An issue which continues to arise in each new state that legalizes or depenalizes marijuana is where those who wish to gather with others who enjoy smoking marijuana are legally permitted to do so.
This seems like an easy problem to solve — we’ve done it before. At the end of alcohol prohibition, the majority of states legalized and licensed bars and lounges where any adult could legally go to meet friends and enjoy their choice of legal alcohol drinks, and to spend some time with others who enjoy drinking.
This model of allowing bars and lounges where drinkers can socialize is so universal today that it is somewhat surprising it has not been permitted by any of the first few legalization states. Apparently the social stigma surrounding marijuana smoking had become so significant as a result of the decades of “reefer madness” propaganda, that even those proponents of ending marijuana prohibition have feared a political backlash were they to permit marijuana salons. To me it feels like they are saying “it’s OK to smoke, as long as you stay in the closet”!
Unfavorable View of Recreational Marijuana Smokers
This disapproval of recreational marijuana smokers, even by many who favor ending prohibition, was measured in a recent poll commissioned by a group called Third Way, in a national poll conducted in October 2014. This poll found the country nearly equally divided on legalizing recreational marijuana for adults, with 50 percent supporting legalization and 47 percent opposed to it. Bur ominously, the same poll found only 36 percent of respondents said they viewed recreational marijuana users favorably, versus 54 percent unfavorably. Meanwhile, a solid majority (55 percent) viewed medical marijuana users favorably — nearly 20 points higher than recreational users.
This segment of the population, dubbed the “marijuana middle” by the pollsters, have concluded that marijuana prohibition is a failed public policy, and favor legalization; but they nonetheless disapprove of the recreational use of marijuana. They do not think we should treat marijuana smokers as criminals, but neither do they wish to give it their approval. And it is this lingering anti-marijuana bias that is causing most elected officials to oppose the establishment of marijuana lounges or social clubs.
For the rabid anti-marijuana crowd, barring marijuana salons has the appeal of retaining a strong message of societal disapproval of marijuana smoking; it is a sop to those who find themselves on the wrong side of history, even as legalization moves forward. That was clearly on the mind of DC Mayor Muriel Browser last week when she sent emergency legislation to the City Council seeking to prevent anyone from renting a facility for a private marijuana party to which the public could attend.
While the mayor had shown admirable political courage by ignoring threats from a few in Congress who were threatening her with arrest and jail for permitting the new full decriminalization law to take effect in the city, she apparently (no one can ever be sure of an elected official’s motivation) thought permitting the emergence of marijuana lounges to pop-up around the city, charging a fee for entrance (the new law permits adults to give, but not sell, up to an ounce of marijuana to another adult) would be too much for Congress to ignore – like sticking one’s finger in their collective eye.
While that may well have been a smart political decision in the short run, since some of those disaffected members of Congress had publicly suggested the District might be penalized with budget cuts for allowing the new law to take effect, it is inconsistent with the intent of Initiative 71 that was approved by nearly 70 percent of the voters, and it will inevitably lead to black market versions of marijuana social clubs. Remember the “speakeasies” of the Roaring ’20s?
Now let me acknowledge that these types of problems are wonderful problems to have. For more than 75 years, marijuana smokers have had to fear being arrested and jailed – sometimes for long periods of time – simply for possessing or using or growing a little marijuana. We reached the peak in 2010 when the country collectively arrested nearly 900,000 Americans on marijuana charges, with nearly 90 percent of those arrests for possession of minor amounts. And while that trend has slowly begun to reverse itself, marijuana smokers continue to be arrested in most states in America. For the millions of marijuana smokers who live in those states, any fight over whether marijuana salons should be permitted must indeed seem like a distant distraction.
But as we move forward in this transition phase, moving from prohibition to legalization, it is important that we not permit ourselves to get shoe-horned into some system that suggests we are second-class citizens, simply because we enjoy smoking marijuana; and that would effectively keep us in the closet. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the responsible use of marijuana by adults, and there is no reason why we should not be permitted to enjoy marijuana in a lounge or social club with like-minded people.
Might Not Want to Permit Alcohol in Marijuana Lounges
I would like to see some legalization states experiment with a provision that would license marijuana lounges in which food and drink is available for sale, along with marijuana, but no alcohol. In effect, that is the Amsterdam model, with a few exceptions. I propose this as an attractive possibility, for two reasons.
First, we all recognize that alcohol sometimes causes drinkers to become belligerent and violent, leading to bar fights and worse. Marijuana has no such effect on smokers; in fact, it tends to smooth over those aggressive tendencies we may all occasionally feel, and it is nearly unheard of for a fight to break out at a marijuana party. We can largely avoid those problems if we ban alcohol.
Second, the research clearly shows that using the two drugs together – marijuana and alcohol – greatly exaggerates the level of impairment beyond that which either drug produces by itself; they are synergistic. So the concern shared by many Americans about marijuana-impaired drivers on the road – a concern which is generally overblown – would become a far greater problem if those who spent some time at a marijuana lounge were later driving home impaired on both marijuana and alcohol. We can save ourselves a lot of problems, both real and political, if we voluntarily keep the two drugs separate.
But the idea that marijuana smokers are going to limit their marijuana smoking only to their home, or a friend’s home, is unrealistic. Even under prohibition marijuana smokers devise ways to socialize in groups where they can enjoy marijuana, and that will certainly be the case with legalization. So let’s begin to experiment with legal and licensed marijuana lounges, salons and social clubs, and bring this inevitable social practice out of the shadows and above ground.
Although the District of Columbia is apparently not going to permit marijuana clubs, at least not in the immediate future, there is some hope in other legal states. In Colorado, for example, while Denver has outlawed private social clubs for marijuana smokers, as have many other towns in the state, the County of Pueblo has opted to license marijuana social clubs; and the City of Colorado Springs, which has since prohibited new clubs, have grandfathered in a few social clubs that were in existence prior to the ban.
Colorado has amended their Clean Indoor Air Act to prohibit marijuana smoking wherever tobacco smoking is prohibited, putting most hotels off limits. Not surprisingly there has been an increase in the number of tickets written for public smoking, since marijuana smokers from out-of-state have no legal alternative.
In Washington, there are a few private smoking clubs operating quietly in the shadows, but none are yet licensed or regulated. Seattle City Attorney Peter Holmes, one of the official sponsors of the new legalization initiative (I-502), has taken the lead in this area, recently releasing a 10-page report calling for the licensing of legal pot lounges. “Single family homeowners have a legal place to consume marijuana, “ Holmes said, “but others however, such as out-of-town visitors, the homeless , and renters and condominium owners whose buildings do not permit marijuana use, have fewer options. You can enforce the law much better if you, at the same time, provide an outlet for that demand,” Homes added. His wise advise has yet to be implemented, but it has given a boost to the necessary public discussion.
Oregon presents an interesting experiment, as they get closer to the July 1 date when marijuana smoking will be legal in the state (the regulated market will not come online until early 2016), as Portland has since 2009 been the site of the grey-market World Famous Cannabis Café, catering to medical cannabis patients, charging an entrance or membership fee, but “giving away” donated marijuana once inside. They operated openly for years as a members-only private club, and have announced they will be re-opening after July 1. There are currently a few other private marijuana social clubs that have opened in Portland, although pending state legislation, if approved, may drive those endeavors back underground.
In Alaska, the new legal status for marijuana took effect in February, although the provisions for licensed growers and sellers will not be implemented until early 2016 But at least one activist – former TV news reporter Charlo Greene, who walked off her job while on-air with a four-letter expletive last year, proclaiming her intent to focus on helping pass the legalization initiative, has already opened the Alaska Cannabis Club in downtown Anchorage, promising to “give away” marijuana to “members.” But it is to early to know whether marijuana lounges will be permitted to operate openly under the new law.
As I said, this is a wonderful problem to deal with! We will eventually get licensed lounges in most states in America, and we will eventually stop arresting smokers in the states where that barbaric practice continues. Let’s keep the pressure on in all of those venues.
It is a great time to be alive for a marijuana smoker. But our work is far from complete.
# # #
This column was originally posted on Marijuana.com.