The Golden Gate bridge is enveloped in fog in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan, Getty Images file)

California’s vape havens: Bay Area model for social cannabis use

SAN FRANCISCO — Visitors may be awed by the ubiquity and openness of people smoking and vaping cannabis in public here — from cafes and bars to parks and passing cars.

But where can cannabis users consume more discreetly — and have access to high-grade cannabis and state-of-the-art vaporizer technology?

Several San Francisco medical cannabis dispensaries offer, to varying degrees, working models for socialized public consumption of cannabis, providing lounge areas where qualified patrons vaporize — and in some cases smoke cannabis — never mind the local ordinance against the latter.

If you’re a California resident and a medical cannabis patient visiting San Francisco, you can partake of this city’s clean and comfortable places to legally consume cannabis, as allowed by the City and County of San Francisco’s Medical Cannabis Act.

“Dispensary lounges are an important feature of using cannabis — having the opportunity to enjoy it with your fellow human beings,” said Martin Olive, proprietor of The Vapor Room, a former dispensary lounge that functioned like a community center in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. “Unlike bars and restaurants, we had a wide range of people hanging out together — a 24-year-old guy with lupus passing a joint to a 75-year-old grandmother with cancer, and they’re telling their life stories and getting to know one another in a way that would never happen organically in most other places.”

Atmospheres at different dispensary lounges range from Apple-store sleek to frat-house chic. Many are bright, airy and colorful; at least one, however, feels more like a cramped dope den.

You don’t have to purchase cannabis from any of these dispensaries to consume on premises. You can bring your own. Some feel and function like community centers. Some are pet-friendly. One validates parking. (Learn more about eight Bay Area vapor lounges.)

Although currently limited to medical cannabis, these businesses provide San Francisco residents and some visitors alike convenient and safe environments to consume cannabis and interact with other people who are enjoying the same thing.

“The lounges are like a civic water cooler where people gather and build relationships and community,” said Lloyd Francis, a San Francisco novelist and musician who frequented The Vapor Room from the time it opened in 2003 until it closed in 2012. “I have met many close friends at San Francisco cannabis lounges.”

Across San Francisco Bay in Oakland and Berkeley, on-premises consumption at dispensaries is banned. In San Jose, it’s a short trip from the airport, Apple headquarters and Levi’s Stadium to Buddy’s Cannabis, an art-filled vapor lounge.

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Coloradan Ally Bradley exhales a vapor cloud.(Denver Post file)

In Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska, the four states that have legalized recreational cannabis for adult use to date, public consumption is outlawed. Ditto within the weed-legal District of Columbia.

Activists in Denver recently tabled a controversial ballot initiative to permit limited smoking and vaping cannabis at bars and other businesses, and are now seeking a compromise with local officials. Earlier this year, Anchorage’s city council approved an amendment to allow cannabis cafes in Alaska’s largest city. Seattle’s city attorney is pressing for vapor lounges.

In Vancouver, British Columbia, a cannabis-open city euphemistically called Vansterdam, local officials are cracking down on long-running “safe spaces” where people smoke, dab or vape freely, pressing an anti-smoking bylaw that was amended last fall to ban vaping any substance in public spaces.

Vancouver dispensaries are no longer allowed to be “safe spaces.” Non-dispensary lounges that remain resemble bars, except patrons consume cannabis, not alcohol. Vaporizers and dab tools are provided.

Marc Emery, the Canadian “Prince of Pot” who served five years in a United States federal prison for selling cannabis seeds internationally, said “safe spaces” are necessary in Vancouver, where anti-cannabis housing-ordinance evictions are growing in rapid pace with the number of cannabis dispensaries, now running about 80, most of them illegal. Emery’s 10-year-old Cannabis Culture Lounge (now with two locations) allows all forms of cannabis consumption — smoking, vaping, dabbing, you name it.

“There are many situations in quasi-legal Vancouver where people cannot smoke in their own homes,” Emery said. “The city recently passed bylaws saying you can’t smoke in a public place either, or risk getting a $250 fine. People don’t have any way to consume it without being punished.”

Emery noted that the City of Vancouver owns and operates a safe-needle injection site for users of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, a situation he called “ridiculous and beyond understanding” as long as British Columbia’s largest city forbids public cannabis consumption.

“We are keeping our lounges open,” Emery said. “We are not going to close under any circumstance short of me being dragged off to jail.”

Smoking and vaping in San Francisco dispensaries pre-dates Proposition 215, the 1996 state ballot initiative that legalized medical cannabis in California, and SB 420, the 2004 bill that clarified that medical cannabis patients can smoke wherever tobacco smoking is allowed. In the early 1990s, illegal dispensaries sold and served cannabis.

“It was totally illegal,” said Dennis Peron, the godfather of San Francisco cannabis activism who encouraged people to smoke at his pre-Prop. 215 dispensary, The San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, starting in 1994, and, two decades earlier, at his cafe, The Island.

Prop. 215, Peron said, “legalized what I was doing illegally.”

Today, Peron runs a hippie-ish bed and breakfast from his faux-castle home. He no longer dispenses cannabis but doesn’t care if his guests smoke or vape.

“What they do in their own room is their business, not mine,” Peron said.

Peron thinks San Francisco bars and clubs may allow public consumption if Californians one day vote to legalize adult-use recreational cannabis.

“I don’t see why not,” Peron said. “Our restaurant was a place you could do it. If you want to do it in public, that’s fine by me. Alcohol hurts you. Marijuana is good for you.”

Of course, many people in San Francisco already smoke and vape cannabis — medical or otherwise — at any number of bars and cafes with outdoor patios across the city.

“I go to many clubs and bars in North Beach, the Fillmore and the Mission that wink at patrons who smoke or vape on their patios while listening to music or poetry on weekend nights,” said Francis, the novelist/musician who lives on Haight Street. “No one complains and folks are able to relax like they should when they medicate.”

That most of San Francisco’s cannabis dispensary/vaping lounges are concentrated in downtown’s high-traffic tourist, hotel, convention, shopping, entertainment and financial districts is no accident of coincidence. Bet on more in San Francisco’s other destination neighborhoods if Californians vote to legalize in 2016.

Until then, you’ll need a current California medical cannabis doctor’s authorization and valid ID. With one exception, San Francisco’s dispensary lounges provide state-of-the-art vaporizers, sterilized mouthpieces, alcohol wipes and other cannabis accouterments so you don’t have to travel with your gear.

If you really must smoke a joint or hit a bong but don’t want to risk stinking up your hotel room and running up a cleaning fee, two dispensaries accommodate old-school tokers.

The county health department says it will snuff out on-premises smoking at dispensaries as it receives complaints.

“If we hear about a dispensary that’s allowing combustible smoking, we would step in and ask them to halt that activity,” said Nancy Sarieh, spokeswoman for the San Francisco Department of Public Health. “But for us to proactively reach out to these dispensaries is not on our radar.”

Sarieh said the department’s medical cannabis program manager received a tip last month about smoking at Lounge8four7, a large and popular downtown lounge affiliated with The Green Door dispensary.

Sarieh said San Francisco’s Medical Cannabis Act allows dispensaries to offer on-premises vaping. Lounge8four7, she noted, is physically separate from The Green Door’s building and is not, as such, part of the dispensary. Sarieh said the building’s owner is working with the city and county to re-classify the lounge’s square-footage within the dispensary’s approved permit.

“We are sorry to announce that Lounge8four7 is temporarily closed to medicating,” The Green Door wrote in a recent newsletter. “We are undergoing a new permitting process and plan to re-open the Lounge for medicating in the very near future. For the time being the Lounge will remain open if you just need a place to relax.”

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(Seth McConnell, Denver Post file)

Olive, who currently operates The Vapor Room as a delivery-only service, said he is applying to re-open his dispensary at a new location — but perhaps without the lounge component, which took up more than half of his old dispensary’s footprint before it closed during the federal crackdown in 2012.

Without lounges, Olive said, low-income, elderly and terminally ill patients are at risk, as many live in federally subsidized housing or shelters that prohibit cannabis.

“The Vapor Room lounge was a really good opportunity for them to feel safe and not have smoking cannabis be some real stressed-out thing where they might lose their housing rights,” Olive said.

Olive declined to speculate on the future of social consumption of legal, recreational cannabis here.

“I don’t know,” he said. “San Francisco is waiting to have the state tell us what we can and can’t do. I think the system we have in place with Prop. 215 and SB 420 got us pretty far, as far as the medical and therapeutic use of cannabis goes.”

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