On January 1, 2020, Coloradoans could begin meeting up at marijuana social clubs because the Colorado State Licensing Authority began issuing marijuana hospitality establishment licenses, which allow licensees to permit the consumption of marijuana on their premises. However, hospitality licensees abruptly closed in mid-March because Coronavirus has kept Coloradoans from socializing with each other. After three consecutive months of quarantining, baseball stadiums are empty, parents are not getting ready to send their children to camp, and countless “non-essential” businesses that rely on attracting large crowds are shutting down. While almost all states that have legalized marijuana for either medical or recreational purposes, including Colorado, have deemed marijuana businesses as “essential,”hospitality licensees were kept closed until May 27, when Colorado restaurants could reopen.Now, with less than three months of experience, hospitality licensees must operate their businesses while keeping tables at least six feet apart, making sure all employees wear masks, and allowing only fifty percent capacity or fifty people, whichever number is lower.
Despite the pandemic’s negative impact on Colorado’s hospitality businesses, the Colorado hospitality licensing system will eventually serve as an excellent archetype for other states to emulate. Marijuana hospitality businesses, otherwise known as social clubs, are important for many reasons;
- they provide marijuana consumers a common-area to relax with one another,
- a location other than a privately-owned residence to safely and legally consume marijuana,
- an escape from the stigma that society associates with marijuana use,
- and an attraction to visit if they are from out of town.
A “retail food business” that does not hold a license or permit for alcohol beverages, fermented malt beverages, or special event liquor may apply for a license to operate a marijuana hospitality business in an isolated portion of the premises of the retail food business. Colorado’s State Licensing Authority established that there are two types of hospitality licenses: the Retail Marijuana Hospitality and Sales Business (RMHSB) and the Marijuana Hospitality Business (MHB). A close look at these two license types reveals why Colorado has allowed for the development of exemplary marijuana social clubs.
RMHSBs allow people to get together and relax over a joint just like bars allow people to get together and relax over a beer. Patrons who want to hang out at a RMHSB must prove that they are at least twenty-one years old, and once they are inside the RMHSB’s premises, which are within a retail food business, they can purchase and consume marijuana and/or marijuana products. RMHSBs must abide by local marijuana laws as well as Colorado’s daily legal limit, so they cannot sell more than one ounce of marijuana flower (or concentrates or edibles containing over 800 mg of THC) to a patron in one day. Also, RMHSBs are prohibited from selling alcohol, allowing the consumption of alcohol and tobacco products, distributing free samples of marijuana or marijuana products, and infusing marijuana or marijuana products with nicotine.
Aside from these constraints, RMHSBs operate like any other tavern or restaurant. RMHSB employees, who cannot consume marijuana while working, take patrons’ orders and bring patrons their dinners, coffees, or whatever it is their establishment serves. All patrons have to do is sit back and enjoy the company of whoever is there with them. Those that like to go out at night but prefer marijuana to alcohol need not worry. RMHSBs can sell marijuana at any time except for between 2:00 AM and 7:00 AM, so patrons can smoke and enjoy the menu offerrings into the late night. When an RMHSB patron is ready to leave, if he/she still has marijuana or marijuana products that were purchased during the visit, an employee has to place all of her marijuana items into an opaque, child-resistant exit package in order for the consumer to exit with purchased marijuana items.
Colorado created the MHB license to give marijuana consumers who have already purchased marijuana the opportunity to consume marijuana somewhere other than their privately-owned residence. MHBs are “Bring Your Own Cannabis” (BYOC), meaning that they do not sell marijuana or marijuana products and patrons have to bring their own. Additionally, MHBs can be mobile, meaning that they can operate anywhere in Colorado as long as they abide by local marijuana laws. Otherwise, MHBs must follow the same regulations as RMHSBs.
Like Colorado, California permits marijuana social clubs. However, unlike Colorado, California does not issue separate licenses for on-site consumption of marijuana. California law states, “a local jurisdiction may allow for the smoking, vaporizing, and ingesting of cannabis or cannabis products on the premises of a retailer or microbusiness,” but also states that “you may want to contact your local jurisdiction governing the regulatory considerations of a consumption lounge in your jurisdiction.” Consequently, California legislators have left it up to local governments to decide the rules that marijuana social clubs must follow.
Although local jurisdictions are allowed to prohibit marijuana social clubs in both Colorado and California, those who wish to open one in California must pour through each jurisdiction’s specific set of laws. Conversely, those who wish to open one in Colorado know that, other than some minimal laws unique to different local jurisdictions, the laws governing marijuana social clubs are uniform throughout the state, so they focus on starting their business somewhere that works for them rather than somewhere that has agreeable laws. California does not allow marijuana social clubs to be mobile, so Californians who own these clubs cannot move around the state. The laws governing Colorado’s marijuana social clubs are clear and consistent which conceivably will be more successful than those in California.
Alaska’s social clubs are dissimilar from Colorado’s and California’s in that those who want to open a social club must do so as an addition to their already licensed retail marijuana store. Owners of Alaskan retail marijuana stores can apply for an “on-site consumption endorsement” from their state licensing authority. An article by PotGuide.com explains, “once a dispensary’s on-site consumption endorsement is approved, adults of age will legally be allowed to purchase cannabis products and consume them on-site in a specially-zoned area . . . the consumption area must be completely separated from the retail sales floor by either walls, doors or on a patio outdoors.” Patrons who visit Alaskan social clubs cannot bring in marijuana items not purchased on site.
Apart from clear and consistent laws, the key to ensuring the success of marijuana social clubs is remembering why they are important. They provide a common-area other than a privately-owned residence for consumption, a break from the stigma surrounding marijuana, and attract visitors. Vocal, a website that describes itself as “a platform for supporting, discovering, and rewarding creators,” wrote an article discussing what some of Colorado’s social clubs have done to become popular in the marijuana community. According to Vocal’s article, the social clubs that provide patrons with the best experiences are comfortable, modern, and gimmicky. The list emphasizes that patrons want to smoke in a relaxing spot, but club owners should do their best to make the interior of their spaces contemporary and unlike a dingy basement (or some other place propagated by the stigma surrounding marijuana). Also, the list emphasizes that each of these clubs has some unique “hook” that attracts patrons. For instance, Vocal’s article mentions a club known for its coffee and espresso, a club that doubles as an art gallery, a club that offers live music, a club that takes patrons around Denver and shows them landmarks associated with marijuana culture, and a club that offers marijuana-infused pizza and lasagna.
Running a social club for cannabis consumption carries its own set of challenges for licensed Cannabis operators. Last week, CBE posted a story by Nixon Peabody that provides a set of guidelines to consider.
- Social clubs should only open back up if people can consume marijuana outside. Someone is more likely to catch COVID-19 from someone else while indoors, and smoking/vaporizing makes it even worse because people can re-inhale the smoke/vapor that someone else in the club has already inhaled.
- When entering a social club, all employees and customers should wear face masks that completely and effectively cover the nose and mouth.
- Social club owners should develop “policies and training for employees on social distancing, hygiene, and other safety requirements” as well as “written guidance and signage for customers outlining the rules for visiting smoke rooms.”
- Social club owners should consider opening their clubs “by appointment only,” meaning that customers will reserve and stay in their specific assigned space to ensure minimal interaction with other customers. Whether a club decides to implement an “appointment only” system, all customers that are not in the same party should be kept at least 6 feet from each other.
- Social club employees should only let small parties enter (e.g., no larger than a household-sized party).
- Social club employees should prohibit anyone displaying COVID-19 symptoms from entering.
- All surfaces that customers may have contacted should be sanitized thoroughly after each party leaves.
Ultimately, marijuana social clubs will help to develop the marijuana industry in Colorado and around the country. These clubs, if managed properly, will gradually show that going out with friends for a joint is just as if not more fun and relaxing than meeting up at a bar; they have the potential to become a staple of social life.