Visit West Hollywood, a tourism agency, has a website that touts the city’s shopping on Santa Monica Boulevard and its nightlife on the Sunset Strip — and its five licensed cannabis stores.
In January, West Hollywood drew headlines for being the first city in Los Angeles County to let shops sell marijuana to anyone 21 and older with just an ID. Now, WeHo is poised to make headlines again as perhaps the first city in Southern California – and one of just a handful in the United States – to allow cannabis lounges.
“Having a space that allows for the safe and legal consumption of the products, that was just really important for our city,” said Jackie Rocco, who oversees the program as West Hollywood’s manager of business development.
When Californians voted to legalize recreational marijuana in 2016 under Proposition 64, they approved a ban on all public consumption and gave landlords the right to regulate marijuana use on private property.
That leaves tourists with few options. Most hotels — aside from rare “bud and breakfast” resorts that cater to enthusiasts — will fine anyone caught smoking anything in their rooms.
It also limits cannabis consumption options for up to half of all California residents, since landlords can bar tenants from consuming marijuana in any form in rental units. Plus residents can get booted from federally subsidized housing if they’re caught smoking weed inside.
Cannabis lounges — spaces where people can legally smoke, vape or eat marijuana products — is one way to address those problems, Rocco said.
She said lounges also will help marijuana transition from something Californians do in secret to something that can be enjoyed without shame in a social setting, the same way adults can drink alcohol in a bar or countless other venues.
“This is now legal in California,” Rocco said.
“Lounges can help dispel this myth that this is something seedy, and to show that it can be consumed safely if people are educated and given legal options.”
As with all marijuana businesses, Prop. 64 leaves it up to California cities to decide whether to allow lounges in their boundaries. No special state license is required, though all lounges must have state clearance to sell cannabis. Lounges also can’t let people consume alcohol or tobacco in the same venue, they can’t operate within 600 feet of schools, and all cannabis consumption must be out of public view.
So far, two Bay Area cities seem to be the only municipalities in California to issue lounge permits, in both cases for onsite consumption at licensed cannabis shops.
Oakland has given lounge permits to two of its dispensaries. Magnolia Wellness has opened a limited version of its planned lounge area. And the retail legend Harborside just has a dab bar so far, where visitors can use rigs to heat highly concentrated cannabis wax.
San Francisco has long tolerated onsite consumption in its medical marijuana dispensaries, which have flourished since California became the first state to legalize cannabis as medicine in 1996. The city began permitting lounges at medical dispensaries in 2005. Today, there are three medical marijuana dispensaries with legal smoking lounges and five recreational cannabis shops where adults can consume marijuana purchased at their adjacent stores.
At two San Francisco shops in the Harvest chain, private cannabis lounges are open to members who pay a monthly fee. Others Bay Area spots just permit vaping.
Barbary Coast opened a 2,000-square-foot lounge a year ago after medical patients requested one, said Jesse Henry, the executive director. Since January, the Barbary Coast lounge — with its speakeasy-style paneled wood ceiling, brown leather booths and baroque red wallpaper — has been open to adult consumers of all types of cannabis products. And Henry said they’re increasingly catering to the local recreational crowd and out-of-town tourists.
Henry, a San Francisco native, calls the lounge a “win-win” for consumers and for neighbors, noting it provides people with an alternative venue to consume cannabis that is off the streets. Also, the lounge has odor-control systems that keep the smell from drifting. Plus, he said his trained staff members can help educate new consumers so they can avoid getting too high and having a bad experience.
People can only bring in cannabis purchased at the adjacent Barbary Coast shop. Henry said that’s to ensure all customers are consuming products that have been tested for safety, and that no one is inhaling smoke from marijuana that might be caked with pesticides or mold.
Customers get to stay in the lounge for up to 30 minutes to prevent them from over-indulging, Henry said. They get a buzzer as they walk in the door — similar to what people get when they put their name on a restaurant waiting list. Once their half-hour is up, the buzzer goes off.
Sometimes there’s a wait-list to get into the lounge, which Henry said shows that there is demand for such spaces. And as his team made plans to open a second dispensary, Henry said San Francisco officials have asked if they could include a lounge in the project, a way to provide a safe consumption space in another part of town.
COMING TO A CITY NEAR YOU
When West Hollywood was crafting its cannabis policies, Rocco said staff visited Colorado, where recreational cannabis has been legal since 2014. They wanted to talk with residents and others about what was working and what wasn’t.
One issue she said they heard again and again was that Coloradans wished they had access to cannabis lounges.
As in California, cities in Colorado can choose whether to welcome or ban lounges. Denver recently became the first to roll out a tentative program, letting people bring their own cannabis vape pens or cannabis edibles to just one licensed coffee shop.
None of the other seven states that have legalized marijuana for adults currently allows for any type of cannabis lounge, though Nevada is considering that option for 2019. Many cities and states that have delayed or shut down the idea of lounges have cited concerns about an increase in impaired driving — particularly since there’s no reliable way to test for marijuana impairment.
That does put pressure on the handful of legal lounges now open in California or elsewhere, Henry said, since one bad player could give the emerging industry a “black eye.”
“It’s definitely a good challenge to have in front of us,” he said. “It’s an honor to be able to really do it the right way.”
In West Hollywood, Rocco said they hope to see entrepreneurs get creative, bringing ideas for spaces that fit with the city’s trendy and artistic vibe.
WeHo plans to hand out up to eight permits for lounges that let people smoke or vape cannabis and another eight for spaces that let people only consume edibles. They decided to separate them, Rocco said, so people who are bothered by smoke can have options for safely socializing and to foster cannabis-oriented culinary programs.
MedMen, a Los Angeles-based company that runs a growing chain of retail marijuana shopsacross the country, plans to apply for a permit to open a lounge at a location separate from its West Hollywood store, according to company spokesman Daniel Yi.
West Hollywood is expected to discuss the process during a meeting in April and to start accepting applications for lounges and other marijuana businesses in May. Depending how many applications they get, and how complicated the projects are, Rocco said the first lounge figures to open in the city between the end of this year and the summer 2019.
But another city that’s known for catering to stars might give West Hollywood a run for its money, at least in terms of opening the first cannabis lounge in Southern California.
Palm Springs also will permit cannabis lounges, and the city already is accepting applications.
There’s no limit on the number of locations that can open, though city attorney Edward Kotkin said Palm Springs has policies aimed at preventing over-saturation in any one area, just as they do now with bars or liquor stores.
“It’s a little bit hypocritical to say we can’t have a cannabis lounge if we’re going to allow bars,” Kotkin said.
Palm Spring lounges can be stand-alone businesses, he said. Others could open in existing business, such as a yoga studio or art gallery. Either way, California law says they’ll also need state licenses to sell marijuana.
One company has already applied for the first stand-alone lounge permit, at a former hearing aid center on Palm Canyon Drive, near the heart of the city. The recently renovated space shares a wall with a day spa.
City spokeswoman Amy Blaisdell said there’s no estimate for when the application would be processed or when the first lounge might open in Palm Springs.
In the meantime, a handful of other cities that have allowed recreational cannabis shops — including Alameda, Sacramento and Los Angeles — have said they plan to discuss cannabis lounges.
Henry, of Barbary Coast, suggested that’s likely to be just the start.
“There’s going to be a need for it more and more.”