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Why is it hard to Open a Marijuana Smoking Lounge?

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By Chris Roberts

For marijuana consumers, lurking behind cannabis legalization’s success is an ongoing and unsolved dilemma: There’s very few places to legally exercise the newfound right and consume it. Wherever adults 21 and over have been granted the right to possess, cultivate and purchase cannabis legally, they are forbidden to consume it publicly.
True, this “new” prohibition is disobeyed with the same regularity full prohibition was ignored (every minute, of every day) and the stakes for violating this directive are markedly lower than before. And, sure, you can smoke weed at home, except when you can’t (many landlords and home-owner’s associations prohibit it) and there are “cannabis speakeasies,” off-book social clubs, the marijuana version of a shebeen. But wasn’t legalization supposed to mean the end of furtive sneaking around and underground activity out of necessity?

Four years after commercial sales of recreational cannabis began in Colorado, the first business to pursue and receive a license to allow on-site marijuana smoking is inching towards its opening date.

As the Los Angeles Times noted, The Coffee Joint, a new business next door to a Denver recreational marijuana dispensary, was the first business to apply for official licensing under a relatively new program in that city.

After another public vote, and ensuing lengthy and arduous debate between lawmakers and business owners, Denver began accepting applications from businesses hoping for “social consumption” licenses in August. As Westword noted, many hopefuls had their dreams dashed even before they could apply. Businesses wishing to allow adults to smoke weed had to abide by a host of rules, including receiving widespread approval from the neighbors. They also couldn’t serve alcohol.

Thus, Rita Tsalyuk earned the distinction of Denver’s first social-lounge applicant when she submitted her paperwork in December. Tsalyuk, a real-estate professional, also owns the 1136 Yuma recreational dispensary next door to the future Coffee Joint. So far, it appears she’s checking all the boxes. She’s in a non-residential area, far away from parks and schools, several of the requirements of Initiative 300, the ballot measure that legalized (but has yet to lead to any) smoking lounges in Denver.

As she told the Times, a public hearing on her application should happen within the next few weeks. If that goes well, The Coffee Joint could open by the spring — and it would have the distinction of the very first dedicated, licensed and permitted public cannabis consumption area in America.

Purists will note that several medical-marijuana dispensaries in San Francisco allow on-site consumption, and across the bay in Oakland, you can still find underground marijuana speakeasies operating under a city law called Measure Z.

For now, they’re all we have and any progress is far from guaranteed. It’s unclear if any other cities will follow Denver’s lead. A plan to legalize legalization-era recreational marijuana lounges in Las Vegas, home to the nation’s only 24-hour marijuana dispensaries, was scuttled after Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s Jan. 4 revocation of a marijuana-friendly, Obama-era policy memo.

It’s also unclear if other businesses will be able to follow Tsalyuk’s lead, or if she’ll actually win her permit after her public hearing. The same voices who opposed Initiative 300 will oppose The Coffee Joint, with the same arguments: Marijuana lounges mean smoking and driving, marijuana lounges may attract crime. Maybe, but marijuana legalization without legalized marijuana consumption also attracts “crime,” by default. If cigarette smokers and alcohol drinkers can find safe harbor in America (and last we checked, they do) it’s past time for cannabis consumers to have a place in public to kick back and fully relax.

Original Publication in Cannabis Now.