The morning sun barely clears the Berkeley hills east of the San Francisco Bay today, yet the Volcano vaporizers are already warm at the public cannabis lounges across the region.
Over at Barbary Coast Collective on Mission St. in San Francisco, the staff sets out cleaned ashtrays and psychedelic silicone bongs that suction cup onto the table so customers can’t knock them over. The plastic still smells faintly of a rubbing alcohol wash.
At Magnolia lounge in Oakland, they make coffee and set out tea, cream, and sugar.
When the doors open at 9 a.m. over at SPARC lounge on Mission St., lawyers and pensioners alike stand in line to show their ID, pick up a grinder, and sit down to hit Volcano bags. Some stop by before their shifts at work. Others come straight from government housing where federal laws prohibit medical cannabis use.
As the dim morning light filters in through the stained glass windows, the Volcano bags inflate with the brrrrrrrr of miniature air pumps. Bic lighters flick and touch joints. The first dabs touch down on quartz nails with a sssssssssSSSSSSSSS. Jay-Z’s ebullient “Big Pimpin” chimes in over the Barbary sound system. You hold it in. Stifle a cough. Try to exhale cooly. Then cough for real.
Aside from the music, this early it’s quiet like a church or a library. A staffer in plaid dusts the houseplants.
Another day of legal seshing, unlike any other place in the world, has begun.
There are only nine places on planet Earth where you can go to a cannabis consumption lounge like you would an alcohol bar. San Francisco has seven. Oakland has one. Denver one. That’s it. For the Earth.
And “San Francisco has the best regulations of anywhere,” said Charles Pappas, a Berkeley medical cannabis commissioner.
The famed coffee shops of Amsterdam are seedy and merely “tolerated”. The semi-private clubs of Barcelona don’t have city and state permits displayed on the wall. Sorry, trailblazers Washington and Oregon. The future is happening here — again.
This September, the San Francisco Department of Public Health will issue updated rules for its world-class lounges, which have been around since at least 2010 in a medical capacity and went recreational on January 1. Even more lounges are in the planning pipeline, Leafly has learned. State officials, as well as staff from the cities of Los Angeles and Sacramento, have been spotted at Barbary Coast this summer taking notes.
Lounges Fight Stigma, Ignorance, Prohibition
Bay Area lounges aren’t as insanely popular as they might be, given their global rarity.
Sure, the usual happy hour of 5 p.m. weekdays tend to get crowded. Friday afternoon happy hours will draw lines out the door. But despite 2018 stories in the Associated Press and UK Guardian, most Bay Area locals have never set foot in a lounge. They don’t know how, said Robbie Rainin, retail director at SPARC.
“I have the same problem with the gym. I want to go, but I don’t know how to use the machines. And you don’t know the culture.”
There’s lingering stigma too. Potential patrons fear they’ll be put on some list, Rainin said.
“I saw a family of tourists walk by and decide to come in, but one family member stayed outside, saying ‘I’m not going in there.’ It still feels like they’re doing something wrong.”
Lounges can’t advertise like bars, operators said. And the lounges might just be playing it cool amid the Trump Era. Officials in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Nevada and beyond have all rejected cannabis bars, for fear of public health and safety, and federal reprisals, they say. They worry about drugged driving, or lounge-related crime, or overdoses or smoke exposures.
Erich Pearson, the CEO of SPARC, said they’ve had one incident in eight years. He calls those concerns “just more prohibitionist crap, essentially.”
Lounge Safety — Drugged Driving and Crime
The ranking lounge criticism involves people smoking at a lounge and driving. What is society to do? Wheels needn’t be reinvented, it would seem.
“We do have something we can adapt to use for cannabis intoxication — and that’s state alcohol regulations,” said Magnolia Wellness director Debby Goldsberry.
Pappas notes that, “If bars are safe why can’t lounges be safe? A lounge owner can say, ‘OK you’ve smoked enough, that’s it.’ Just like a bar.”
Indeed, Magnolia Wellness adapted state alcohol intoxication protocols to get its Oakland lounge permit. There are four stages of intoxication, said Goldsberry. They’ve cut off a couple people, and called a couple Ubers. “Nobody ever gets to stage four. We just don’t allow it.”
Most people take mass transit to Bay Area lounges, said Rainin. And with ride sharing apps, people have plenty of alternatives to driving.
Cannabis also carries less crash risk than alcohol (1.6 vs 17), with more tolerable effects that peak in eight minutes versus 90 minutes for alcohol.
Early data shows access to legal cannabis cuts down on reckless driving, primarily among young, male nighttime weekend drivers who would otherwise be drunk. “The first full year after coming into effect, [medical] legalization is associated with an 8–11 percent decrease in traffic fatalities,” researchers found in 2013.
As for lounge violence, Pearson said “we haven’t had any problems or concerns.”
His one incident at SPARC in eight years, involved a person on prescription medication. By contrast, he said, nearly all municipalities “sanction and permit alcohol establishments, and those have incidents on a nightly basis.”
Lounge Health — Getting Too High and Smoke Exposure
By far, the biggest issue lounge operators deal with is people getting too high.
“Most problems can be solved with a glass of water,” said Goldsberry. “We have an abundance of water.” Others need fresh air, too.
“It can be scary, but they’re typically fine in 15 to 20 minutes,” Rainin said.
Since January, anyone 21 or older can enter a lounge, so budtenders more vigilantly police newbies. To reduce acute THC exposures:
Barbary Coast uses 30-minute time limits
Magnolia employs a registered nurse
And all lounges throw out anyone trying to “party”: get rowdy or really high, or use other drugs including tobacco or alcohol
“The people consuming are usually very respectful and private and keep to themselves as they consume,” said Jesse Henry, executive director at Barbary Coast.
Lounges might also appear to undercut decades of hard-fought gains to clear California workplaces of smoke. So all use have high-powered ventilation systems, and San Francisco’s health department plans more clean air rules in its release this month.
Many say workers should be exposed to zero smoke, just like tobacco. One day the federal OSHA might step in. The solution there is simple. “Just do it outside. On a patio. Then there’s zero problem,” Goldsberry said.
Unless you’re a neighbor. Magnolia is in an industrial part of town where no one cares. Future lounges will also have to master odor control to pacify garrulous neighbors.
The neighborhood around SPARC is deserted at closing time, 10 p.m. every night. Most lounges set a 9 p.m. last call for bongs and Volcano bags.
As the last regulars file out, the evening shift clicks off the vapes and e-nails, puts away the snacks and empties the ashtrays into trashcans, and the trashcans into dumpsters outside. They fill the dishwasher with vaporizer mouthpieces and parts, set the machine to “sanitize” mode at 180 degrees Fahrenheit, and flick the lights off for a bit — until the morning sun summits the Berkeley hills again.
David Downs directs news and lifestyle coverage as the California Bureau Chief for Leafly.com. He’s written for WIRED, Rolling Stone and Billboard, and is the former cannabis editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as the author of several cannabis books including ‘Marijuana Harvest’ by Ed Rosenthal and David Downs. He writes a weekly column, The Cali Way. TW: @davidrdowns | IG @daviddowns