PHOTO/DAVID ROBERT: SoL Cannabis founder Ed Alexander: “At some point, it was OK to get a margarita to go, but it’s not OK for us to have a lounge with insane regulatory oversight. That seems hypocritical.”

The Washoe County Board of Commissioners in January voted 3-2 against allowing cannabis-consumption lounges to operate in the county outside of the city limits of Reno and Sparks.

That means SoL Cannabis, a dispensary in Washoe Valley, can’t move forward with plans to create an on-property lounge where customers can consume its products. SoL was granted a provisional license for a consumption lounge from the Nevada Cannabis Compliance Board, along with 39 other businesses outside of Washoe County. However, it’s ultimately up to local governments to decide if lounges will be allowed to operate in their jurisdictions.

“(We’re) at Disneyland but can’t ride the rides,” said Ed Alexander, the founder of SoL Cannabis, using a metaphor to voice his frustration at having to tell patrons not to consume their cannabis products on the dispensary’s property, where he also hosts live music and other events. Alexander said cannabis regulations are so strict that even hosting a teaching session on how to infuse butter, or showing someone how to properly use cannabis products as a medicine, would jeopardize SoL’s dispensary license.

The regulations surrounding alcohol consumption, he said, are less rigorous than those affecting marihuana—a disparity that Alexander sees as a double standard. For example, he pointed out that local governments were quick to allow restaurants to serve carry-out alcoholic beverages during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At some point, it was OK to get a margarita to go, but it’s not OK for us to have a lounge with insane regulatory oversight. That seems hypocritical,” he said.

Adults can currently buy cannabis products at Nevada dispensaries, but can only consume them on private property—unless the property owner prohibits it. Hotels prohibit cannabis consumption on their premises, and smoking weed outdoors on public property remains illegal. That means visitors to the Silver State can purchase cannabis products, but have no way to consume them legally.

“What it’s causing right now is law-abiding citizens to break laws,” Alexander said.

Driving while stoned

Washoe County commissioners who opposed the establishment of consumption lounges were concerned about people visiting the lounges and then driving while impaired. That’s a valid concern, Alexander said.

The Governors Highway Safety Association noted in a 2018 report: “There’s no public consensus on whether marijuana increases crash risk or whether it’s acceptable to drive after using marijuana.” In addition, unlike alcohol, there’s no consensus about how much cannabis usage may result in reducing a person’s ability to drive safely.

The report also stated that measuring marijuana metabolites in a user’s body by testing their blood, urine or sweat is not closely related to impairment. Metabolites, the non-intoxicating compounds resulting from partaking in cannabis, can remain detectable in a human body for weeks after cannabis products have been consumed.

That means the current Nevada law regarding driving under the influence of cannabis is similar to the statute that defines alcohol-related DUIs. The Silver State has a “per se” standard for cannabis DUI: If a driver commits a traffic violation, and his or her blood contains 2 nanograms per milliliter or more of THC, the intoxicating component of cannabis, or 5 nanograms of its inactive metabolite, the driver is considered to be driving under the influence.

Alexander, who noted that impaired driving should be a concern when any psychoactive substances are used, said it’s hard to not see the disparity between the way the two inebriants are treated in Nevada law. In a 24-hour town like Reno, he noted, bars are as common as alley cats, and people get behind the wheel with different levels of impairment—yet local governments don’t ban bars.

“Really, what we’re talking about is giving people a place where they can comfortably consume cannabis if they choose to,” he said. “… If I, as a cannabis consumer, choose to consume, and you, as a non-consumer, choose not to, that’s where the choice should end.”

Regulators just don’t understand the major differences between alcohol and cannabis consumption. Alexander said, an opinion echoed by one of Sol’s regular customers.

“There’s such a stigma with it,” said Angie Gibson. “I can’t drink; I can’t even taste alcohol. If I were to drink, I’d be out causing problems and doing stupid stuff. But I smoke a joint, I get mellow and do my housework.”

The Governors Highway Safety Association noted in a 2018 report: “There’s no public consensus on whether marijuana increases crash risk or whether it’s acceptable to drive after using marijuana.”

Advocates of cannabis use tout the drug’s safety compared to alcohol, and critics of strict cannabis regulations complain that many non-users are stuck in an old narrative exemplified by the 1936 movie Reefer Madness. That propaganda film is a horror story in which high school students try marijuana and instantly become addicted. The students suffer hallucinations and embark on a crime spree that includes manslaughter, murder and attempted rape. Some go insane; one commits suicide.

As states legalized medical and recreational use of the weed, proponents had to debunk such misinformation and overcome decades of prejudice against cannabis—and would-be consumption-lounge operators say they are still facing those biases as local governments consider rules for consumption lounges.

Denver lounge isn’t profitable

Colorado, where recreational use of pot has been legal for nine years, got its first licensed cannabis lounge in Denver in 2018. Helping people understand responsible consumption and educating them on proper cannabis use is one of the goals of Rita Tsalyuk, the owner and operator of The Coffee Joint. That lounge is next door to the dispensary Tsalyuk and her husband opened in 2014.

The Coffee Joint sells marijuana accessories and souvenirs and provides a space for patrons to use cannabis products—but actual smoking isn’t allowed. Patrons can’t smoke anything that requires an open flame, thanks to Denver’s indoor-smoking law. However, customers may consume cannabis edibles, electronic vape products or concentrates.

Tsalyuk said The Coffee Joint’s business model is based on BYOC—bring your own cannabis. Patrons can use the space for free if they buy cannabis products from the couple’s dispensary, or they can bring their own stash and pay $5.

The space features cozy seating areas and is stocked with games, books and video screens. Even with such amenities, the business has never turned a profit, she said.

“That’s a reason why you don’t see lounges everywhere: People are figuring out that it’s just not a profitable venture, (because) people don’t want to pay for consumption,” Tsalyuk said.

For her and her husband, the lounge portion of their business is more about educating consumers than making money. “Responsible consumption comes with education and everything,” she said. “…There’s nothing wrong with the product; it’s how people are using it.”

Driving while under the influence of cannabis also is an issue in Colorado. Tsalyuk said it’s important that people who use lounges have access to food and water, as well as areas where they can sit and relax. She explained there is no accurate way to measure how impaired someone may be after imbibing THC products. Individuals have different tolerance levels and reactions to cannabis, and therefore must be aware of their mental and physical conditions and act responsibly.

Patrons of The Coffee Joint are encouraged to hang out for as long as they like, Tsalyuk said, and are encouraged to let the staff members know if they are feeling a bit too high. The lounge, she said, is a hospitable and secure space where users can relax and feel safe.

The Reno City Council is in the process of considering regulations for lounges within city limits. Those proposals are scheduled to be announced soon.

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