens in Denver and San Francisco now, first.”
In Seattle and Portland, cannabis consumers are still limited to their homes, and in some cases the streets, although local police there have been known to charge outdoor consumers fines of just $27, and often abide by an unwritten code not to enforce ordinances prohibiting smoking in most public places. In the past year, state legislators in both Washington and Oregon have rejected bills for legal cannabis lounges, and spokespeople from both states’ legislative council bureaus say there are “no plans” for state laws to change anytime soon.
Cannabis lounge owners and state legislators alike who were interviewed for the purpose of this story said they took kindly to US Senator from Colorado Cory Gardner’s affirmation last month that President Donald Trump claims he’ll support legislation to protect states’ rights to legal cannabis programs, essentially overriding Sessions’ longtime pledge to eliminate legal cannabis once and for all.
“The industry is expanding and it’s time we gave people a safe place to use cannabis,” Tsalyuk says. “This is just the beginning.”