SAN FRANCISCO — The smoke was thick and business brisk at the Barbary Coast Dispensary’s marijuana smoking lounge, a darkened room that resembles a steakhouse or upscale sports tavern with its red leather seats, deep booths with high dividers, and hardwood floors.
“There’s nothing like this in Jersey,” said grinning Atlantic City resident Rick Thompson, getting high with his cousins in San Francisco.
Rick Thompson, left, and Keith Baskerville sample the marijuana at San Francisco’s Barbary Coast Dispensary, where pot smokers can enjoy their purchases in a lounge-like setting.
In fact, there’s nothing like the Barbary Coast lounge almost anywhere in the United States, a conundrum confronting many marijuana enthusiasts who find it increasingly easy to buy pot but harder to find legal places to smoke it.
Only California permits marijuana smoking at marijuana retailers with specially designed lounges. But it also allows cities to ban those kinds of shops.
Unsurprisingly, San Francisco is the trailblazer. It’s the only city in the state to fully embrace Amsterdam-like coffee shops, the iconic tourist stops in the Netherlands where people can buy and smoke marijuana in the same shop.
San Francisco’s marijuana “czar”said new permits will be issued once city health officials finalize regulations designed to protect workers from secondhand smoke and the neighborhood from unwelcomed odors. The lounges are required to install expensive heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems to prevent the distinct marijuana odor from leaking outside.
Other California cities are warming to the idea.
The city of West Hollywood has approved plans to issue up to eight licenses; the tiny San Francisco Bay Area town of Alameda said it will allow two; and Oakland and South Lake Tahoe each have one lounge. Sacramento, Los Angeles and other cities are discussing the issue but have not authorized any lounges.
Jackie Rocco, the city of West Hollywood’s business development manager, said residents and cannabis businesses complain there is “no safe place, no legal place, to use it.”
Rocco said city officials envision smoking lounges set up like traditional bars, but for now the idea is more concept than plan.
Meanwhile, lawmakers and officials in other states are dithering over the issue.
Massachusetts marijuana regulators considered approval of “cannabis cafes.” But the proposal came under withering criticism from Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration and law enforcement officials, who claimed among other things that opening such businesses would lead to more dangerously stoned drivers.
The five-member Cannabis Control Commission ultimately yielded to pressure by agreeing to put off a decision on licensing any cafes until after the initial rollout of retail marijuana operations, expected this summer. Members of the panel, however, continue to support the idea.
“Those who wish to consume cannabis are going to do so whether social sites exist or not, and are going to make driving decisions regardless of where they consume,” said Jim Borghesani, spokesman for the Massachusetts chapter of the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project.
“Social sites will simply give cannabis users the same options available to alcohol users,” he said.
In Colorado, one of the first states to broadly legalize, lawmakers failed in a close vote to make so-called “tasting rooms” legal. However, cities may do it, and Denver has authorized lounges where consumers bring their own marijuana, issuing a single permit so far.
Nevada has put off a vote on the issue until next year. Oregon has considered and rejected legislation. In Alaska, regulators rejected onsite use last year but are scheduled to revisit the issue next month.