Changes to marijuana laws may bring ‘marijuana use lounges’ to Washington

Marijuana, News, Rights

The legalization of recreational marijuana in Washington and Colorado has left some challenges for tourists wanting to explore this new industry. According to Washington’s recreational marijuana laws, it is legal for non-residents over the age of 21 to purchase recreational marijuana but it is unlawful to open a package or consume any marijuana products in public. This means that there are few places where tourists can lawfully consume their legally purchased marijuana.

Attempts at legal consumption establishments fail in Washington

Even events entirely devoted to marijuana, such as Hempfest and the Cannabis Cup, are generally considered “open to the public” as far as consumption rules are concerned. There have been some concessions from the City of Seattle where consumption at these events has been allowed, but there have been strict guidelines governing the setup.

The guidelines have mandated that consumption be permitted only in fenced-in, 21-and-over areas that are obscured from public view and that are designed to prevent the smoke from impacting the public. Events also cannot require employees to staff the area, due to workplace health and safety laws.

Given these limitations, it is no surprise that some entrepreneurs have attempted to capitalize on the need for places to consume marijuana outside of private homes.

Washington bar’s “private club” shut down

In Tacoma, Washington, the first establishment to experiment with allowing consumption of marijuana was a pizza restaurant and rum bar called Stonegate. Many months before Washington’s first recreational retail stores were in business, Stonegate opened an upstairs area that allowed customers to pay a fee to join as members of Stonegate’s “private club.”

By making the upstairs “private,” the owner hoped to not run afoul of laws prohibiting public consumption of marijuana. Further, the club only allowed the vaporization of marijuana products, thus avoiding laws prohibiting smoking in areas where employees are present. The owner of Stonegate was so confident he was in compliance with the law that he invited Washington Governor Jay Inslee to pay him a visit.

Unfortunately, the governor had a very different impression of what was going on at Stonegate. A few months after the media ran stories about the club, Governor Inslee requested that the Washington Liquor Control Board, the LCB, do something about the private club. The LCB, which is tasked with regulating the marijuana industry, got to work drafting a rule banning marijuana use on the premises of any establishment with a liquor license.

Further, the city of Tacoma revoked Stonegate’s business license because it was found to be in violation of the city’s public nuisance ordinance. And, finally, Stonegate’s liability insurance carrier dropped the company’s policy in response to the attention it received for allowing marijuana use.

Washington hotels market pot-friendly ‘smoking’ rooms

The only Washington establishments currently having luck with marijuana use areas are hotels. By law, hotels may designate 25 percent of their rooms as “smoking” rooms, and some hotels have expressed interest in marketing their acceptance of marijuana consumption in those rooms.

The City Attorney’s Office has offered to provide pamphlets or other resources to hotels, to help them educate their guests about Washington’s marijuana laws. There are already a handful of bed and breakfasts in Washington that market specifically to marijuana tourism.

Colorado weed club’s success allowed by state’s legal exception

As with many aspects of recreational marijuana laws, things have been different in Colorado than in Washington. Both states ban marijuana use in public, and both states have laws banning smoking of any kind in bars and restaurants. However, thanks to an exception to Colorado’s indoor smoking laws, the state has now sanctioned its first marijuana use club. Club Ned is the first of its kind in either state.

Club Ned was approved because of an exception to Colorado’s Clean Indoor Air Act — section CRS 25-14-205 states that smoking is not prohibited in “a place of employment that is not open to the public and that is under the control of an employer that employs three or fewer employees.” Club Ned fits into this exception by charging a membership fee and having few enough employees.

Expected legislative changes in Washington

Although there is no similar exception to Washington’s indoor smoking laws, change does appear to be in the air. On January 4, 2015, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes released a memo discussing the largely unregulated medical marijuana market. Because of the perceived issues caused by the unregulated medical market operating parallel to the highly regulated recreational market, there is pressure for legislative change. To this end, the memo discussed proposed legislation being worked on by the City Attorney’s Office and Councilmember Nick Licata that would issue a new type of license for “marijuana use lounges.” Changes are expected in 2015, but it’s not yet clear what they will look like.

What we do know is that lounges will not resemble the “coffee shops” often associated with Amsterdam. Actual smoking of marijuana would not be allowed because Washington’s Indoor Clean Air Act prohibits smoking in any place that meets the statutory definition of a “place of employment.” This would limit marijuana use to vaporization and eating or drinking marijuana-infused products. The lounges could not actually sell any marijuana or alcohol products to customers, so customers would have to bring their own marijuana products for consumption.

King County would have additional limitations, as the county’s public health code extends clean air limits to “electronic smoking devices” – which encompasses most forms of vaporizing.

Notwithstanding these legal hurdles, the fact that influential people like Pete Holmes and Nick Licata are officially addressing the need for marijuana use establishments is encouraging. As the number of recreational marijuana stores steadily increases, so too will the number of tourists and residents looking for places to consume marijuana. To ignore this demand would be an oversight by legislators. And, much like the legalization of recreational marijuana, creating new business and employment opportunities around marijuana use lounges could result in another lucrative win-win for the state and its residents.