Los Angeles lawmakers are laying the groundwork for what is widely expected to be one of the hottest markets for marijuana in the country, one that could bring more than $50 million in taxes to city coffers next year.
The city is drafting rules to allow greenhouses that grow cannabis, industrial facilities that process it, and new shops that sell it for recreational use, not just medical need.
But anyone expecting L.A. to become the next Amsterdam may be disappointed: It has held back, so far, on welcoming cafes or lounges where customers could smoke or consume cannabis.
That has troubled some marijuana advocates and attorneys, who warn that even after California legalizes the sale of recreational pot, many tourists and renters could be left without a safe, legal place to use it in Los Angeles.
"It's ridiculous that the city doesn't consider that," said attorney Bruce Margolin, executive director of the L.A. chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Margolin said he was offended that even as cannabis was on the verge of local legitimacy, "the City Council is still treating marijuana users like criminals."
The question is one example of the thorny debates that Los Angeles faces as it crafts new regulations on cannabis businesses, an industry still in limbo between California and Capitol Hill.
Under draft regulations released earlier this year, it would be illegal for L.A. pot shops and other cannabis businesses to allow marijuana consumption on site.
It is also illegal, under state law, to consume it in a public place. And smoking pot will remain illegal anywhere that cigarette smoking is banned. At a recent city hearing, several speakers complained that could leave tourists and renters in the lurch.
Tourists "can't smoke it outside. Can't smoke it in a hotel. Can't smoke it in a rental car," said George Boyadjian, president of 420 College, which provides seminars on cannabis business regulations. "Where are these people supposed to use their cannabis?"
The obvious place, for locals, would be at home. But while Californians can generally use marijuana on private property, renters may not be able to smoke it inside their apartments if their landlords forbid smoking of any kind. And some cannabis attorneys fear that zealous landlords could also target tenants for using marijuana if their leases prohibit illegal activity in their apartments.
Under some leases, "you can be evicted for committing a federal crime," said cannabis attorney Pamela Epstein, owner and founder of Green Wise Consulting. Epstein argued that if Los Angeles doesn't want those renters to smoke marijuana outside, it needs to give them a designated place to go.
The idea alarms critics of the marijuana industry, who argue that such venues would become a nuisance and drag down property values.
"Most people don't even want a marijuana store in their community, let alone a place where you can actually consume," said Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposed the California measure to legalize selling recreational marijuana. He was skeptical that Californians would have trouble finding somewhere to smoke.
Even if they do, "I don't think we should be in the business of facilitating places where people can get high," Sabet said.
The Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs argued that permitting marijuana to be consumed at businesses would ramp up the risk of intoxicated driving.
Los Angeles Police Protective League President Craig Lally agreed, saying it is difficult for police or users themselves to know if someone is too high to drive.
And UC San Francisco clinical professor of psychiatry Peter Banys argued that cities should hold off on allowing any "consumption cafes" until there is better research on intoxicated driving.
"There are questions that simply haven't been answered," Banys said.
Margolin said the idea is hardly new, pointing to the famed shops of Amsterdam. San Francisco already allows consumption lounges at a small number of medical marijuana dispensaries, and as it prepares for recreational pot, a city task force has recommended allowing cannabis consumption at retailers.
In Colorado, Denver is launching a pilot program to allow bring-your-own marijuana consumption at some businesses that do not sell pot or alcohol, though it has yet to process any applications. And Alaska and Nevada have also started exploring similar ideas.
Although some private cannabis clubs have quietly operated in California cities, local governments have been slow to officially embrace "social use" because it isn't as familiar to them as other kinds of marijuana businesses, said Jolene Forman, staff attorney with the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group opposed to the war on drugs.
Forman argued that a lack of legal spaces to smoke could have unintended consequences, such as pushing renters or tourists to turn to edibles that are harder to detect. Switching to edibles, in turn, could make it harder for new users to determine how much they should consume.
"If you give people spaces where they can safely smoke or vape, there is no risk of that," Forman said.
When California hammered out state rules for permitting recreational marijuana, it left the door open for local governments to allow cannabis consumption at retailers as long as the facilities are restricted to people 21 or older, keep marijuana consumption out of sight of younger people or the public, and do not offer up alcohol or tobacco as well.
West Hollywood has been drafting rules to allow lounges where marijuana can be consumed. In July, the West Hollywood City Council invited a panel of experts to weigh in on cannabis regulation. Among them was Cat Packer of the Drug Policy Alliance, who warned that "if consumers and patients don't have a place to consume, they're going to do it outside."
"So if you don't want them consuming outside, I think it makes sense to give them a space where they can consume responsibly," Packer said, pointing out that consumption could include applying lotion or eating chocolate.
Packer now heads L.A.'s Department of Cannabis Regulation, but it is city lawmakers who are making decisions about those rules. Many Los Angeles City Council members said they had not yet considered the issue of allowing cannabis consumption at businesses, which has taken a back seat to other concerns such as where pot shops can locate.
"The full force of our attention is on creating the requirements for cultivation, manufacturing, testing and retail businesses," Caolinn Mejza, a spokeswoman for City Council President Herb Wesson, said in a written statement. "As time goes by we will deal with other issues and concerns."
Packer added that the city regulations are likely to continue to evolve with time. "This is the beginning of the conversation," she said.
One councilman said he was open to the idea of cannabis lounges.
"It's hard to say you can't smoke in your home — especially for medical marijuana, where people have real needs — and yet we won't let you smoke somewhere else," said Councilman Paul Koretz, who has concerns about how secondhand smoke affects tenants. "Either people need to be able to smoke in their apartments or they need some other places set aside."
Koretz added, however, that the city should first scrutinize the hazards of people driving while high. Those concerns were echoed by Councilman Mitch Englander, who said if Los Angeles considers allowing marijuana consumption at businesses, the overriding question must be, "Can they be regulated in a way that they would be safe?"
Cannabis business attorney Hilary Bricken said she was disappointed, but not surprised, that many cities seem to fear that cannabis bars will encourage "bad behavior."
Bars serving alcohol are everywhere, Bricken said, "but there's clearly different treatment of cannabis, in a way that really doesn't give cannabis a chance to be a responsible activity."
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