Critical Grass

The Coming of Social Consumption Spaces

In the most recent Critical Grass podcast, we touched on a few juicy subjects as far as cannabis in the city of Chicago is concerned. Naturally you have to mention the social equity program the state of Illinois likes to boast about, which indicates that prior to legalization there was not a whole lot of social equity as far as cannabis goes, and this still holds true for most of the United States, unfortunately. In addition to addressing this issue, the state also had to do something about the growing demand for dispensaries as people are rushing to set up shop in Illinois, though they have to be very patient and also very well-funded to afford a license, the ensuing fees and other barriers to entry. It is ultimately a matter of time before enough dispensaries and cultivation facilities receive licenses and go online to service those in need of cannabis throughout the state. However, one aspect of legalization tends to get overlooked when legislative bodies are hashing out the details of legal weed: social consumption lounges.

Obviously, legalization of cannabis use among adults for non-medical reasons (actually all cannabis use is medical, but that’s a topic for another post) is still in its infancy and it would be silly to expect newly legal states to immediately look like some toker’s paradise such as Amsterdam or Jamaica, and even those places have certain restrictions on public consumption. With legal cannabis spreading across the United States and the rest of the world as well, at some point the authorities will have to consider establishing cannabis consumption spaces for the general public. In the city of Chicago, people can legally smoke in their homes, backyards, or on their balconies, provided of course they own those homes. Renters are not so lucky. Last month, Illinois dispensaries took in around $37 million in sales, which means the lockdown isn’t having much of an effect on consumption. If you additionally factor in the underground market, that’s a lot of cannabis being consumed with hardly anywhere to consume it legally in public. So far, Illinois has approved just one consumption site thus far in a state of 12 million residents. To be fair, California, with a population of almost 40 million and an existing cannabis infrastructure and well-established culture has only a few dozen sites where you can buy and consume cannabis at the same location. Denver also seems to be doing reasonably well in establishing consumption sites for its cannabis consumers despite the rest of Colorado not being so gung-ho. Compare that with the amount of bars, tap rooms, restaurants, etc., throughout the country where you can enjoy alcohol, the overall number of social consumption sites is laughably low.

Another aspect of legal adult-use cannabis to factor in is tourism. With many hotels still having an anti-cannabis/anti-smoking policy, a lot of travelling tokers are left without options for consuming the cannabis they just bought. The least a good host could do if someone is leaving tourist dollars in their state is to provide a safe and comfortable spot to enjoy their purchases, otherwise their stay can become a potential legal headache.

Despite being behind North America as far as allowing for the recreational consumption of cannabis, Europe seems to be better suited and/or prepared to allow for its public consumption. Europe has always been known for its relaxed attitude and café culture, just look at all the cigarette smoking still taking place despite all the health warnings. The Netherlands have been way ahead of the game for decades with their coffee shops. Spain has pioneered the concept of cannabis social clubs where members can purchase cannabis products and then consume them on site while additionally having access to various social activities, games, food and drink and other nice little amenities. Social clubs are much more regulated than Dutch coffee shops in that members have to register and abide by certain rules, but they at least know they are safe at all times and can get reliable product. It’s difficult to say whether America or Europe will be first in legalizing cannabis across the board, but if alcohol can be publicly consumed without shame, then why should cannabis be treated any differently? The stigma surrounding cannabis is slowly eroding, but arrests still continue, even in places where it has been legalized. The good news is that this is a downward trend, but in order to drive this number down even further, the concept of social consumption sites is an absolute must. Not only does it address certain issues such as providing consumers with safe product and a safe environment where they won’t be harassed by law enforcement, it is also accommodating to tourists and adds to the emerging cannabis infrastructure and economy.

The exact model for social consumption sites is yet to be defined, but in all likelihood we might see variations/blends of existing ones. Dutch-style coffee shops may not work in suburban or rural North America, though a dispensary with an add-on dab bar for example might to very well in a European city. The exact needs will have to be determined on a local basis, but this is the next step post-legalization: destigmatization and re-normalization of cannabis use in public. Since the legal stigma is about to disappear, it’s high time to embrace and celebrate the social aspect of consuming cannabis, pun fully intended.