Cannabis Advocates Consider the Future of Social Consumption Establishments

cannabis-cafe-1500Photo Credit: Marina Thompson for Original Cannabis Cafe

You can’t fault Austin Stevenson’s parents for being perplexed. Why would anyone leave successful careers in finance and tech to work in an industry built entirely around selling a federally illegal substance? 

“They’re as conservative as can be,” said Stevenson, who grew up in St. Louis, where firefighting and construction were the blue-collar family careers.

Stevenson is the vice president of product and innovation for Vertosa, an Oakland-based company that creates cannabis infusions for beverage manufacturers. THC and CBD-infused offerings are becoming increasingly popular, and gaining traction at the few cannabis consumption lounges that currently exist, including San Francisco’s Barbary Coast Dispensary, where Stevenson took his visiting parents to show them a “whole new world.”

Barbary Coast customers can purchase pre-rolls or cannabis-infused drinks such as California Dreamin’ sparkling soda or Hi-Fi Hops, from Lagunitas Brewing Company, then partake in the swanky lounge’s deep leather booths.

“My parents were like, ‘Wow, this is no different than the cocktail lounge in our old neighborhood,’” Stevenson said. “Consumption lounges provide that aha moment for people to see that cannabis serves all.”

For years, traditional bars and restaurants have served of-age customers their favorite mood-altering alcoholic drinks -- maybe multiple rounds of beer, wine or cocktails -- which is business as usual in all 50 states. Meanwhile, smoking, sipping and consuming cannabis almost exclusively occurs in private, even in states that have legalized recreational sales. That’s because most states have been slow to establish and approve social consumption licenses.

But as laws and attitudes loosen, on-premise consumption is slowly coming of age, and a growing number of dedicated cannabis lounges could be a crucial step toward bringing cannabis from the counterculture into popular culture.

“It is the real future of cannabis because it gives it an opportunity to exist in the same realm as social experiences,” said chef and cannabis consultant Holden Jagger.

San Francisco is one of the cities steadily welcoming Amsterdam-style coffee houses that permit customers to purchase cannabis products and consume on site. Hybrid dispensaries and lounges such as Barbary Coast and Moe Greens welcome customers into well-designed spaces that are staffed by educated budtenders and boast high-tech HVAC systems that circulate oxygen and keep smoke contained.

“We get as many tourists as we do locals,” Moe Greens founder Nate Haas has said.

cannabis-cafePhoto Credit: Original Cannabis Cafe

Meanwhile, Denver has seen plenty of canna-tourism since the state legalized recreational cannabis in 2014. However, enjoying marijuana in a social setting wasn’t allowed in the Mile High City until 2018, when the state’s first licensed pot lounge opened its doors amid restrictions.

The following year, Cannabis One partnered with Tetra Tea House, a membership-only lounge located next door to the Joint, a dispensary owned by Cannabis One. If customers buy cannabis products at the Joint, they receive a temporary one-day pass to partake in their purchases at Tetra. It’s a “safe haven,” said PJ Rinker, the head of business development at Cannabis One.

Looking ahead, Colorado should begin approving more social cannabis consumption sites. On January 1, House Bill 1230 legally permitted two new kinds of businesses, including tasting room–style cannabis dispensaries and “hospitality establishments” earmarked for cannabis consumption. 

Such establishments will be “pretty important in America as we go forward,” Rinker said. 

“If you don’t have a place to consume cannabis legally, then it hasn’t really helped make that mainstream transition,” he said.

As great gathering places, restaurants are also redefining social lubricants by swapping a wine list for a flower menu. Current laws forbid selling both cannabis products and alcohol under the same roof, however.

“The common denominator in restaurants and social settings is alcohol,” said Red Rodriguez, the director of vendor relations at Original Cannabis Cafe in West Hollywood, California. 

Customers at the Original Cannabis Cafe, which opened last fall as Lowell Farms, receive one menu for food, and another for cannabis. Tacos are served alongside homemade corn dogs and smashed burgers, while cannabis strains are presented according to flavor, effect and potency.

“We can really curate the experience for our guests,” Rodriguez said, emphasizing his clientele’s diversity and openness. 

“Every table is really approachable,” he continued. “In the land of socialites, it can be rare to engage with the table next to you on a social level. Everyone’s common denominator is cannabis.”

chicken-sandwich-cannabis-cafePhoto Credit: Wonho Frank Lee for Original Cannabis Cafe

West Hollywood will be a key test case for social cannabis consumption. California might be mired in a glacial dispensary licensing process, but Hollywood has green-lit a handful of high-profile consumption lounges and edibles-only cafes, including the forthcoming Monica's House, set to open early this year.

The all-day concept will feature a menu from executive chef and cannabis-cookbook author Jeff Danzer, better known as “Jeff the 420 Chef.” Customers will be able to order dishes made with Danzer’s line of FreeLeaf oils and “culinary cannabis herbs” that mimic the flavors of plants such as oregano and rosemary. Sprinkle them on, say, a slice of pizza to add taste and a calibrated dose of THC.

“There’s never been cannabis flower you can eat,” Danzer said.

America’s state-by-state patchwork of legalization means that such elevated culinary experiences are not available everywhere. To fill in the void, numerous chefs operate clandestine dinners that elevate cannabis cuisine.

New York City chef Miguel Trinidad runs the 99th Floor, a company that operates a series of secret pop-up cannabis dinners. Since 2015, Trinidad has orchestrated private parties that combine fine dining with cannabis and education. 

“We’re all about micro-dosing and sharing an experience with people that either have, or haven’t, consumed cannabis in a way that’s safe and makes them happy,” Trinidad said, likening his dinner experiences to enjoying a nice bottle of wine. “You’re not going to chug it. You’re going to sip it throughout the night. That alters your mood and energy.”

As cannabis becomes legally baked into polite society, spaces for social consumption will not just fit a high-end mold. Yes, there will be pricey restaurants serving edibles, cannabis-friendly party buses and stylish lounges serving pre-rolls on a silver platter. But there will also be affordable gathering places such as Vehicle City Social, a private club in an old country bar in Flint, Michigan. 

Members with valid medical cards pay a $20 annual fee to access the alcohol-free establishment and shoot pool, toss darts or even grab a stack of pancakes while perusing vendors’ flower selection. 

“People can come in have breakfast and not be judged,” said Steve Craven, a founder. The club has more than 9,000 members, drawn from all walks of life to the venue’s eclectic event slate. Goat yoga one day, a comedy show the next, maybe burlesque or even a graffiti contest. Heck, Snoop Dogg even performed once. 

“It’s not a place to get high and hide in a corner,” Craven said. 

The lively atmosphere brings people out of their homes and shells, giving cannabis consumers a communal hub to happily pass time while passing a joint. 

“It is the future,” he said.

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