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cannabis lounges

Cannabis Lounges in B.C. Could Be On The Way. Will They Suck?

In late August, when the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) announced it was considering allowing cannabis lounges, enthusiasm across the cannabis community was tempered with cynicism. In essence, many wondered what the UBCM meant by “allowing,” and how much would be allowed at all.

The History of Cannabis Lounges in B.C.

Cannabis consumption lounges aren’t a new idea in BC: according to cannabis veteran (and Cannabis Health contributor) Jamie Shaw, Vancouver’s first lounges began in the 1990s.

“Then you had a boom in the early 2000s with Cannabis Culture, the New Amsterdam Café, and Blunt Brothers all opening up,” she recalls. “The city seemed okay with that, but it’s not an easy model to make money on. You’re not selling alcoholic drinks or things restaurants usually have huge markups on, and your people aren’t coming in and leaving tips like they would in a lot of cafes. So, you didn’t see the same kind of explosion of lounges that you did with retail dispensaries.”

That’s not to say that cities simply allowed the lounges, Shaw notes: “It was a constant ongoing struggle. But for medical patients, lounges were a real concern: you’re not allowed to smoke in your apartment, you’re not allowed to smoke in a car, and at that point you couldn’t really smoke in parks.”

Retired lawyer Kirk Tousaw (also a Cannabis Health contributor) is a veteran of the legal tussles over consumption lounges. Now CEO of Duncan, BC microproducer Great Gardener Farms, Tousaw spent years in the late ‘00s fighting the city of Vancouver on behalf of the BC Marijuana Party’s downtown lounge (later renamed Cannabis Culture). At that time, medical cannabis had been legalized for several years and medical users were allowed to grow and consume their own cannabis under the federal Marihuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR). The BCMP lounge didn’t sell cannabis but allowed people to consume their own cannabis onsite—which the city of Vancouver didn’t want them to do.

Smoking Bylaws Create Problems

“The city gets to control land usage, and the city itself has its own anti-smoking bylaws,” Tousaw recalls. “At the time, Vancouver’s actually mentioned tobacco, and it may still. We were able to use that as a bit of a wedge: the smoking bylaw is about tobacco, and this isn’t tobacco—it’s way safer. But of course, the province has its own anti-smoking bylaw, and the province has labour-law restrictions on workplaces. There’s a lot of red tape that stands in the way of lounges that permit smoking and/or vaporization.”

Shaw says that’s the standard bulwark against which most provinces eventually pin the idea of lounges.

“I’ve spoken with multiple cities and the province on the issue of lounges, and usually the province throws their hands up and points at the Safe Smoking Act, or whichever provincial legislation deals with tobacco smoke,” Shaw says. “There’s been no push to make exemptions on that. Different provinces have given exemptions so you can have tasting rooms for cigars. It’s not impossible. It’s just not something enough people have cared about to push it through.”

Farmgate Cannabis Lounges Suggested by Province

On behalf of Great Gardener Farms, Tousaw participated in the provincial consultations both on farmgate sales and lounges, and he reports the province specifically suggested that lounges would be restricted to farmgate sites. Limiting lounges to farmgate retail outlets, says Tousaw, will create an immediate geographical problem.

cannabis lounges
The Union of BC Municipalities announced in late August that it was considering allowing cannabis lounges, something Jamie Shaw and Kirk Tousaw believe cannabis consumers in BC would relish. Photo by Dad Grass.

“You can’t have farmgate in Vancouver,” he says. Metro Vancouver’s population comprises 49 percent of the population of British Columbia. “Forget about a traditional farm—Vancouver’s not even letting people have any kind of industrial grows in the city. What about that entire population that’s completely underserved? It seems ridiculous.”

However, a more pressing issue, Tousaw says, is that offering lounges only at farmgate facilities isn’t offering farms much more than they already have available.

“We have a nice farm property here that we’d put a farmgate in,” he says. “There’s nothing to prevent me from putting up a pagoda outside with a nice patio and some furniture and letting people smoke cannabis there. There’s nothing that prevents it.”

He notes there are BC retail rules barring consumption on the site of the cannabis sales, but they can easily be circumvented—meaning the offer to allow lounges only at farmgate retail sites is liable to fall short.

Edibles, Drinks Lounges Won’t Offer Same Appeal

Another problem Tousaw identifies is the potential the province will allow only lounges offering cannabis edibles and beverages.

“But we know from sales data that far and away, the preferred method of consuming cannabis is flower—in other words by smoking [or dry-herb vaping]—or pre-rolls,” Tousaw reports. “We’re talking about 85 percent of sales, and the next biggest category is vape pens! My fear is the government’s going to limit it to lounges where you can take edibles, drink cannabis drinks, or put topicals on, or something. That services under 10 percent of the market—almost none of it.”

Tousaw sees nothing but problems with cannabis lounges that don’t allow vaping and/or smoking, since the manner of consumption is so integral to the social culture around cannabis. As a social activity, smoking cannabis relates to sitting around with friends, passing a joint or pipe. Or, since COVID, sitting around outdoors with friends, everyone smoking their own joint or pipe.

“That calls out for a lounge, but I could take an edible and go hang out with my friends at a restaurant,” he argues. “What I need a lounge for is a place that’s not in a park or outside, where I can smoke joints with my friends, or get my nice glass out and do dabs among friends. That’s what lounges are for.”

The Pull of Stigma-Free Consumption

Shaw predicts that legal lounges will eventually occur over time, the same way California first saw waves of municipalities opt out of cannabis retail only to change their minds on realizing how much municipal revenue can come out of the business. “California has allowed lounges for a while, and it’s quite a nice experience,” Shaw says. “Nevada has just brought theirs out.” She expects lounges will spread to other large-population U.S. legal states, and will eventually happen here, but it will be a while.

Above all, the lesson Tousaw remembers from the legal struggles over lounges 15 years ago was how enthusiastic consumers were about the places. “People loved the lounge—they still love it. I think it’s probably still operating,” as Cannabis Culture. What’s driving the lounges is the prospect of cannabis consumers finally being allowed to enjoy smoking or vaping in public without stigma. Tousaw admits he feels the pull himself.

“I’d love to have a lounge in Duncan here where I could go, smoke a couple of Js, watch a game on TV, chat with my friends. That would be cool—I would frequent such a business.”