Buying Legal Weed Is Easy, Smoking It? Not So Much

Man Smoking Joint

Legalizing cannabis is a massive challenge, but once it’s legal and access becomes a (relatively) simple matter, an even bigger challenge presents itself — finding somewhere to (legally) smoke your legal weed.


At one minute past midnight on July 1, recreational marijuana dispensaries in Las Vegas opened for business to much fanfare and long lines.

Denver has been America’s go-to destination for international marijuana-driven tourism — that title is now at serious risk: With 42 million annual visitors and sanctioned culture of permissiveness — the “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” line comes from the official tourism bureau — Sin City’s cannabis boosters are already dubbing the desert fun-times mecca a second Amsterdam.

And that would be true, if Amsterdam had no cannabis-selling coffeeshops and anyone caught smoking weed almost anywhere at all risked a fine in the hundreds of dollars.

American marijuana policy is changing quickly. Most of it is, at least. As it turns out, legalizing marijuana — overcoming decades of propaganda, overpowering entrenched special interests with significant influence over the political establishment and taking a first step toward atoning for profound mistakes touching criminal justice, race relations, and economic inequality — was the easy part.

Figuring out how to give law-abiding adults a place to actually use legal cannabis without fear of running into legal trouble? That’s the tricky bit; finding somewhere to place ashtrays.

It’s been almost five years since voters in Colorado and Washington first broke the green ceiling and decided to give legalized recreational cannabis a try. In that time, recreational marijuana has become legal for adults in six more states. Though rules differ somewhat from state to state, the 65 million people living in adult-use states all have something in common: They’re not allowed to smoke in public.

Included in all legalization ballot measures to date — in order to placate honest citizens fearful of a world in which people smoke weed where they can cigarettes (spoiler: they already do) — is a prohibition on public marijuana consumption.

Aside from a cannabis aficionado’s own home, there’s virtually nowhere to consume cannabis at all – and if the landlord decides to ban it, not even there.

In Las Vegas, nearly every hotel is connected to a casino, and since accommodating cannabis means risking a gaming license, every marijuana-seeking tourist who stays in a Las Vegas hotel — and there are a lot of them — must by default break the law once the flower, preroll or sheet of shatter is in hand.

Denver has been the first place to tackle this conundrum. So far, it is the only place: A few medical-cannabis dispensaries in San Francisco have on-site smoking lounges, but most do not, and in either case, they’re open only to medical-marijuana patients. However, it will be a few more months at least until the first business in the city gets the OK to allow someone to smoke weed on the premises. And getting that far took another voter initiative.

Last fall, four years after legalizing weed, Colorado voters approved a plan to legalize “social consumption lounges.” Seven months later, after intractable public debate and back-and-forth between city officials and backers over the rules, it appears businesses will be able to apply for a license to allow marijuana smoking on-site by the end of August.

But in order to actually win a weed-smoking license, they’ll also need a sign-off from the local business association. And patrons will have to bring their own weed — dispensaries won’t get lounges. Neither will bars, as state liquor law forbids the mixing of cannabis and alcohol. That’s a proscription ignored all over the country — like at Denver’s Red Rocks Amphitheater, where weed smoking goes on with reckless abandon despite “official” prohibition.

And that’s the issue.

“The city is largely overlooking what’s going on at Red Rocks,” said Emmett Reistroffer, a Denver-area marijuana businessman who ran the campaign to legalize public marijuana consumption. “I think they should work with us to create designated consumption areas. I think the people want that and think it makes sense.”

This is the era of legalization. Isn’t it? We should be past the point of having to constantly break rules just to exercise what’s now supposed to be a right. And cities should cop to the obvious: People are already smoking weed in public. They will continue to do so.

For most, nothing will happen. Others will get a ticket, or perhaps a warrant check — or a search. Either way, that’s a risk, and one that alcohol and cigarette users do not have to run; neither should we.

TELL US, where do you stand on public consumption of cannabis?

Chris Roberts has written about medical cannabis, drug policy, and legalization ever since spending a few months in Humboldt County in 2009, with bylines for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, and SF Weekly. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @cbloggy.

2 Comments

  1. John

    August 9, 2017 at 2:26 pm

    Thank you for posting this. Seeing how the next year or so plays out for public use will be interesting, but I feel like things will continue to improve.

  2. Heather

    August 9, 2017 at 1:12 pm

    This is a big debate that will probably go on for at least the next couple of years. There are still many people who are opposed to marijuana legalization in general, so advocating for public consumption will probably take a bit of work. Thanks for sharing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *