A new American industry could soon blossom on the deck of Tara Bass’s small marijuana store in the tiny community of Skagway, Alaska, nestled between the Coast Mountains and the deepest saltwater fiord in North America.
If all goes according to plan, by the time tourists start arriving via cruise ships this spring, the Remedy Shoppe will offer recreational marijuana that can be bought and consumed in the same place: one of the first legal cannabis cafes in the United States.
It’s the kind of business that is likely to open in the next few years in Massachusetts, providing a place for adults to buy a joint and smoke it with their friends. Such establishments could jostle with bars for the business of serving consumers looking to take the edge off after work.
The provision is a little-noticed part of Massachusetts’ voter-approved law. Attention has focused on whether adults 21 and older can purchase, possess, and use marijuana, rather than where they can use the drug.
That said, by design, cannabis cafes won’t come easily to Pittsfield, Provincetown, or anywhere in between.
For a Massachusetts city or town to allow cannabis cafes, where marijuana can be sold and consumed on site, at least 10 percent of the municipality’s residents who voted in the last statewide election need to sign a cannabis cafe petition. Then the question is put to all of the city’s or town’s voters. If a majority approve it, local officials can permit such shops.
But that process won’t be easy. In Boston, for example, promarijuana activists would need to collect the signatures of 27,737 Boston voters (277,366 city residents voted on Nov. 8), and then persuade a majority of Bostonians to approve a cannabis cafe measure. Even then, the state regulatory body or the City Council could still reject applications for such shops.
For now, several experts say, no such legal establishments are up and running in the United States, even though voters have legalized recreational marijuana by ballot measure in eight states and the District of Columbia.
But they could solve a thorny problem, particularly in tourist-heavy areas: There is often nowhere for a visitor who legally buys marijuana to smoke it, because there are so many restrictions on lighting up on city streets and in other public places, hotels, and vehicles.
(It is easier to find a spot to legally consume edible marijuana products, such as marijuana-infused sodas and brownies.)
In Alaska, where voters legalized retail marijuana in 2014, regulations that will allow cannabis cafes could be finalized in the next week. Retail stores that already have a license can get an on-site consumption endorsement and could theoretically begin serving buds and burgers by the spring.
Under the draft regulations, approved cannabis cafes can sell marijuana and serve anything other than alcohol, said Brandon Emmett, a marijuana industry member of Alaska’s Marijuana Control Board. “You could have food. You could have water. Chips. Xbox. Tobacco. Anything other than booze,” he said. “It’s wide open. It’s going to be very, very cool.”
Not everyone is so sanguine. Some city officials in Massachusetts are worried about the prospect of stoned people wandering out of cafes around city streets and driving drugged back home.
And there’s another twist.
Geoffrey C. Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents communities across the state, has worries about the fairness of potential city and town referenda on cannabis cafes.
“There’s a real concern, given the amount of money the commercial marijuana industry has and has shown a willingness to spend,” he said. “Commercial marijuana interests could flood a town and city with money to influence the outcome, whereas cities and towns would be prohibited from spending any money on such a political effort.”
Massachusetts legislators are considering several changes to the voter-passed law and could theoretically prohibit marijuana cafes.
Still, advocates see such cafes in legalization states as inevitable.
“When we had alcohol prohibition repealed, we didn’t say you can just drink in your home — no bars. That wouldn’t be realistic,” said Chris Lindsey, senior legislative counsel at the national pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project. “So we’re in a transition period where we’re headed in that direction with marijuana.”
Back in Alaska, Bass is just selling marijuana. But she might expand into T-shirts, hats, and other tourist knickknacks in the months ahead when she expects to get approved to have on-site consumption at her modest store.
Skagway is surrounded by national parkland, where marijuana use remains forbidden. The drug is still illegal under federal law.
Bass said she simply wants a place for visitors who buy from her 600-square-foot shop to be able to smoke without breaking the law, and to admire the hanging glacier in the mountains beyond.
“I have a deck,” she said. “You see snow-capped mountains all around us. It’s basically three blocks from ocean.”
Which, she said marijuana advocates have told her, will be a pretty cool place to light up a joint.