Lyra Barron has a dream.
One day, the owner of Santa Fe’s Fruit of the Earth dispensary says, her customers will have their own place to socialize with cannabis—much in the same way that alcohol enthusiasts now socialize at bars. But creating what are known as “consumption lounges” or “cannabis lounges” is not an easy process. And across the country, government groups and legislators are wrestling with complications involved in setting them up. 
For patients, tourists and recreational consumers, lounges could be a vital resource—a place to consume even when landlords or hotels refuse to allow consumption in private. 
“In the early days people always asked if they could consume in our waiting room, but the law wouldn’t allow that,” Barron said. “People go to places like this to connect. Why should that just be at a bar with alcohol? We have a lot of patients who are facing a lot of heavy stuff, all on their own. The highlight of their week can be coming to the dispensary. It would be nice if they had a place to go to help with that isolation.”

New Mexico authorized consumption spaces for medical cannabis patients during the last legislative session, but the Department of Health hasn’t yet issued rules for the spaces. A meeting planned for 9 am Friday in Harold Runnels Building in Santa Fe is the public’s first chance to comment on the department’s proposal (scroll to page 42). 

So far, three states—Alaska, Colorado and Massachusetts—are moving forward with plans to create and license cannabis lounges statewide. A handful of municipalities in legal cannabis states have also worked to allow lounges. In Las Vegas, which has had to delay the process until Nevada’s 2021 legislative session, a sovereign tribe launched the city’s first lounge. San Francisco, Los Angeles and other California cities have also allowed a handful of lounges to open. And in Oregon, Portland entrepreneurs have set up private social clubs with membership dues as a way to work around anti-smoking ordinances.

“No full state has opened one of these yet,” said Carly Wolf, the state policies coordinator at NORML [National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws]. “In most legal states they allow local jurisdictions to allow on-site consumption, however, which is what’s happened in California. From a consumer perspective, though, it’s really important for regulators to look at this and take that step. You get visiting tourists or people in low-income housing, and they sometimes have to choose between freedom to consume and living in their homes.”
In New Mexico, where Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s legalization work group has been hammering out cannabis legislation for the 2020 short session, the group did not get into details about lounges for recreational users, said Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, who is spearheading the effort.
But even though lounges weren’t high on the discussion list, Martinez said they are important and worth a deeper look. 

Many individuals don’t have the space to safely consume cannabis,” Martinez said. “Whether it’s because they live in public housing, or their landlord won’t allow it, they have kids or family at home they don’t want to expose, or they are a tourist from out of town—providing safe spaces to consume ensures individual freedoms and ability to educate or monitor if a consumer is unaware of proper dosage,” Martinez said.

Barron is waiting for the state to take the next step for her customers. She says allowing consumption areas could also help dispensaries add educational opportunities, workshops and social events.
“There are so many opportunities, so many little things that are nice with that extra enhancement,” Barron said. “We could do things with music and cannabis, yoga, exercise, or even just socializing. It can help you come out of your shell and interact with other human beings.”
If the state legalizes cannabis through the Legislature—either in the short 2020 session or the longer 2021 session—the need for consumption areas is likely to grow.
“Currently, no states allow cannabis consumption in public, and what’s being played out in those states is a disproportionate number of disadvantaged individuals being fined and even jailed for smoking in public simply because they don’t have a home or safe space to consume,” Martinez said. “When cannabis is legalized for recreational use in New Mexico, it must also include provisions that give all individuals the ability to consume in safety, regardless of their circumstance.”
One of the biggest challenges in setting up lounges is that they bump up against anti-second hand smoke rules for public areas. And it’s a problem that every state looking into the issue faces.
“It is the same issue as smoking tobacco in public,” Martinez said. “The solution would be to allow cannabis consumption in certain restricted areas and overall treating it in the same way we treat tobacco smoking. Another challenge includes ensuring that patrons of cannabis lounges do not drive under the influence–a similar concern that we deal with daily in regards to alcohol consumption and public spaces.”
A subset of the impaired driving issue also plays into whether lounges should allow both cannabis and alcohol consumption. So far most municipalities and states seem focused on keeping the substances separate, Wolf said.  
“It’s safer if people consume just cannabis and don’t mix it with other substances, and I think lounges should be limited to just cannabis” Wolf said. “But people can walk into a bar and get liquor, and we do think cannabis should be the same. I think as the states implement policies we’ll have more models of these things to look at. And I think we’ll see more states moving forward with that in the next few years.”