Will 'cannabis lounges' pop up if marijuana is legalized?

Oct 11, 2012

Washington voters are weighing whether to become the first state to legalize marijuana. All this week in our series "If it’s legal: Five ways legal pot could affect your life," KPLU reporters have been imagining what the future could look like if it passes. Today, we check out the night-life scene, which could include a new version of BYOB – Bring Your Own Brownie. 

Say we fast-forward into the future. The legalization measure has just gone into effect. Where will people use marijuana? Will the guy you pass walking his dog be smoking a joint? Will you see people at a bar sharing their pot brownies?

To find people who have been trying to imagine this, I went to an event almost like a marijuana trade fair put on by the magazine High Times. Folks were hawking their wares – everything from drug-infused candies to smoking devices.

It’s hard to mistake the smell as you walk up to the Medical Cannabis Cup put on in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood in September. Medical marijuana growers are competing for awards for the best weed. There’s an outdoor area where medical marijuana patients are allowed to smoke. The atmosphere is more county fair than doctor’s office.

'Jolly enhancers'

Kevin Griffin is one of the co-founders of a Seattle-based medical marijuana collective, West Coast Wellness. He has a booth with marijuana cotton candy and jolly enhancers – a pot version of the jolly rancher candy.

"We have everything from watermelon, fruit punch, kiwi, lime, banana, lemon lime," Griffin said.

Tim Mains sells his cannabis mints and tinctures in 16 medical marijuana collectives. He sees state legalization as a business opportunity. I asked him if he'd sell his mints and tinctures in the state-run stores, if the measure passes.

"Yes, absolutely," Mains said. "You would see the product in the state-run stores, for sure. That’s why we created this brand - we created it to mass produce it."

Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU

Cannabis lounge?

He launched his brand, Mary Jane Mints, this past summer. He has bigger plans if the initiative passes. Mains imagines creating a coffee shop that also sells marijuana edibles.

"I think once it becomes legal - in fact I’m already looking into it - is creating a storefront where people can actually buy medicated food. Then also get coffees, pastries that aren’t medicated like a normal store would be but just more of a relaxed vibe in there, almost like a cannabis lounge," Mains said.

The kind of cannabis lounge Mains is dreaming of may be impossible. The language of Initiative 502 stands in the way.

Attorney Alison Holcomb of New Approach Washington drafted much of the initiative. She says they made a conscious decision to avoid Amsterdam-style marijuana cafes after doing research on what kind of system would be most palatable to voters.

"There was less support for the notion of places you could consume marijuana on site – or you could purchase it there and consume it on site – than there was for being able to purchase small quantities of marijuana and take it somewhere private," Holcomb said.

No Amsterdam-style cafes

So the initiative says marijuana would only be sold in state-licensed stand-alone stores – similar to the state-run liquor stores that existed up until this year.

You won’t be able to buy it in a bar. Could you use it there if you brought your own? You wouldn’t be able to smoke it because of indoor smoking laws, but what about edibles, like marijuana bon bons, that have no smell?

The initiative also says you can’t use marijuana in view of the general public. Defining what that means is tricky, even for Holcomb.

"I think that that means that not only can you not be smoking a joint as you’re walking down the sidewalk, but it probably also means you can’t sit down in a restaurant and take out a big bag of obviously marked pot brownies and start eating them," Holcomb said.

No toking at baseball games

She says a bar could risk losing its liquor license.  Could you use marijuana at a Mariners game? Nope, that’s still considered in view of the general public.  How about at the beach? Nope, same thing.

People might ignore the rules and still get high in public because the penalty is so light. The initiative treats public use like a $50 traffic ticket. And enforcement may vary. Already in Seattle and Tacoma, police are relatively hands off.

Perhaps that’s why organizers of the Medical Cannabis Cup felt safe to host the event in Seattle.

Medicating area - or potfest?

At one of the booths there, a man and a woman simultaneously inhale from vaporizers called trippy sticks. Then they blow out the smoke, competing to see who can make the biggest cloud.

As much as the organizers say this is an area for medical use, this is a party. So much so that two tourists from Long Island, New York, have traveled to Seattle just for this. I asked one of them, named Joe, what he was most surprised by.

"The freedom. Everybody’s out here with weed. You turn around the corner, you smell the weed," he said. "If we were around our way like this, there would be a million police over here."

Tim Mains, who makes marijuana mints, says he thinks if the initiative passes, there will be more events like this – for everyone, not just for medical users. In fact, he thinks a whole new industry will crop up.

"You’re going to see an influx of businesses, entrepreneurs – we actually call ourselves ganjapreneuers - so you’re going to see an influx of people just looking to make some money," Mains said.

There will be people, like Mains, who want to create social venues where marijuana can be used in public. Users may test the boundaries, too. That could mean the crowd of people next to you at a bar may be enjoying something more than a glass of cabernet.