How Covid-19 Impacted Cannabis Culture and Consumption Spaces

Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.

Imagine spending a lazy Saturday afternoon in a posh lounge, surrounded by friends and strangers, sparking another joint to pass across the table. It wasn’t too much to ask for in late 2019 and early 2020, when the trend of cannabis lounges — those businesses that resemble bars, restaurants or coffee shops where cannabis can be legally consumed (and sometimes purchased) — was emerging across the United States.

But the conversation around shared air and shared joints has been turned on its head in early 2022 as the pandemic heads into year three. And despite the many unknowns surrounding the evolution of Covid-19, consumer demand for public consumption spaces will likely only continue to grow — even as most states have struggled to implement a meaningful regulatory system for these still-rare spaces.

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A little over a year ago, my hometown of Denver already had 11 spots where customers could legally partake outside their homes. In California, Moe Greens, the largest cannabis lounge in San Francisco at 4,200 square feet, had just celebrated its one-year anniversary. And even though Illinois had only recently legalized recreational marijuana sales, state regulators had quickly approved the first consumption lounge license in the capital city of Springfield.

But these days, the prospect of visiting a cannabis lounge feels different. Actually, with the rise of the omicron variant (and other variants), venturing to any place that may have a crowd is something I can’t help but think twice about, even though I’m fully vaccinated, boosted and crave social in-person connection. I still can’t shake the unease that became ingrained from months of isolation and social distancing. Every event and gathering still feels loaded with a certain level of risk.

For many businesses that rely on foot traffic and in-person sales, particularly those in the restaurant and hospitality industries, the pandemic has been a huge burden. I mourn the small businesses that were forced to close their doors permanently. The losses are staggering and heartbreaking.

And yet, while the pandemic has complicated or delayed plans to open new cannabis lounges, it has thankfully not completely stifled them: Those in California and Colorado have been implementing BYOC (bring your own cannabis) policies, and now, social-distancing guidelines and capacity limits. In a dark pandemic winter, I celebrated the news that in New Jersey’s landmark January 2021 bill legalizing recreational marijuana, lawmakers baked in the option to open cannabis consumption areas for retailers. The passing of this law underlines the larger trend of cannabis retailers looking to entice customers with VIP lounges and consumption areas, a trend we’ll likely see develop in 2022.

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The introduction and market expansion of consumption lounges represents a key tipping point for the cannabis legalization movement.

We’ve been able to find respite and relaxation in bars for decades. The beverage industry may not serve as a perfect comparison point for cannabis, but the idea that we can count cannabis lounges as a viable nightlife option is, dare I say, intoxicating. These establishments offer a space to consume with friends, test out a different consumption method (e.g., via rented rigs, bongs and vaporizers), sample new strains or even check out a new brand or two. These lounges also provide out-of-town visitors with a safe and legal environment in which to enjoy some local fire.

As certain states across the U.S. prepare for legal cannabis consumption lounges in the coming years, what do lingering pandemic fears mean for this exciting new market segment?

I’m probably not the only one who’s a bit more of a germaphobe and doesn’t want to line up for a communal dab rig anymore, even if it’s getting a cursory swipe with an alcohol wipe. I’m confident in saying the act of puffing and passing vape pens is now a bygone practice, for me at least. Existing and forthcoming lounges must now implement safety features that might not have been deemed necessary prior to Covid-19.

These considerations to ensure consumer safety can be observed from other hospitality and retail industries that have operated on and off during the pandemic. It’s also crucial to consider how cannabis consumption areas or lounges are designed, as many are outfitted with enhanced air filtration systems given the nature of the space. For instance, some cannabis consumption businesses, like the nation’s first cannabis restaurant in West Hollywood, designed their spaces with powerful air filtration systems normally found in casinos. In fact, one study from Harvard in 2020 found that with proper safety measures, flying can be lower-risk than other activities (e.g., eating in a restaurant) due to airplanes being equipped with high-grade air filtration systems. These are among the many measures we need to take into consideration when designing these spaces.

But ultimately, will these measures be enough to attract Covid-cautious cannabis consumers?

It remains to be seen. We’re still contending with the pandemic. But it’s important to remember that cannabis culture is largely built on an ethos of togetherness. This industry has an inherent communal quality. It’s a way of connecting with old friends or welcoming new ones into your circle.

Passing a joint also ensures that no weed is wasted between puffs as it smolders in your hand. And we’ve seen some quick adaptations in the retail market for smaller pre-rolls and glass tips in particular. Keeping a personal glass tip in your pocket is the new alligator clip. Pinners are no longer pooh-poohed, either: Green Thumb Industries (GTI), for instance, offers a popular “Dogwalkers” line of pre-rolls. GTI products skyrocketed during the pandemic; in fact, revenue increased 87.3% to $416.3 million in the first half of 2021.

But what’s most heartening is witnessing the continued resiliency of cannabis culture. It survived the tumult of the 1960s and ’70s, weathered the “Just Say No” propaganda campaign of the ’80s, and has grown nationally over the last 20 years even if legalization efforts are only now catching up.

The desire for cannabis consumption lounges stands to represent potential new growth in the community and the hope that spending time indoors among friends in the spirit of cannabis is no longer a pipe dream — so long as you bring your own pipe.

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