After years of delays and false starts, cannabis lounges could finally be coming to Massachusetts.
A bill that would allow “social consumption” facilities — essentially the pot equivalent of a bar — is now moving forward on Beacon Hill as part of a broader package of reforms to the state’s marijuana laws. If it passes, cities and towns could choose whether to allow such establishments.
“I’m so happy the political conversation includes social consumption now,” said Kizzy Key, a Boston cannabis entrepreneur and event planner who hopes to open a pot café in the city. “I’m trying not to get too excited because it could take a while to roll out, but we’ve come a long way from two years ago,” when such licenses appeared to be dead in the water.
The concept of lounges, which has the support of House Speaker Ron Mariano, was included both in the 2016 ballot initiative that legalized marijuana and a rewrite by lawmakers the next year.
The idea was never implemented, however, after Secretary of State William Galvin declared that the section of the law requiring municipalities to poll their residents on whether to allow lounges erroneously referred to a nonexistent voting mechanism.
As proposals to correct the glitch languished in legislative committees, states such as Nevada and New York moved ahead with their own versions of cafés, leaving Massachusetts entrepreneurs who expected to pioneer Amsterdam-style facilities in the United States bitterly frustrated.
Now, hopes are higher than they’ve been in years that the Legislature is preparing to rectify its earlier mistake.
Under the pending bill, municipal legislative bodies such as city councils could vote to authorize social consumption facilities without holding a local referendum. The state measure would “unlock” regulations for the lounges the state Cannabis Control Commission has already approved. The rules call for a pilot program in a handful of volunteer municipalities and include strict requirements around ventilation, limits on how much THC customers can consume, a ban on bringing in outside pot products or taking products home, and mandatory training for servers.
A number of communities — including Provincetown, Somerville, Springfield, Holyoke, Amherst, and North Adams — previously expressed interest in the cafés. Boston had signaled it wasn’t interested in participating, but advocates hope city officials could change their mind with Mayor Michelle Wu now in office. Wu’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
To proponents, cannabis cafés represent an important step toward putting marijuana on roughly equal footing with alcohol, as voters approved in 2016.
They say the facilities would finally provide renters, residents of public housing, and tourists with a legal place to use a now-legal product; hotels and most apartment leases ban smoking, and state law bans public consumption under the threat of a $100 civil fine, forcing many to smoke on the sidewalk, in alleys, outside neighbors’ windows, or in parked cars (which is not allowed on public roads).
Lounges would improve public safety and reduce public nuisance by putting regulations around pot consumption that’s already happening and providing an alternative to bars, supporters say.
“For me and a lot of my friends, alcohol isn’t our thing,” Key said. “We want to be able to consume and socialize and be ourselves in a way we can’t at the club or a bar. It’s especially needed in the city, where a lot of people live in public housing.”
Key added that another benefit would be the ability to sample different edibles or strains of flower before purchasing a larger quantity at a dispensary, leading to potentially profitable partnerships between cannabis manufacturers and lounges.
But Key and others worry the state’s tight regulations could stifle such cafés before they get off the ground.
One rule drawing concern is that only vaping could take place indoors, while joint-smoking and other combustion would be relegated to minimally enclosed outdoor patio areas. The rule is meant to prevent employees from being exposed to secondhand smoke and comply with the state’s strict indoor smoking laws, but critics say it would sharply reduce the appeal of lounges to customers and seems certain to cause conflict with neighbors, especially in dense areas.
“If you’re in a rural area where there’s a lot of space for the smoke to dissipate, that’s one thing, but we don’t have that around here,” said Elliott Laffer, the chair of Boston’s Back Bay Neighborhood Association and a former ventilation equipment salesman. “Indoors would actually be much better, because there you can control the airflow and pretty thoroughly filter the odor. The staff would probably get less [smoke] exposure than they would outside — you can’t control the wind.”
Others are upset about a lack of one-time consumption licenses for events such as weddings and a ban on preparing edibles on-site, which would essentially force popular dinner parties featuring marijuana-infused dishes to remain underground. Under the regulations, any pot products sold at cafés would need to be prepackaged, like those at dispensaries. Even the preparation of noninfused food would be banned, another potential drawback for customers.
“To restrict such a major part of the industry seems crazy to me,” said Joe Nelson, a Massachusetts chef who before the pandemic held marijuana-infused dinner parties for private clients and has long hoped to open a restaurant offering such meals. “I’d do anything to be able to open a place like that in Massachusetts, and we got started the day it became legal, but with all these delays and restrictions, I’ve started looking into [Las] Vegas.”
Mike Brais, a Massachusetts cannabis executive who has formed a lobbying group in hopes of loosening some of the rules, said he’s worried that café licenses — which at first will be available only to so-called equity applicants from communities hit hardest by the war on drugs — will send already-struggling entrepreneurs deeper into debt.
Brais is hopeful the commission will reconsider at least some of the restrictions. Only one of the agency’s five members, Commissioner Kimberly Roy, appears to oppose social consumption altogether.
“I don’t see how these licenses can be profitable as currently drafted,” he said. “If you can’t combust, and you can’t consume reasonable quantities, people aren’t going to go.”