Social consumption is the next wave of normalizing cannabis
Like a lot of people across the country, Nate Haas likes to make a stop from time to time on his way home from work.
“Once or twice a week I go to the bar and have a drink with my business partners,” he says.
But Haas also has a front-row seat to a new version of the traditional watering hole. He’s CEO of Moe Greens, a San Francisco cannabis retailer that features one of a handful of social consumption lounges in the country that is open for business.
“The parallels between alcohol and cannabis are there,” he says, noting that almost everyone has been to a bar to get a beer or two. “If that same experience is replicated in a dispensary, then it gives people permission to say, ‘Hey, this is just like a bar but it’s for weed.’
“It’s just normalizing that experience for the masses,” he says.
It’s also a boon for the tourist market, Haas says. More than 25 million people visit the city each year and without public areas where they can consume cannabis, that could be an overlooked market, which is one the reasons the city allows for lounges in the first place.
A different kind of café
This fall, West Hollywood residents will have a new place to light up that’s not their own homes as Lowell Farms: A Cannabis Café opened its doors for the first time.
Touted as a “true farm-to-table experience with cannabis and cuisine,” the Lowell Café will be the first of its kind in the country, serving meals by Le Cordon Bleu-trained head chef Andrea Drummer, who is known for her ability to pair a cannabis strain with a dish that complements its flavor profile. In addition, the café will provide “tableside flower service,” featuring a “flower host” — akin to a sommelier — to explain strains, flavors and their effects, all while rolling your smoke for you.
The Lowell Café is fully licensed by the city of West Hollywood and will be the first social consumption lounge to open in the city.
According to an email, all food served by the café will be non-infused, in accordance with state law, and feature a seasonal menu, highlighting “California flavors.” There is also a standing-room only bar in the café for patrons who want to grab a quick smoke, but not a meal.
— Brian Beckley
“We get a ton of tourists,” Haas says. “They can’t smoke on the streets, we don’t want them smoking in our parks and they certainly can’t smoke in their hotel room, so we say, ‘Come over, purchase something, imbibe however you want to do it and then go and enjoy the city.”
It was the potential tourist dollar that led Las Vegas — a city visited by more than 42 million people each year — to pass a law earlier this year allowing for social consumption lounges, a law that was blocked by a moratorium from the state Legislature almost immediately. But that doesn’t mean dispensary owners in Sin City have given up hope.
“This is squarely in line with everything Las Vegas is about,” says Armen Yemenidjian, president of Green Thumb Industries, which owns the Essence cannabis retail store in Las Vegas. Yemenidjian believes lounges will “absolutely” be allowed in his city eventually.
“Where else in the world does it make as much sense?”
Separated from the retail environment by a glass wall, the lounge at Moe Greens is divided into three rooms: the Playground, the High Roller Room and the Vault. The Playground is the largest of the lounge areas with seven high-top tables that each seat four people and a handful of lower tables that each seat six.
The High Roller Room has five booths that seat up to seven people each while the Vault is smaller, located in an old bar area and set up with multiple dab rigs for users who prefer concentrates.
Each table is stocked with rolling papers and grinders and customers can borrow glassware and other smoking devices while they are there, as well as games. Any customer who makes a purchase at the retail store can use the lounge, though there is a 30-minute limit.
“We really try to provide a safe, clean, comfortable experience,” Haas says. “It’s a fantastic vibe.”
Haas says there is water available, but it is illegal for the dispensary to sell any non-infused foods, though customers can bring their own snacks.
Haas says he and other dispensary and lounge owners are pushing for the city to allow food, since many of the clients are tourists who have just gotten off of flights, but for now he is happy with the “social environment” that has developed. He says the lounge seats about 350 people a day and the split of customers who choose to spend time in one of the social consumption rooms is about 60/40.
“Weed really seems to break up the clique aspect more than the alcohol game,” he says.
But Haas says there is also a safety aspect in licensing lounges like Moe Greens. For customers, many of whom are tourists and do not have experience with modern, higher-potency cannabis products, lounges provide a safe space in which to ask questions and try products while surrounded by professionals. At Moe Greens, there are always at least three and as many as five staffers in the lounge to answer questions and help educate consumers.
“It’s hanging out with industry professionals,” Haas says.
But providing a safe space for consumers also means they are not consuming in public, something Haas also opposes.
“I have two small children,” Haas says. “I don’t want people smoking a joint next to them in a park, on a street; I don’t want that.”
San Francisco may be forward-thinking when it comes to tourists, but in Las Vegas, one of the hottest tourist destinations in the world, social consumption appears to be stalled for now.
Earlier this year, the Las Vegas City Council passed an ordinance allowing for social consumption in the city, but the state Legislature almost immediately placed a two-year moratorium on the idea, stymying attempts to cater to visitors.
“Currently no casino properties allow cannabis consumption inside their rooms or on their property,” Matt Janz, director of marketing for The+Source, said in an email to Marijuana Venture. “This puts tourists in a precarious situation — they don’t have a safe place to consume the legal marijuana products they’ve purchased.”
Yemenidjian agrees, adding that legal cannabis is now a part of the Las Vegas experience — tourists make up a majority of business at his company’s Essence store on the Strip — and giving people the ability to purchase a product, but not consume it is “not a smart solution.”
“If you don’t want people to consume in the casino … why wouldn’t you want a social use venue?” he asks. “There needs to be a place for these 40 million people.”
The argument from the state boils down to the same, tired idea of “doing it the right way rather than the quick way,” Yemenidjian says, but adds that the Las Vegas Council’s proposal was a “very thoughtful process” and that local municipalities are certainly capable of knowing what is best for their residents and businesses.
“The problem is there, and we have to address it,” he says. “We have to address it responsibly, the same way Las Vegas and Nevada have addressed other issues, like gaming and alcohol and nightclubs and nightlife. There’s a lot of compliance that goes into these businesses.”
Beyond providing safe, legal spaces for tourists and other consumers, the word that most often comes up when talking about social consumption is “normalization,” helping cannabis further come out of the shadows of a century of prohibition to reach its full economic potential.
“I think it’s critical,” Haas says of lounges.
“Lounges are an important step in normalizing cannabis use and may help pave the path for cannabis experiences and festivals,” says Brandon Wiegand, director of operations for The+Source. “That being said, there is a lot of thought that needs to be given to lounges and how they’re executed.”
Some other states that have legalized include social consumption as part of their laws, though regulations to allow lounges to open are not yet in place. In Massachusetts, for example, the ballot measure that legalized adult-use cannabis sales included language giving the Cannabis Commission Control the authority to license social consumption establishments, however the agency has opted not to do so because of objections from lawmakers, including the state’s governor. Voters in Denver also approved social lounges, but not for smoking flower, only edibles and concentrates.
Haas would like to get to the point where, like alcohol, cannabis is “as American as apple pie” and believes that because everyone understands what a bar is and why it exists, it provides the best example of how to regulate social consumption of a once-prohibited product.
“The model is already there,” he says. “We’ve already seen how it works.”