By Keith Stroup, NORML Legal Counsel
Without doubt, it is important that we begin to move forward with the legalization of lounges and social clubs that permit marijuana smokers to gather and enjoy their favorite strains. Marijuana smoking is a social activity, and most smokers would like the option of dropping by a local marijuana-friendly venue, to relax with friends and like-minded colleagues.
Currently, none of the four states that have fully legalized marijuana allow for this option. Smoking in a public venue is prohibited, and the authorities have taken a needlessly restrictive view of what is a public place, refusing, for example, to permit someone to lease a private venue and operate a private, members-only club where marijuana could be enjoyed. There is no public-policy or public-health basis for being so restrictive
As we move forward, 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 friends.
Smokers’ clubs have in fact surfaced in all of the legalization states, where those in the know can meet and share good weed, but they are forced to operate on the fringes, as part of a “gray market,” and several have already been closed by the authorities. I had the opportunity to visit a “smoke-easy” in Denver when I was in town for the 4/20 Cannabis Cup, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but was saddened to learn the club had been raided and closed the following day. Gray market clubs are clearly not the long-term answer to this problem.
In Seattle, City Attorney Pete Holmes, a strong advocate for legalizing marijuana, has recently given a boost to this issue by releasing a 10-page report calling for the licensing of marijuana-friendly 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.” No action has yet resulted in Seattle to permit marijuana lounges, but the topic is now front and center for consideration by elected officials.
So I was pleased to learn a few days ago that an effort is underway to qualify an initiative for the Denver ballot this November to remove some of those barriers, and to legalize marijuana-friendly clubs and lounges. The proposal would permit existing alcohol bars and clubs to permit those 21 and older to consume marijuana in designated areas; vaporizing and edibles if indoors, and smoking if outdoors and out of public view.
Let’s Keep Our Distance from Alcohol
My concern with this specific proposal to legalize marijuana lounges is that it would allow marijuana smoking in venues that are also licensed to sell alcohol. I would urge a model that allows for the licensing of marijuana-friendly lounges, but keep those separate from existing alcohol bars and clubs. I am not making a moral judgement; I personally enjoy both drugs, and when I am home in the evenings, I frequently pour myself a glass of wine and roll a joint. But I am at home in a safe environment, and not putting anyone at any risk.
The two drugs, when used together, are synergistic, and the effect of combining the two causes far greater short-term impairment than either drug by itself, raising legitimate questions of public safety if alcohol bars and clubs were also marijuana-friendly. It would require the bar tender to be far more careful about “cutting-off” anyone who appeared to be getting drunk, and their track-record in that regard is not reassuring.
In addition, alcohol is a drug that causes many drinkers, at some point, to become aggressive and confrontational, resulting in bar fights and other unruly and repulsive behavior on a regular basis. Marijuana, on the other hand, causes most users to feel relaxed and peaceful, and certainly not confrontational. That distinction is one that is both relevant and helpful politically, and we should strive culturally to maintain that advantage. Were we to establish a system in which both drugs were sold in the same venues, we would likely end-up being judged (by the 84 percent of the public who do not currently smoke marijuana) by the worst behavior caused by alcohol, including it’s impact on safe driving skills, and that is a needless political burden to carry.
Interestingly, Colorado state Representative Jonathan Singer (D-Longmont), a strong supporter of legalized marijuana, has previously floated ideas involving cannabis-only clubs, such as those that operate in Amsterdam, but those would be alcohol-free venues, avoiding the public safety and political issues discussed above. The latest proposal being advanced for Denver fails to maintain that distinction.
I recognize that even if marijuana lounges were free of alcohol, there is nothing that would keep an individual from stopping at an alcohol bar, for example, for an hour, before then leaving for a marijuana lounge. No system can avoid all risks, and in the end we must rely on the common sense of most marijuana smokers to avoid dangerous and abusive practices. But we need not establish a system that creates those opportunities and invites those problems.
A recent poll released by a Washington, DC group called the Third Way found that roughly one-third of the public remain opposed to marijuana legalization; one third remain strongly in favor of legalization; and the remaining third – dubbed “the marijuana middle” – now oppose prohibition, and support full legalization, but they are not pro-pot. Rather they recognize that prohibition has caused more problems than the drug it attempts to prohibit. And important for this discussion, only 36 percent of the survey respondents viewed recreational marijuana smokers favorably; 54 percent have an unfavorable impression of those of us who smoke recreationally.
That underscores the fragile nature of the coalition that has made it possible for us to move legalization forward in this country, and the need to move cautiously as we ask for additional rights under these new laws. We must be sensitive to the legitimate concerns of non-smokers, in order to maintain our majority for full legalization, and I fear this latest proposal coming out of Denver puts a big political bulls-eye right on our backs.
I would urge those proposing this change to consider amending their initial proposal to allow for marijuana-only lounges and clubs in Denver, but take a lead from Amsterdam and do not permit marijuana to be smoked in alcohol clubs, or alcohol to be consumed in marijuana clubs. That would provide us smokers with what we need — the opportunity to socialize with other smokers — without the additional risks, both political and real, of mixing the two drugs.