As Mass. debates marijuana cafes, Colorado’s burgeoning scene offers insights
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Secret Stash ganja yoga starts at 9 a.m. in a loft in this city’s downtown, tucked between snow-peaked mountains and military bases.
“We got bongs, pipes, papers, dab rigs, whatever you want,” founder Katherine “Kitty” Harris said one recent morning, as skunky pot smoke and instrumental spa music filled the room. With class in session, regulars passed joints around, then sat silently on yoga mats, breathing slowly and deeply, before entering their next pose.
The class’s Zen vibe belies the years of legal wrangling and political lobbying it took to get here. Studio A64, where the class is held several times a week, is among at least a dozen cannabis cafes in Colorado, a number poised to explode in January, when a new state law will allow marijuana retailers to offer “tasting rooms” for customers to consume their edibles, joints, and other products. Until the law takes effect, the current spots can’t sell pot — they are BYOC, or “bring your own cannabis.”
The 11 states with legal recreational pot are grappling with how to handle public and social consumption. As in Massachusetts, people in Colorado are barred from smoking, vaping, or eating pot products anywhere besides private homes. That can pose a challenge for tourists, renters, and public housing residents who have nowhere to legally consume a legal substance.
Complaints about the smell of marijuana on streets were among the reasons cited by Colorado Governor Jared Polis for signing legislation to allow tasting rooms. Soon, customers will be able to buy pot products in dispensaries, then smoke, vape, or eat them in a room or patio next door.
Nevada, Alaska, and California have also approved cafes in some form.
In Massachusetts, regulators are moving cautiously on pot cafes after health and law enforcement officials in Governor Charlie Baker’s administration mounted opposition last year over concerns about increased cannabis consumption and stoned driving.
The Cannabis Control Commission in May approved draft regulations for a pilot program that would allow pot lounges to be licensed in 12 cities or towns that want them. But Secretary of State William Galvin said the Legislature must first clarify how municipalities can opt in. Baker has said the pilot “would make a lot of sense.”
Commissioner Shaleen Title said unregulated lounges already exist, so adding rules and oversight will enhance public health and safety.
“It’s sort of a paradox right now that a substance is legal, but there’s no place that you’re allowed to use it besides your own home,” Title said. “The pilot program is a big step forward for treating consumers like people who are doing something normal and legal.”
In Colorado, consumers say the burgeoning cannabis cafe scene is not just a matter of practicality. These places, they say, can also build a sense of community and social acceptance. The state opened the country’s first pot stores five years ago following a campaign that argued weed should be treated like alcohol. Now, consumers say, pot “bars” are overdue.
Denver’s sole permitted cafe, The Coffee Joint, faces a roaring highway, near industrial warehouses.
To the business’s owners, the location is not ideal, but it was the only place that met rules requiring they exist 1,000 feet from schools and day cares. However, to the local neighbors’ group, which had to grant approval, the spot is perfect.
“There’s nothing neighborhood-like, there are no houses, no schools — it’s very much out of your way,” said Christine Sprague, board member of the La Alma Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association.
The Coffee Joint has not hurt the neighborhood, she said, but the group’s members would likely oppose a pot cafe on a main drag because they wouldn’t want children to see it.
“For some folks, the struggle is, it seems less harmful than alcohol — and we certainly have bars and restaurants and pubs on our main street,” Sprague said, adding that people are accustomed to bars, while pot cafes are an “unknown quantity.”
Rita Tsalyuk and her husband decided to open The Coffee Joint next to their dispensary after Denver voters passed Initiative 300 in 2016. She thinks the reason no other licensed cafes exist (two others opened and quickly closed) is that they are currently prohibited from also selling pot.
Without her dispensary next door, she said, the cafe would not stay open. The cafe sells non-psychoactive CBD products, merchandise, and accessories. Dispensary customers enter free; others pay $5. Smoking is not allowed — only vaping, eating, and dabbing, which involves inhaling the vapors of heated concentrated cannabis wax.
Tsalyuk, a real estate broker, said her fears of the place attracting homeless people, drug dealers, and addicts have not come true.
“I was surprised that the people who come to consume are all good people, very respectful,” she said.
Inside the cafe, harsh fluorescent lighting, stark cement walls, and a lack of windows are softened by reggae music, a Ping-Pong table, and colorful paintings and posters. Fliers taped to the wall offer help getting home safely, book club meetings, jam sessions, and Senior Tuesdays.
“It’s very cool to be in a public place like this and be able to smoke openly without the stigma,” said Dax Stevens, 22, a restaurant worker who recently moved from Texas, as he took a dab hit.
Fears that stoned customers would wreak havoc on the roadways haven’t proved true, and most customers opt for Uber or Lyft, Tsalyuk said.
Denver police said they can’t say whether any impaired driving cases have been linked to the business.
Critics also raise concerns about people getting too high at cafes. At Studio A64 in Colorado Springs, where yoga classes are held, owner Ambur Racek said lounges like hers help prevent and alleviate overconsumption, rather than encourage it. When people become sick, she said, employees give them water, food, and soothing words.
“This is why it’s so important that we’re here,” Racek said, noting that she’s seen tourists get uncomfortable, faint, or vomit. “Had that happened somewhere else, it would’ve gone a different way.”
Seated along her lounge’s exposed-brick wall one recent morning, Racek rolled a “blunt,” or marijuana cigar, as she described her struggling business’s bright future, once the new law is in place and she can sell pot. Her CBD-infused smoothies alone can’t pay the bills, she said.
Just north of Denver’s city limits, tourists flock to another cannabis lounge, iBake Denver. Entry is $12. On a recent Friday afternoon, 1990s classic rock blared as people passed a bong and played cards at tables covered in pot-themed stickers. Two couples in their 20s, visiting from Florida, took dab hits.
About 70 percent of iBake Denver’s customers are tourists, said co-owner Myra LittleTree Oppy.
“You can’t smoke in hotels, cars, outside — where else you gonna smoke?” Oppy said. “So we made your best friend’s basement.”