Before the wave of cannabis reform that has swept the United States over recent years, Amsterdam’s cannabis “coffee shops” were the quintessential international icon of legal cannabis consumption. Yet, even as more and more states legalize cannabis, laws allowing consumption in social establishments are all but nonexistent. Will cannabis clubs in the United States ever reach a degree of acceptance similar to Amsterdam’s coffee shops, or, better yet, be treated like bars and clubs that serve alcohol? Recent developments in Alaska and Colorado highlight both the obstacles facing social cannabis establishments and a possibly encouraging step forward for proponents of these clubs.
Alaska’s Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth recently issued an opinion declaring cannabis clubs illegal unless they are licensed as a retail cannabis dispensary. The opinion comes as several cannabis clubs have popped up in Alaska since it approved cannabis legalization. Cannabis clubs, in Alaska and elsewhere, are establishments that provide space for patrons to consume cannabis, socialize, and play games. The clubs — which do not themselves sell cannabis — operate under the theory that they fall outside the scope of the cannabis laws because they do not sell cannabis. Attorney General Lindemuth counters this view by arguing that the law prohibits consumption of cannabis at any “place of amusement or business” other than a licensed retail cannabis store. Lindemuth asserts that the clubs are commercial places of business because they typically charge an entry fee and sell snacks and other refreshments. She also contends that even if a cannabis club is not a place of business it constitutes prohibited “public” consumption if a “substantial” number of people are present. Lindemuth’s opinion effectively puts an end to cannabis clubs in Alaska unless and until its laws are changed.
Denver voters this November will decide whether to approve a measure that would allow regular businesses like bars, coffee shops, and other establishments to have indoor or outdoor spaces for cannabis consumption. These businesses would be allowed to have cannabis spaces if they first obtain a permit and, also have a sponsoring neighborhood organization or business improvement district. The sponsor would participate in the permitting process by submitting proposed conditions that regulate how the business will implement its consumption areas.
The law is pitched as a pilot program and would sunset in 2020 unless extended. Even if voters approve the measure, Denver City Attorneys have expressed concerns regarding whether it conflicts with Colorado’s Amendment 64, which does not authorize cannabis clubs. That has not stopped a handful of other Colorado towns from allowing cannabis clubs, but if Denver’s embracing social cannabis would be a game changer.
Beyond state and local cannabis laws, other challenges to social cannabis consumption loom. Most obviously, near-ubiquitous indoor smoking bans could make the most common form of cannabis consumption impossible in most jurisdictions — an obstacle well known to hookah lounges. Nonetheless, social cannabis reform could usher in an age of widespread vaporizer lounges and cannabis-infused edible restaurants. It may seem far-fetched now, but it was not too long ago legal cannabis retail stores were just as novel.