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Some California cities want Amsterdam-style pot lounges, push limits of marijuana legalization

Some California cities want Amsterdam-style pot lounges, push limits of marijuana legalization
On the first day of recreational marijuana sales, Jeff Cosper shows the inside of a stainless steel pot filled with marijuana for sale at MedMen in West Hollywood. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

West Hollywood likes to party.

For decades, it has embraced its gay and lesbian bars and the rock 'n' roll debauchery of the Sunset Strip. It runs a free nightlife trolley called The PickUp, with a jar of free condoms by the door.

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Now, it's embracing a different type of social scene: pot lounges.

The city is poised to allow cannabis lounges where people can consume the once-taboo product in a social setting. West Hollywood will join San Francisco, Oakland and South Lake Tahoe, which earlier this year became some of the first cities in California to open the consumption lounges modeled after those in Amsterdam. Communities in the Coachella Valley are also joining the ranks.

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Since California voters legalized cannabis in 2016, some cities have embraced marijuana dispensaries, while others have actively fought against pot sales. The state is home to the largest legal pot market in the country, and proponents see lounges as the next step in embracing pot sales and creating avenues for safe use.

But the idea of marijuana lounges has also ignited some of the same debates that marked the vote to legalize cannabis: Critics worry lounges and other expansions of cannabis culture could be dangerous, citing impaired driving in states where recreational use was previously legalized, and the difficulties of assessing a marijuana DUI.

Pot advocates have criticized Los Angeles for not embracing marijuana cafes and lounges. They argue allowing these businesses would help tourists, who under the law can't smoke in public or in places like hotels, where regular smoking is banned. Several L.A. law enforcement groups, including the Los Angeles Police Protective League, came out against the lounge proposal.

"Consumption lounges are important because marijuana has been legalized, but where can people go to safely consume?" said Jackie Rocco, business development manager for West Hollywood. "If you're a renter and your landlord doesn't allow smoking, or if you're a parent and don't want to do it around your children, where can you go?"

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Last November, the City Council approved a new cannabis use ordinance allowing business licenses for consumption areas or lounges in West Hollywood. The city will start accepting applications for consumption lounges in May. Officials plan to grant up to eight licenses for lounges with smoking, vaping and edibles, and eight permits restricted to edibles. Each application will be scored by a five-member committee.

"We're at the center of everything that is entertainment," said West Hollywood City Councilwoman Lindsey Horvath. "This new economy really addresses needs and interests of the community while also being a way for people to enjoy themselves. Pushing the envelope on entertainment while safely enjoying a night out — that's what we're continuing to do here."

The city has long been at the forefront of the national conversation about decriminalizing the use of cannabis — in part because of the way the city embraced pot during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

"In the early days, obviously we had a number of people, and still do in the community, who are personally impacted by HIV and AIDS and that caused us to support medical use of cannabis," said West Hollywood Mayor John Heilman. "The city, I would say, was a pioneer of sorts."

San Francisco's Barbary Coast Collective most closely resembles the coffee shops found in Amsterdam, where customers can buy weed. The store — with its crimson wallpaper and leather booths, a nod to the area's past as the red-light district — hosts a smoking section in its lounge while also operating a dispensary and dab bar.

The shop also offers "education days," on which people curious about cannabis can learn about different products and solicit recommendations.

In the past, the city has allowed medical marijuana users to smoke in dispensaries, but with some debate. Some wondered whether the practice was supported by Proposition 215, which allowed for "compassionate use" and legalized cannabis with a doctor's recommendation.

Customers smoke marijuana while sitting in a booth in the smoking lounge at Barbary Coast Dispensary in San Francisco. The city plans to issue more permits for marijuana smoking lounges this year after health officials finalize updated regulations.
Customers smoke marijuana while sitting in a booth in the smoking lounge at Barbary Coast Dispensary in San Francisco. The city plans to issue more permits for marijuana smoking lounges this year after health officials finalize updated regulations. (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

For Palm Springs and Cathedral City, the concept of pot lounges fits into the resort economy officials are trying to bolster.

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"It's really the next logical step, especially when you have a tourist economy like we do," said Cathedral City City Councilman Shelley Kaplan.

Most hotels don't allow smoking or vaping, Kaplan said, so it makes sense for cannabis lounges to be available.

"We basically consider cannabis a business like any other in the city," he said. "There's no question that people who use cannabis will want to use cannabis when they're here ."

City officials said applications should be open in the next month, but not everyone supports lounges.

Cathedral City City Councilman Mark Carnevale, who supports medical marijuana but campaigned against recreational use, said he is "totally against" allowing consumption areas.

"You can go to a bar and have a drink or two and be OK," Carnevale said. "Marijuana, the effects last and I think it can be disastrous on the road. I don't see the need for it. If you want to use it, go to your hotel or your house."

Palm Springs was one of the first cities to roll out recreational marijuana sales in January, but it has received only three applications for lounge licenses, officials said.

"The floodgates are open, but nobody is running in," Mayor Pro Tem J.R. Roberts said.

Still, he said, when it comes to allowing new lounge businesses, "the benefits are obvious."

"When California made it legal to have recreational pot, it seemed to me that pot was now no different than alcohol," he said.

In West Hollywood, residents overwhelming backed Proposition 64. Eighty-three percent of voters approved recreational use — one of the highest margins in the state, city officials said.

Horvath, the councilwoman, said she views lounges as a way to show the residents who didn't vote for legalization that marijuana can be used safely and that it won't "have the devastating impact some might fear."

Lounges, she said, will allow people to use cannabis without bringing it home or impacting their neighbors. The city's dispensaries agree.

Amy Pagel, manager of Zen Healing West Hollywood, said the dispensary plans to apply for a permit and is leaning toward a license that would allow smoking on the premises. West Hollywood dispensary MedMen also said it plans to apply for a license.

Pagel said that if the shop's application is approved, it will build a lounge that is "really classy" and fits in with West Hollywood's vibe.

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For more California news follow me on Twitter: @sarahparvini

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