Chem Tales: Social Use of Pot Is Next Frontier in Legal Fight

On Election Day, Denverites will vote on an initiative to allow cannabis consumption in bars, nightclubs, and other businesses that opt in. If it passes, establishments with permission from their neighborhood association and the city will be able to set aside a space where guests over 21 can indulge.

Officially, public consumption is not permitted in Colorado. Edibles are discreet enough that people can get high where they choose, but there’s no place for a few friends to share a smoke. Since locals can go home, this is mainly an inconvenience for tourists.

So far, no legal state except Alaska allows for social consumption, and Alaska’s program isn’t yet operational. If California’s recreational initiative passes, it will allow local governments to grant permits to businesses for consumption within certain parameters. Social consumption adds a new dimension to the legalization experiments.

A handful of establishments in Colorado do allow consumption on premises, but they don’t sell it, and they depend on the goodwill of their city halls. In Denver, a few companies drive tourists around on 420-friendly buses. Recently, I was invited to ride around in one called Loopr; the interior was decorated like a strip bar and lined with flatscreen monitors showing music videos. Other riders included some local twentysomethings and a quartet of 50ish women who had road-tripped out from Illinois.

It doesn’t besmirch Loopr to say that the industry’s full entrepreneurial energy has not yet been unleashed in this area. But as with legalization, social use will be hard to stop because there’s just so much money in it.

Supporters of the Denver initiative give a hint at what’s in store on their website: While pedestrians won’t be able to light up on sidewalks or in parks, the site says: “Any business, including art galleries, coffee shops, entertainment venues, private clubs and more, will have the option of allowing the responsible consumption of cannabis in designated consumption areas.” One might add gyms, yoga studios, spas, bars and restaurants. Cannabis will be everywhere, and these host businesses will want to sell product as well.

One favorite point of legalization opponents is the optics: the idea that there’s something inherently offensive about a cannabis business opening in the neighborhood. It’s not an argument I find especially compelling, though if I were a parent, I might feel differently. But the in-your-faceness inherent in social use could trigger the kind of backlash that the industry has avoided so far.

I first decided legalization would be hard to stop at a local government board meeting in the Denver suburbs. It was December 2014, and recreational pot had been available for almost a year. The issue at hand was whether a dispensary — a marijuana store — could open, and I was surprised that the conversation centered on NIMBY issues like whether it would snarl up traffic and emit odors.

For the most part, Colorado cannabis businesses have done a good job mitigating these kinds of concerns — I’ve never seen a loiterer outside a dispensary. But social use will be harder to ignore. It will create noise, and some venues will attract customers that the neighborhood association would prefer stayed elsewhere.

Will consumption lounges create dangers that bars don’t? The evidence suggests that all else being equal, they’ll be safer than bars. But they will still make people uncomfortable and possibly threaten property values. It is a recipe for aggrieved neighbors.

As more states legalize, the industry seeks to broaden pot’s appeal beyond the core market of young men. It seems to be working; older Americans are the fastest growing group of users. But it’s easier to destigmatize something if people can be seen with it in public.

Legalization has accumulated extraordinary momentum, without touching most Americans. With social use, that changes. The key of daily life will shift in ways we can’t anticipate. Old stereotypes will fade, and new ones will replace them.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing and it’s not unprecedented either: Smartphones and social media have upended our public and interior lives in ways we’re just beginning to understand, and no one suggests banning them.

With pot, it’s a bit different. We know what pot does to people, we’re just not used to it being everywhere. It’s uncomfortable to be sober in a room full of people who are high. That’s about to become a much more common experience.

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