New York City remains a bellwether for all things weed. While the internet has improved global connectivity and information sourcing, somewhat lessening the need to visit trailblazing cultural cities such as London or Tokyo, Gotham’s cannabis community is best understood in person. And what better place to do so than at the up-and-coming Astor Club in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Launched in January 2020 by three long-time plant advocates and enthusiasts, this club may just be the epicenter’s epicenter. While other cannabis consumption hot spots can justifiably vie for the distinction, Astor Club absolutely deserves its place in the discussion. If a person truly wants to understand the pulse of the region’s cannabis community, then this lounge and its diverse range of consumers is one of the absolute best places to do so.
Resembling a European cannabis cafe where the herb is sold and consumed on-site, Astor Club has quickly established itself as a must-see destination for tri-state residents and visitors alike.
Featuring a variety of gas strains, the members-only club encourages people to hang around after purchasing, enjoy snacks, drinks, art, visuals—even a dog or two. Founder Ben and his partners Josh and Matt (they asked not to reveal their last names) and a small support team looked to their passions when creating the club’s vibe; embracing art, streetwear, hip-hop and other elements often associated with New York City.
The combined skill sets and credibility of the founders earned the club success in a relatively short period. On any given night, a club member can run into top names in cannabis business, advocacy and cultivation, as well as everyday plant enthusiasts. Various demographics regularly overlap on the numerous sofas and back in the outdoor “smoke spot.” From the super famous to mere civilians, Astor Club is a space for just about any type of cannabis consumer including advocates, plant enthusiasts, industry executives, lawyers and government experts.
On a recent November evening, a 60-something-year-old retired school teacher turned cannabis supporter sat across from a touring hip-hop production team. The two conversed a bit and rolled joints as the room filled to roughly 30 or so people by 8 p.m.
As New York City inches toward recreational legalization, with regulators projecting a 2023 launch, Astor Club could serve as a model for what a legal consumption lounge may actually look like. The co-founders claim they’re eager to work with whatever regulations come. Still, like everyone else hoping to participate in the New York market, they, too, await the final rules that will determine their next steps.
Astor Club strives to create and enrich the community through various events including information sessions, brunches, seminars and barbecues. Regardless of the topic, Ben says each event has offered a space where “people can come smoke out and get some information about what’s going on and how they can help in the legalization movement.”
The success and growing crowds led to what they considered to be the natural decision to launch the club. Ben says, “It really came out of that sense of us just wanting to have a place to continue to connect with those people in New York.” Astor Club also served as an ideal destination for the high-quality, gas strains the founders expect to find at events.
Matt brings the same enthusiasm for the plant and a love for art, streetwear and hip-hop to the space. His passions can be found in the art on the walls, featuring pieces from Banksy, BK The Artist, Kaws, 1UP and Stash. Prominent streetwear fashion brands such as Aimé Leon Dore, Alife, Camp High, Parra and Patta also play an importance in shaping the club’s culture.
Astor Club regularly attracts several dozen visitors each night, with the weekdays often busier than weekends. Josh believes that the club’s authenticity begins with its founders.
“We all come from a background of cannabis as part of our life,” he says. “Cannabis wasn’t even an industry at the time.”
The hotspot is on its second location after an issue unrelated to their operation booted them from their original space. The forced venue change is standard in cannabis, an industry in which businesses are often ousted either because of anti-pot laws or other loopholes that landlords or other authorities can still use.
Accessible to members, the current home has security upfront, two indoor lounges in the back and an outdoor section. Situated on a street with various Lower East Side staples, most especially the distinctive smells of Chinese food from neighboring Chinatown, the minimal odor that does escape the venue blends perfectly with the neighborhood. Once inside and past security, a wave of terpene-rich cultivars courtesy of dozens of strains of flower happily overwhelms the senses.
A small, passionate team of management, security and budtenders help run the daily operations. They include Brett, who came to Astor Club from the food, beverage and hospitality sector. Matt’s friend for more than two decades, Brett went from just being a regular club visitor to manager in record time.
“I started stocking shelves, then it led to budtending,” he says. Now, he operates the lounge’s daily operations and ongoing remodeling. He’s particularly proud of the large TV and newly installed floors as signs of the club’s progression. His optimism is bolstered by what he says is a fast-growing membership base. Access is granted on a referral-only basis. If approved, members can either pay a $200 yearly membership fee or $500 for lifetime access.
Overall, Matt considers Astor Club a destination for cannabis camaraderie in New York City and that feeling extends to the team. He says that they often engage in family activities, such as eating together on a nightly basis. During our interview, a plethora of sandwiches arrived for the team and guests to enjoy.
Astor Club isn’t the first or only prominent cannabis smoking lounge operating in New York City. Several function in some form or fashion, either as dedicated spaces or pop-ups. However, all too often, these gray market destinations end up like Icarus inching toward the sun, resulting in their eventual shutdown. Brands have survived crackdowns from regulators, rebounding in new locations—but the task is costly on bottom lines and the staff charged with the difficult job.
With New York’s cannabis laws set to include legalized consumption lounges, Astor Club’s founders are eager to explore their options—be it in that sector or elsewhere. “Depending on what the regulations are will determine what license we get,” Matt said. “Consumption has been a huge part of our lives.”
Since Kathy Hochul was inaugurated governor in August 2021, replacing the decidedly lukewarm legalization supporter Andrew Cuomo, New York’s cannabis program made its first strides towards implementation. After the first appointments of board members to the Office of Cannabis Management in September, additional hires have come, with members seemingly ready to get the market going. As of November 2021, regulators haven’t released rules regarding licensing, and it remains unclear whether consumption lounges resembling Astor Club’s environment will be allowed.
“There’s too much up in the air for anybody to know,” Ben says.
Josh jumps in on the discussion. “We obviously have our hopes, but at this point, it’s very hard for us to know what’s going to come down the line,” he says. “We’d love to be involved somehow.”
This story was originally published in the print edition of Cannabis Now.