Marijuana may be legal in California, but that doesn’t mean Jeri Jirsa can light up any time she would like – which is often, thanks to the pain and mood problems she experiences from the muscle condition fibromyalgia.
Like a majority of residents in the city, Jirsa lives in rental housing and her ability to consume cannabis is controlled by a landlord who has said no.
When California voters 15 months ago passed Proposition 64 – formally known as the Adult Use of Marijuana Act – it didn’t create a lot of options for where people 21 and over can legally consume pot.
They can smoke at home, if they own the house. Otherwise, landlords can ban marijuana use, just like they can ban tobacco smoking, and that can include the use of vaporizers. Tourists face a similar dilemma – smoke in a hotel room and risk a big fine, or do it on the street and risk a citation from a police officer.
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Outside of homes, state law allows cannabis consumption in just two places – dispensaries and special events. Jirsa lives near a dispensary that has a lounge area and allows cannabis consumption on site. She says she goes to Sparc on Mission Street three to four times a day to imbibe.
“We need more places where people can use safely and comfortably,” she said.
As it stands, special events that allow public marijuana consumption can only be held at county fairgrounds and last no more than four days. Smoking lounges at dispensaries provide a more consistent option, but there aren’t that many of them. Local government has to approve on-site consumption.
While there is no statewide registry of lounges, people in the cannabis industry say they know only of a cluster in the Bay Area – eight in San Francisco and one in Oakland. In South Lake Tahoe, Tahoe Wellness Center has a smoking lounge, too. Some other places in Southern California are in the process of approving on-site consumption, including West Hollywood.
None of Sacramento’s 30 dispensaries has a smoking lounge, but some owners have expressed an interest in opening one, said Joe Devlin, the city’s pot czar. The City Council will discuss permitting smoking lounges in April as part of a larger discussion about further regulating a commercial cannabis market that started Jan. 1.
“There’s a general desire for that kind of experience in Sacramento,” said Devlin, adding that concerns about stoned driving and secondhand smoke will have to be addressed.
The need for more public consumption sites is important for tourists and cannabis businesses looking to serve them and other customers, according to Devlin and his counterpart at the state, Lori Ajax. In addition to smoking lounges, entrepreneurs also are interested in serving marijuana-infused food and providing overnight accommodations and tours that involve consumption, but the legality of such proposals is questionable, she said.
“If you can’t consume in public, you have to have places where people can consume or it doesn’t work very well,” Ajax said during a recent cannabis business conference, drawing applause from the crowd.
“Proposition 64 greatly limited where people can consume cannabis,” said Max Mikalonis, an industry lobbyist. “There is a clear gap between what consumers need and where they are legally allowed to consume.”
Many localities have banned dispensaries, eliminating the possibility of smoking lounges. Outside of Sacramento, very few dispensaries are located in the Central Valley.
San Francisco has five retail dispensaries and three medical dispensaries approved for on-site consumption, said the city’s pot czar, Nicole Elliot. On-site consumption has been permitted since 2005, with all of it taking place at medical dispensaries prior to this year.
“To ensure that we are not encouraging consumption in public space, we recognize the importance of ensuring that there is a safe alternative option,” Elliot said.
Renters and people living in federal public housing, where it is illegal to consume marijuana because of the federal prohibition on marijuana, motivated officials to approve smoking lounges, according to Elliot and her counterpart in Oakland, Greg Minor.
In San Francisco, 63 percent of occupied housing is rental, compared to 60 in Oakland and 53 in Sacramento, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Dispensaries with on-site consumption are sometimes called smoking lounges, but they don’t always allow smoking. Some only allow vaporizing, a process that heats but doesn’t burn cannabis and is seen as less harmful than smoke. Either way, Oakland and San Francisco require air filtration systems for on-site consumption.
Three of San Francisco’s retail dispensaries are in the city’s SoMa neighborhood – Urban Pharm, Releaf and Barbary Coast.
Barbary Coast is perhaps the closest thing in California to an Amsterdam-style, pot cafe. While it doesn’t have marijuana-infused food like the cafes of Amsterdam, Barbary Coast has a separate smoking section in a room that resembles a fine steakhouse with its leather booths and crushed velvet wallpaper.
The lounge is popular enough that Barbary Coast asks customers to stay for no longer than 30 minutes. They’re also asked to only use cannabis from Barbary Coast, to ensure that untested cannabis isn’t consumed there, said manager Jesse Henry.
In addition to helping customers, a smoking lounge is just good business, Henry said. “I don’t want customers walking down the street smoking a joint,” he said.
Walking into the Barbary Coast’s smoking lounge, the air is much hazier than it is in the adjoining room. Customers on a recent weekday afternoon were rolling joints and smoking out of water pipes that the dispensary provides.
Ona Jane of Hercules said she enjoys smoking in the lounge because her landlord won’t let her consume at home. She was smoking a joint by herself.
“I feel inhibited about using at my house,” she said. “I don’t believe people should have to live in fear about this plant.”
Less than a mile down Mission Street, customers using Sparc’s vaporizers cite similar reasons for imbibing at the dispensary, which has a modern, clean look. Tables and chairs line one of its walls, across from the sales counter. The manager, Brett Martinez, compares the dispensary to a neighborhood bar, and says regulars fill the available seats.
Richard Siesky, a retiree from San Francisco, said he is a regular. He was using one of the dispensary’s Volcano Vaporizers, which resembles a stainless steel crock pot. He attached a big plastic bag to the top, filled it with vapor, then inhaled the vapor from the bag.
“I fantasize that I’m in a bar in Amsterdam,” he said, smiling.
In Oakland, Magnolia, located in an industrial area near Jack London Square, is the only dispensary offering on-site consumption. Harborside, perhaps the best-known dispensary in California, has a permit for it but has yet to open a lounge.
Currently on-site consumption at Magnolia consists of a couple of vaporizers at tables in the salesroom, but Executive Director Debby Goldsberry says she plans to open a 2,000-square-foot lounge in the spring.
Goldsberry said that Magnolia’s employees play the same role as bartenders, keeping an eye out for customers who are too high and need to be cut off, she said.
“Part of the goal is to teach people how to consume safely,” she said. “A lot of us have been smoking at home, alone, and we never learned these things.”