California cities see consumption lounges as way to increase cannabis tourism

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Photo Credit: Roxana Gonzalez/Shutterstock

In a move reminiscent of Amsterdam's "coffeeshops," San Francisco and West Hollywood are preparing rules to regulate on-site recreational pot consumption at dispensaries.

San Francisco, in fact, already allows on-site recreational cannabis consumption at six consumption lounges as well as at two outlets for medical consumption. Nicole Elliott, director of San Francisco's Office of Cannabis, said the city's public health department is also preparing regulations covering future applications for on-site cannabis use.

"The city, in many issues, has been on the leading edge of progressive politics, and this is no exception," Elliott said.

Meanwhile, West Hollywood in May will start accepting applications from those looking to open their own consumption lounges. The city, adjacent to Los Angeles, will grant 16 permits: eight that will allow for smoking and eight that will restrict use to vaping and edibles.

Jackie Rocco, West Hollywood's business development manager, said those permits could be granted as soon as early next year. She added that the city, which has housed medical marijuana dispensaries for more than 15 years, now has four outlets that legally sell recreational pot.

"Cannabis is not new to our city," Rocco said. "Bars are spaces where people can safely consume alcohol. We see this the same way."

California on Jan. 1 became the most populous of nine states where the recreational use of marijuana is now legal, but the state has the distinction of being the only one allowing recreational consumption outside of private homes.

The state's pot statutes allow local governments to grant on-site, recreational cannabis consumption permits as long as the area's access is restricted to people 21 or older, the consumption of cannabis is not visible from a public or non-age-restricted area, and there are no on-site sales of alcohol or tobacco.

With such parameters in mind, both cities, which have long been known for their counterculture leanings, are setting themselves up as a potential tourist draw among people looking to smoke, vape or eat cannabis in public without the fear of arrest.

Amsterdam's coffeehouses, which sell varieties of marijuana and pot paraphernalia, have long been a draw for tourists. TripAdvisor, for example, lists the Amsterdam Coffee Shop Culture and Local Food Sampling Walking Tour as the city's third most popular cultural outing, trailing only a red light district walking tour and the Keukenhof Gardens and Tulip Farm in the nearby town of Lisse.

Already, tourist towns in states where recreational use is legal have seen a rise in visitors despite not having the benefit of legal lounges or other public pot venues. That is especially true in Colorado.

"We were getting requests as soon as the law changed," Brian Harris of Brian Harris Travel in Aspen, Colo., said of the state's 2012 legalization of recreational cannabis. "It's a whole new industry that's been very well received."

Nonetheless, questions about the viability of pot tourism linger, since marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, meaning its use is still prosecutable. So far, that has merely meant that cannabis possession is illegal in places like airports and national parks.

But the impact of federal laws could grow substantially in the coming months because U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions removed an Obama-era policy that had allowed states to determine the legality of the drug within their own jurisdictions. He gave federal prosecutors free rein to prosecute growers and sellers as they see fit.

Another potential speed bump is that as a result of standing federal laws, banks refuse do business with cannabis retailers, meaning pot sellers cannot accept credit cards and are thus cash-only businesses. California governor Jerry Brown has indicated that he favors establishing a "state bank" that would work with California's rapidly growing cannabis industry, enabling credit card purchases.

Nonetheless, San Francisco is pushing forward to add to its eight lounges. While San Francisco Tourism spokeswoman Laurie Armstrong Gossy said she didn't believe consumption lounges would boost tourism, Elliott disagreed, saying they may be a draw for people from less cannabis-friendly states looking for a place to smoke socially.

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