“Setting. Several doors away from a busy street corner is a nondescript door with a peep lens. Pressing the doorbell between the hours of 10am to 7pm weekdays, the door is opened by a doorman who asks to see the numbered club card. At the top of a short flight of stairs, a second hall person of hefty stature scrutinizes and greets the visitor. Entering midway in a large old former dime-a-dance hall above the bar below, the room is well lit from clerestory windows. The ceiling is covered by a huge rainbow flag. The walls are covered with local artists’ work and political posters. Two small rooms to the right are a kitchen with sink and refrigerator with access to the roof and an interview room. A sink and toilet are off the short hallway to the interview room. The well ventilated rooms with open windows and a corner 15” exhaust fan left from the dance hall era are needed to cope with the clouds of cannabis (and some tobacco) smoke from the patrons. A large old dining room table dominates the center of the room, a semicircle of sofas at the left and smaller tables against the wall on the right accommodate the buyers. Joints are rolled, pipes and water pipes are filled and shared from medium grade cannabis furnished by the house on small trays. The dealers measure out the cannabis from behind a “bar” where buyers inspect and purchase cannabis. Grades, types and prices are posted behind the bar on an erasable board with samples of each available for inspection and trial. Pipes, cigarette lighters, and rolling papers are also sold at the counter. In addition to smoked cannabis, baked goods for oral use are sold. Cookies and brownies made from the lower grade cannabis are bioassayed by the bakers and staff with rough estimates of strength provided for each batch. On the periphery, tables with diverse health and informational literature provide reading materials for the buyers. Stationary, postage, and lists of politicians provide other activities for buyers, staff and visitors.” From Medicinal Uses of Cannabis at a Buyers’ Club: A pilot study by Dr. Tod Mikuriya, 1995.
Dr. Tod Mikuriya is a Berkeley based psychiatrist who pioneered the access to and study of cannabis for medical purposes. In 1995, he captured the inner workings of a cannabis buyers club, which, up until then, was largely hidden from the public due to the legal status of buying and using cannabis. San Francisco passed Prop. P in 1992 which made cannabis activities the lowest priority for the SFPD. Then, in 1996, California passed Prop. 215, which allowed those with a doctor’s recommendation to be exempted from cannabis possession and use laws at the state level. Since the very beginning of cannabis policy reform, social consumption has been a key component. Long before tested, meticulously packaged products boasting CBN for sleep lined the shelves, the main function of dispensaries was to give people who used cannabis for medicine access to the product in a safe and stable environment. And even though much about the cannabis marketplace has changed since Dr. Mikuriya’s description in 1995, many of the functions of social consumption remain the same.
Just because a state legalizes cannabis does not mean that stigma disappears overnight, or that all housing types are accommodating. Those who access housing via the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) cannot expect to use cannabis in those spaces, even if it is medical use and even if it is legal in their state. According to HUD, “Consistent with Federal law, HUD prohibits the admission of users of marijuana to HUD assisted housing, including those who use medical marijuana.” Some states have more flexibility than others when it comes to public housing, but the ability to consume at home is never a given. This extends to renters. Even if cannabis is legal in your state and/or you are a medical cannabis patient, landlords can still restrict the use or cultivation of cannabis on their properties. The nuances are state specific so you should check with your state law to see how this impacts you. The bottom line is that unless you own your home and have privacy from neighbors who might object to the smell, you are not assured a safe space to consume. This can put consumers, including many patients in a tough spot of needing a safe and secure place to use cannabis. In this way, consumption lounges provide more than just a fun social atmosphere, for many, they are necessary to get their medical needs met.
Many of you may have heard the old wive’s tale that you don’t get high the first time you use cannabis. Some of you may have experienced this. I know I did. I tried cannabis a few times in high school at parties where a joint was going around, often accompanied by alcohol. I never felt much. It wasn’t until I tried it again in college, with a group of friends who were really into cannabis, where I could sit with a bowl and enjoy the whole experience, that I got high AF for the first time. Sociologist Howard Becker looked into this phenomenon in his well known book from 1953, Becoming A Marihuana User. We have all heard that set and setting is important, but Becker expertly described the role of other, more experienced users, in initiating a first timer into what it is like to be “high”. Indeed, having people around to place what you are feeling into context both helps you learn how to be high, and helps prevent the anxiety that can come from new sensations. This is especially important since early cannabis experiences are an important blueprint for enjoyment later on. Social consumption lounges not only provide the camaraderie of other consumers to make the most of your experience, they can also act as harm reduction centers should your experience not go as planned. As Maureen Dowd now famously admitted in the New York Times, an inexperienced consumer + edibles + alone in a hotel room = panic attack. Had she been in a consumption lounge, not only would she have gotten more guidance on dosing, but if panic started to set in, she would have had access to others who could have helped her understand what was happening. Safe consumption centers in the name of harm reduction are nothing new. Why do you think we have bars?
As Dr. Mikuriya reported, a component of early cannabis clubs was the ability to take political action. All of the early clubs I studied and visited had areas set up to send letters to politicians and to those in prison for cannabis. And while the urgency may feel different now that so many states have taken action, the need is still very much alive. There are states that have no cannabis access at all, people who are prison for doing things that are legal today, legal states that have restrictive laws about product availability and access, and of course, the inaction of the federal government, where we have been trying to get banking access to cannabis businesses for a DECADE. Feeling that community connection often encourages activism. Being a cannabis consumer in a place still steeped in stigma can be a lonely existence. According to the 2023 Consumer Survey from New Frontier Data, 63% of consumers say they mostly or always use cannabis alone. Coming together with other consumers and taking action against unjust laws has been a component of the cannabis community from the very beginning, and as a good friend of mine and seasoned activist is fond of saying, until it's ALL legal, we’re ALL activists.
The social consumption and community aspects of early medical cannabis was what got me interested in studying this field over 20 years ago. As a social worker, I know that community health spaces are associated with better individual and community health. Early dispensaries operated as community health service providers and offered all of the benefits listed above. Cannabis consumption lounges truly contribute to community health and wellness, in addition to providing safe and needed spaces for people to get their medical and wellness needs met.
To hear more on consumption lounges and their role in healthy communities, check out my recent appearance on the Cannabis Enlightened Podcast with Dr. Leroy.