Just like the prohibition years of alcohol, it used to be that cannabis could be legally consumed only behind closed doors, down dank alleys, and in dark underground speakeasies. While cannabis is swiftly gaining in popularity, public prohibitions on use have derailed efforts to “normalize” and elevate cannabis as an alcohol alternative. But the next wave in hospitality is coming. And it smells—and looks—a little different. Cannabis consumption lounges may be coming to a country, state, or city near you.
Although 37 states and several international locations have enacted cannabis friendly laws, as the Brittany Griner saga demonstrates, the tide of government opinion has not fully turned. Despite being legal to possess, cannabis remains illegal to publicly consume in most places. In other words, parks, sidewalks, and many business outlets are off limits. While cannabis patients and users can usually partake in private homes, those who cannot use at home for family or other reasons may still face criminal penalties by lighting up in public.
The law gives free rein to private business owners to refuse cannabis on premise, including rentals, hotels, and other private venues. This means tourists visiting popular cities where weed is legal are often caught in the unenviable Catch-22 of being able to purchase, but not consume, the product. Nowhere does this ring more true than Las Vegas, where cannabis has been legal to be purchased by adults over 21 since 2017, yet very few cannabis-friendly establishments have popped up, and it remains (technically) illegal to consume in public still today. Even smoking rooms within hotels are not necessarily cannabis friendly.
Fast forward to the present. Imagine walking into an elegant open air garden, dotted with tables, arbored with plants, with just a subtle hint of cannabis in the air. The interior is posh, but not smoky, due to a high-caliber casino-quality ventilation system, leaving only a gentle afterglow of cannabis smoke as a reminder that this is not your average bar.
Public sentiment surrounding cannabis lounges is growing. With the waning of COVID-19, the number of operational cannabis lounges is expected to double or triple over the next year or two, ushering in a new era for the cannabis industry. Much like MedMen’s glass-enclosed “apple store of weed” revolutionized the cannabis buying experience, consumption lounges will finally bring cannabis out of the shadows and into full sight.
What is a cannabis lounge?
A cannabis lounge, often described as a consumption lounge, cannabis cafe, or cannabis tasting room, among other names, is a commercial space that allows patrons to partake in cannabis products (including flower, vape, edibles, drinks, or some combination) on premises. Regulations typically limit access to adults (21+), similar to bars that serve alcohol.
And while some locations permit consumption at temporary events (like music festivals) and some private businesses have opened up private clubs, where members pay a membership fee to typically bring their own cannabis to use on premises, this article focuses mainly on public lounges.
Where are cannabis lounges currently located?
The big looming question is: where can I find a cannabis lounge? Here’s a brief chronology of the scene.
- 1970s: Amsterdam “coffeeshops” (koffieshops) began allowing cannabis consumption for adults (21+) in the 1970’s. Even though cannabis remains technically illegal in the Netherlands, the authorities have adopted a hands-off approach that allows the public sale and use of cannabis to residents. However, tourists should review local regulations before traveling, as they remain in flux.
- 1994: Although cannabis was illegal in California in 1994, what some call America’s first (underground) cannabis lounge opened its doors that year: the San Francisco Buyer’s Club.
- 2001: Barcelona cannabis clubs opened to members in 2001, but the future of lounges remains questionable as the country fights over cannabis legality. These clubs are usually either very community oriented or very tourist oriented. In both cases, there is technically no legal sale of cannabis in Spain, it is more of a member benefit trading system.
- 2016: California legalized recreational cannabis in 2016 but left it up to individual cities to decide whether to allow lounges. Denver legalized BYOC private lounges in 2016 but complicated regulations (including a no indoor smoking rule) delayed openings and hindered the initial success of this model in Colorado.
- 2018: The City of West Hollywood, California issued licenses for 16 lounges.
- 2019: California’s first legal cannabis lounge, Lowell Cafe (later renamed The Original Cannabis Cafe), opened in West Hollywood in 2019. In 2019, Alaska and Colorado also passed laws allowing public consumption at licensed dispensaries, but the first public lounges did not open until 2021 in Alaska and 2022 in Colorado due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- 2020: Illinois legalized recreational cannabis, including consumption lounges, but the first public lounge did not open in the Chicago area in 2022.
- 2021: Several additional states implemented laws allowing lounges in 2021, including: Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York. The slow development of regulations has slowed the growth of the industry in these states, however.
- Possibly in 2023 or later: Maine and Massachusetts.
Meanwhile, many other places where cannabis is legal still do not allow public consumption, including Canada, where cannabis cafes have been fined millions for attempting to continue operating underground.
What’s it like in a cannabis lounge?
Cannabis lounges can offer something for everyone: indoor, outdoor; as elegant as a five-star restaurant, or as low-key as a dive bar.
Cannabis options run the gamut from an array of flower, to dabs, edibles, and drinks. To satisfy a range of customers, an example of drink options in California might range from low dose Cann (with 2 mg THC and 4mg of CBD), to moderate dose products like the Pamos (with 6 mg THC and 2mg CBD), to very potent products meant to be shared, like the Bone Thugs Ghetto Cowboy Orange Krush Syrup (with 1,000 mg THC per bottle), depending on the local regulations.
Instead of alcohol, shelves are lined with a host of smoking devices and implements, from pre-rolls, to one-hitters, to fancy and expensive vaporizers and water bongs. These devices are typically rented for the entirety of your stay, or for multiple hour blocks. Whether you can buy cannabis products at the lounge or if you must bring your own bud will depend on local rules and regulations..
At NuWu lounge, owned and operated on Paiute tribal land near Las Vegas, for example, patrons can rent a $700 Stündenglass Gravity Bong, described as an “extremely elevated, adult version of your typical gravity bong from your teenage years” for a $50 rental fee. For those wanting to try a dab without paying for their own equipment, NuWu rents the Puffco Peak for $25 or the Dr. Dabber Switch for $50. Some lounges offer a rolling station, where a seasoned veteran binds your cannabis flower-of-choice into a tightly-wrapped package for your smoking pleasure.
For novices and non-smokers alike, the lounges of the future offer a lot more than just cannabis. At the Artist Tree’s Studio Cannabis Lounge in West Hollywood, for example, patrons can order food from a local venue for delivery, attend cannabis-fueled yoga classes, live music, and comedy shows, and ponder a revolving selection of local art. The West Hollywood area, with its 16 proposed licenses, is gearing up to be a world class cannabis tourist destination – the Amsterdam of California, so to speak.
Meanwhile, JAD’s in Denver is set up like a sports bar, offering bar food and Sunday football to enjoy along with a joint. As soon as regulations permit, the City of Las Vegas hopes to earn the moniker “Amsterdam on Steroids.” The owners of Sin City’s Planet 13 dispensary are planning to launch a massive one-stop entertainment venue for the industry, with food, music, and room for almost 400 guests.
How to have the best possible lounge experience
You can elevate your cannabis lounge experience by following a few simple guidelines. First, whether you’re an OG or a newbie, take advantage of the expertise of your server, budtender, or budler, as the case may be. Much like a wine sommelier, a great budtender should be able to provide details on what to expect from a particular product. Just remember that a budtender cannot give medical advice, and is not a stand-in for a pharmacist.
Be sure to ask your budtender about the terpene profile of your cannabis products, which will determine whether you feel energized, giggly, sleepy, focused, intellectually curious, and other potential effects. Another important question to ask is the onset time for each product, which can vary significantly, especially for edible products. The last question is of course, is dosage – how much of a certain product to consume – which can vary widely from a first-timer to veteran smoker.
Because some lounges have time limits on reservations, it is best to sample a fast-acting edible because some traditional edibles can take up to two hours to start to kick in. Fast-acting products may be called emulsions or nano-emulsions, water soluble, enhanced, rapid, fast, or quick absorption. These products, which include many cannabis beverages, claim to start working within 15 minutes and to wear off in only a few hours, Unfortunately there has not been much research done on available rapid acting cannabis products, and existing science still needs further refinement,
Cannabis lounges also provide a unique opportunity for new users, in that you can try products and ask questions during your cannabis experience. According to Maha Haq, Managing Partner of Highspitality Group, an LA-based consulting firm focusing on cannabis lounges, the “golden rule” for the canna-curious is to “start low and go slow,” to ensure a comfort level with the product before consuming more. As little as one or two milligrams can be more than enough to start with, and cannabis affects everyone a little differently. For new users who are not comfortable with smoking, as discussed above, many edible cannabis products, including cannabis beverages, now offer low-dose options, rapid-acting formulations, as well as different ratios of THC and CBD to help tailor the experience.
While there is no known fatal dose of cannabis (i.e., you can’t overdose on it), taking too much can be extremely uncomfortable, with effects including paranoia, confusion, nausea, and increased heart rate and blood pressure. Very high doses, especially edibles in children, have been shown to cause serious sedation and can warrant hospital admission. But for the average adult the effects can feel overwhelming, but are generally not dangerous. Better to start low, and gradually increase after letting the expected onset time pass. 1
Finally, COVID may be nearing its end but safety is still important. Be sure to confirm that all items are well-sanitized before using them. And if rideshare is not already a requirement of entry, choose a rideshare company or designated driver before leaving home so you can maximize the fun of your lounge visit without having to worry about how to get home safe.
The fine print: rules and legal limitations
As with everything cannabis, laws and regulations regarding lounges vary by location. Countries, states, and even individual cities, may have their own unique rules governing lounge experiences, so it is best to confirm with your local jurisdiction before making assumptions about what can or cannot be done in a lounge. Typical rules and regulations include:
- Age verification required: As of the date of this publication, all cannabis lounges currently operating require patrons to show proof that they are age 21 or older.
- Tobacco and alcohol prohibited: Most cannabis lounges do not allow the concurrent use or sale of tobacco or alcohol on premises.
- Food: Some locations may not allow food on premises. Be sure to check in advance because if you partake in THC, you should expect to get the munchies.
- Types of products: Some locations may only allow the consumption of certain types of products, such as edibles. Others may only allow smoking, vaping, or dabbing.
- THC limits: Some locations may have limits on the THC quantity a patron can consume. For example, Nevada’s regulations limit consumers to 3.5 grams of “consumable cannabis” for flower and 10 mg per edible product, which must be consumed on site. In turn, West Hollywood has not set limitations but allows patrons to purchase an “amount reasonable for onsite consumption” and take any remaining product home.
- BYO or not to BYO: Some locations may require all cannabis to be purchased and completely consumed on site. Others may allow users to purchase and bring unused product back home. Still others may allow users to bring their own cannabis.
- Equipment rentals: Some lounges may offer a variety of smoking, vaping and dabbing implements for rent; others allow users to bring their own. Costs can vary.
Just the beginning for cannabis consumption lounges
While naysayers view lounges as a silly novelty, others, including Highspitality’s Maha Haq, expect the number of cannabis-friendly venues to double over the next year or two. The growth of the cannabis drinks market, and inclusion of non-cannabis-related entertainment on site, offer lounge-goers a familiar experience, which is likely to influence the burgeoning scene. With seemingly endless options, cannabis lounges are poised to usher in the next generation of cannabis users and bring cannabis mainstream.
- Kaczor EE, Mathews B, LaBarge K, Chapman BP, Carreiro S. Cannabis Product Ingestions in Pediatric Patients: Ranges of Exposure, Effects, and Outcomes. J Med Toxicol. 2021;17(4):386-396. doi:10.1007/s13181-021-00849-0
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