Marijuana Lounges: All Dressed Up With Nowhere to Go

What comes to mind when you think of Amsterdam? Typically, Van Gogh, historic churches, beautiful canals, and marijuana. Amsterdam is famous for its “coffee shops,” where patrons can purchase and consume marijuana on-site. In light of the success of recent legalization efforts on this side of the Atlantic, we have to ask: where are America’s marijuana coffee shops?

Unlike many European countries (including the Netherlands), America has generally adopted broad anti-smoking policies. Jurisdictions that have fully legalized recreational marijuana are in-line with this trend. Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Washington D.C. all have prohibitions against smoking in public. Alaska does not have a statewide prohibition, but its municipalities have the ability to enact their own localized prohibitions on smoking. These no-smoking laws were put in place to prevent tobacco smoke, but they also apply to marijuana.

Marijuana LoungesDespite widespread bans, cigar bars and hookah lounges continue to operate as private clubs. These establishments generally require private membership to prevent public access and to ensure that they receive treatment as private clubs which generally follow different rules that can allow for smoking on the premises. For example, in Washington State, employers cannot subject employees to second-hand smoke, and lounges try to circumvent this rule by having “volunteers” take on the work. Still, business owners have been largely unsuccessful in opening private lounges where patrons can smoke marijuana.

The general prohibition against public smoking, coupled with the overall heavy regulation of marijuana, makes smoking lounges a difficult endeavor. Moreover, cannabis lounges in almost any state would be BYOG (Bring Your Own Green) where, on a general basis, marijuana business cannot allow consumption on-site and where non-marijuana-licensees cannot distribute any cannabis to the public in any form whatsoever.

An alternative option to smoking lounges may be vapor lounges. Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes suggested this in a memo addressing marijuana policy concerns. His plan entails lounges that prohibit alcohol, meet minimum ventilation requirements, and require patrons to bring their own marijuana. Washington law does not expressly prohibit vaporizing lounges but it also fails to provide regulations on how this type of club should operate. Despite legal uncertainty, some business owners have opened vaporizing clubs in Colorado and Washington–only time will tell if these lounges survive and succeed given the amount of red tape and legal ambiguities involved.

Many Americans living in states with recreational marijuana are without a legally sanctioned place to consume. In all of the adult use states, consuming marijuana in public is prohibited which means a person needs a private place to ingest, like in one’s own home. Others, including tourists, renters, and condominium owners, whose buildings or hotels likely forbid smoking and/or marijuana use, will be altogether barred from any consumption in their homes or hotel rooms. As we have stated in the past, landlords can still evict tenants for smoking.

As with most developments in the marijuana space, change in this arena will likely occur at the local level while state law remains vague. As new businesses pop up that “kind of comply” with the law in a general sense, state legislators and regulatory bodies will have to adapt. Until then, we are likely a ways off from seeing any Amsterdam-style coffee shops in the United States.

*This post was written by Daniel Shortt, a law student at the University of Washington School of Law and a summer associate at our law firm.

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