Current Regulation of On-Site Marijuana Consumption in Other States: What can California learn?

With the legalization of marijuana in four states and the District of Columbia, policymakers and citizens have had to address the important question of where we should allow adults to consume legal marijuana. Within a legalized state, where marijuana possession and consumption is a commercial act rather than a criminal one, it is important that potential marijuana smokers have clear rules delineating where they may and may not consume marijuana. How policymakers have and will address this question says a lot about how a state’s relationship with marijuana will develop, what forms its legal marijuana market will take, and if retail point of sale consumption businesses (RPOSC) will be allowed within the new marketplace.

Current municipal medical marijuana regulations in California, and the vast majority of Colorado and Washington municipalities, expressly ban on-site marijuana consumption at dispensaries and cannabis clubs. As I’m highlighting with this article, this has created issues both for adults who come from out of state and are staying at hotels or other multi-unit buildings, and citizens of the state who do not own single-family dwellings that are exempt from state anti-smoking ordinances (see, e.g., Colorado’s Clean Indoor Air Act and its medical marijuana amendment, and Washington’s Inititative 901 which extended the state’s smoking ban to indoor locations like bars and restaurants).

Such state and municipal smoking bans, originally aimed at tobacco smokers, have largely been interpreted to also cover medical and legal marijuana smoke, although a few municipalities in California, like San Francisco, have passed resolutions strengthening the smoking bans while clarifying that valid medical cannabis dispensaries are exempt. Indicating further progress, Anchorage, Alaska recently became the first U.S. municipality to expressly allow “hash cafes” by regulation, alongside the group of “cannabis lounge/bars” that have popped up in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

However, placing limits on where to consume cannabis is an ongoing issue for the vast majority of the municipalities in Washington and Colorado since their marijuana laws went into effect. While Colorado allows anyone 21 and older to purchase marijuana at licensed retail stores, they simultaneously ban the on-site consumption of marijuana or marijuana byproducts on dispensary grounds, while also providing authority via the Colorado Constitution Article 18 Section 16-6(d) for landlords and other property owners to ban/regulate marijuana usage and possession on their private property.

Colorado’s legislation also left room for cities and municipalities to craft specific regulations for their area. For example, both the city of Denver, in section 24-408 of its municipal Health and Sanitation code, and Boulder,  in section 6-16-8(a) of its Health, Safety, and Sanitation code, promptly took the opportunity to clarify Colorado’s ban of public consumption to extend to specific on-site consumption bans for retail locations. Washington also bans on-site consumption at licensed marijuana retail locations (section 14(5) of the enacting legislation).

The result of the already existing smoking bans, plus the ongoing battles around official definitions of “public consumption” written into regulations drafted by local municipalities, have led to cannabis consumption being largely restricted to private single dwelling homes, even in states that have legalized marijuana’s possession and consumption. The lack of places to consume cannabis has even been reported to lead to an increase in negative outcomes for marijuana users: without a place to smoke or vaporize cannabis, they instead eat an edible, which for inexperienced users can be problematic.  (An article on the difference between smoking marijuana and eating marijuana edibles notes that onset of effects can take anywhere from a half to two hours versus the near instant impact of smoking or vaporizing). But should consumption be limited to the privacy of a specific type of home, to the exclusion of people who don’t have similar access? For the marijuana market, what does that mean for adults who wish to travel into the state for potential “marijuana tourism” and for individuals who don’t live in or have access to places where they can consume cannabis products legally?

In Colorado, tourists travelling into the state to engage in cannabis tourism are limited as to where they may consume their newly purchased marijuana. A secondary market has sprung up offering “marijuana tours,” where a tour van or limo drives paying customers from dispensary to dispensary in a manner similar to a wine tour, thereby allowing the passengers to enjoy their purchases in between destinations within the “privacy” of the vehicle.

For a marijuana tourist, the question of where to sleep after such a tour is important. As noted above, the Colorado Constitution allows private property owners to ban marijuana use and possession on their properties. This includes hotel owners who may wish to prohibit individuals who are merely in possession of marijuana from staying on their premises, not just those who wish to consume it there. The Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act limits smoking in hotels to 25% of the available rooms, so even if entrepreneurial business owners wanted to establish a marijuana-friendly hotel, they would still be limited in their ability to do so. Washington has a similar 75% for rooms in a hotel under their smoke-free requirement in its Clean Air Act, although the Washington Lodgers Association, a trade association for the states hoteliers, has made no additional recommendations besides suggesting that hotels promulgate a clear marijuana policy for their guests. Despite the lack of clear rules, online searches for hotel rooms in legal marijuana states have soared close to 50% as more and more people see marijuana-friendly states as viable vacation sites, providing willing and entrepreneurial hoteliers a growing market to cater to.

In addition to the current businesses mentioned above, it seems there are opportunities to alleviate these consumption issues through the responsible development of businesses allowing on-site consumption. RPOSC businesses such as “budpubs”, “cannabars”, and “vape lounges” that I mentioned earlier in the article and in my first post could simultaneously alleviate public-use issues, generate additional tax revenue for the state, and serve as lynchpins for economic redevelopment.

Currently, in legalized states and for California’s medical system, municipalities may lawfully restrict the locations where dispensaries exist. For Colorado, the combination of local zoning restrictions prohibiting dispensaries within residential and main street zoning areas, plus a required 1000 feet separation from schools, childcare and rehab facilities, has resulted in dispensaries usually being located in the outskirts of urban areas generally zoned for commercial and industrial uses. Some observers, like Professor Jeremy Németh from the University of Colorado Denver, have pointed out this often means dispensaries are located in socio-economically disadvantaged areas, whose residents are unable to mount the “not in my backyard” campaigns to local civic and economic leaders in order to have the dispensary located elsewhere (Read the full paper . While retail point of sale consumption businesses will no doubt face similar outcries, being able to elucidate the beneficial elements of redevelopment through “green” entertainment districts with RPOSC locations to these areas will certainly help create a positive response. Already, elected officials have realized the value of retail medical marijuana facilities in their localities: Professor Németh’s paper mentions Oakland Councilwomen Rebecca Kaplan, who cites medical marijuana businesses as a key driver of revitalization of the Uptown neighborhood in Oakland that had previously been vacant and underdeveloped. This same value, if properly regulated, can be derived from RPOSC businesses as well.

For the creation of RPOSC businesses to be beneficial to the quality of life and economic health of a community, there must be a comprehensive system for zoning and regulating where these businesses can exist. This must include plans in advance for limiting the potential negative side effects such as public over-consumption, smell, and increased loitering and foot/vehicle traffic, and maximizing the positive benefits they can bring to a community through increased land values, increased economic activity continuing into secondary markets like entertainment venues and restaurants, and  more  jobs.

If California legislators and city government officials look to the already prosperous examples of craft breweries, wineries, wine bars and brew pubs, they may realize a successful model already exists, currently overseen by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, to regulate future on-site consumption businesses. However, future RPOSC establishments in California must confront another regulatory hurdle besides zoning: our state and local indoor smoking bans.

As mentioned above, Colorado and Washington both ban the indoor smoking of tobacco through their state clean indoor air acts. Additional amendments later extended these provisions to also cover marijuana. However, within both acts are a few exceptions. For instance, Colorado has exemptions for “cigar-tobacco bars” and workplaces not open to the public with 3 or fewer employees in section 25-14-205 of their Clean Indoor Air Act, while Washington provides almost no exemptions beyond that for private residences and certain private workplaces under section 70.160.060 of their Clean Indoor Air Act.

In Colorado, this exemption for workplaces not open to the public has been used by at least one private marijuana lounge, Club Ned in Nederland, Colorado. According to Club Ned’s attorney Jeff Gard in an article published about the club, the major hurdle to opening a cannabis café was the state’s Clean Air Act. But he found inspiration from the way Veterans of Foreign Wars posts allowed members to smoke indoors: if they could structure their business as a private, members –only club, with restrictions such as membership dues, having a certain percentage of their revenue coming from those dues, few employees, and members bringing their own cannabis, they could operate within the Clean Indoor Air Act. After working out additional zoning issues with the town of Nederland, the club opened in April 2014 and has operated successfully ever since.

Because similar restrictions on indoor smoking exist within California’s Clean Air Act, along with similar exemptions for tobacco shops and smokers’ lounges, any RPOSC businesses in California would have to fall under existing regulations or seek to have additional exemptions created for them. In order to qualify as a smoker’s lounge or tobacco shop under the California Indoor Clean Air Act, the business’s “primary purpose” must be the smoking or sale of tobacco products. The California Attorney General in 2011 issued an opinion on this meaning by clarifying that food or alcohol cannot be served at a smoker’s lounge or tobacco shop, or it alters the primary purpose of the establishment away from tobacco sales or consumption, thus losing its exemption under the Clean Air Act. Similarly, the California Attorney General also found that bars and taverns with 5 or fewer employees were not exempt from the Act and thus could not allow smoking within the building. Unless new exemptions are created for any potential marijuana RPOSC businesses, the above restrictions provide tough but not insurmountable restrictions on creating and running a potential marijuana lounge.

Another potential avenue for a marijuana RPOSC business comes from the idea of a “vaporizer lounge,” which could potentially avoid the restrictions on smoking inside businesses. However, with the rising popularity of e-cigarettes, California has been wrestling with the idea of banning their use entirely. A recent bill in the California Senate by Senator Mark Leno of Sacramento would seek to broaden the definition of “tobacco product” in the current anti-smoking laws to include electronic cigarettes in order to ban them in bars, restaurants, hospitals and other workplaces. However, there appears to be an exemption for medical marijuana, as the bill states that its “provisions do not affect any law or regulation regarding medical marijuana.” What effect this would have on the potential for legal marijuana on-site consumption businesses is unknown, but either way, requiring that RPOSC businesses only allow vaporizing of marijuana would be a possible compromise clarified by the legislature and/or a loophole in the law for businesses to exploit.

In my next article, I will focus in-depth on the growing handful of RPOSC businesses in legalized states that are currently dealing with similar zoning and regulatory issues, and what lessons can be learned by future similar businesses and municipalities in California as to where and how to zone where such RPOSC businesses can exist for the betterment of both the business and municipality.

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