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Cannabis lovers in Southern California got an unexpected holiday gift on Dec. 18, 2018, when West Hollywood announced that it had approved 16 business licenses for cannabis consumption lounges.

Eight of those licenses will go to spots where cannabis can be consumed only in edible form. The other eight licenses allow marijuana consumption of all types, including smoked, vaped and ingested as cannabis-infused edibles.

It's a radical and welcome departure from what could be dubbed the dispensary dash, the rush to get home after purchasing products from a medical or adult-use dispensary because on-premise consumption is forbidden.

The new cannabis ordinance will place West Hollywood on the cutting edge of the marijuana industry. West Hollywood's Community and Legislative Affairs Manager John Leonard pointed out, there are only a smattering of cannabis cafes, restaurants or lounges in the country: one in Denver, another in Oakland, a third in Portland, Oregon, and a handful in San Francisco.

"The ones I've seen in San Francisco are pretty modest,” he added. “There's a small space where you can go and consume, but it's not someplace you'd want to hang out. Some of the concepts we've approved for consumption lounges in West Hollywood are the first of their kind in the country, if not the world.”

For example, Flore West Hollywood, a restaurant and lounge will offer virgin and cannabis-infused food, as well as tableside “flower service” where patrons will select a bud that will then be rolled into a joint or prepared in a pipe or bong for them to smoke.

Along with the 16 licenses approved for consumption lounges, West Hollywood also announced new licenses for medical and adult-use dispensaries and for cannabis delivery services (see “by the numbers”).

What's grabbing headlines, of course, are the cannabis lounges.  Between visits from local news crews, Leonard, who helped lead this initiative, chatted with Weedmaps News about the groundbreaking development.

Q: What led the City of West Hollywood to take the bold step of approving licenses for consumption lounges?

A: The city has always been a progressive leader in the cannabis space. In the late '90s and early 2000s when the AIDS epidemic was still ongoing, we fought to make medical marijuana available to AIDS patients. Then, during the early stages of medical cannabis, a dispensary that wanted to open in West Hollywood couldn't find anyone who would lease space to them. The city purchased a building and leased them the space they needed. The federal government, by the way, would later seize the building, but that's another story.

Social equity was one of the primary motivations for this cannabis ordinance. Our city is largely made up of apartment renters and it can be difficult for some of the people to consume marijuana in their own home. Their landlord may forbid smoking, or maybe they live with roommates who don't want them smoking or vaping. We'd hear from a lot of our constituents that they needed a safe place to consume.

What's more, we felt that consumption lounges would integrate pretty well with our other entertainment facilities. West Hollywood has a large number of restaurants, bars, and hotels that are attractive to tourists. Every weekend, our population grows by thousands of people. Consumption lounges seem a natural extension of what we have to offer.

Q: People applying for the consumption licenses were asked to describe their connection to West Hollywood in their business proposals. What were you looking for?

A: We judged people on elements like community engagement. Did they have a plan to be involved in local events and nonprofits? Would they be forming partnerships with local businesses by, say, giving discounts to people who frequented nearby stores, restaurants, and hotels? How did they fit into the city's socially progressive core values?

Some of the businesses we granted licenses to will be offering paid volunteer time to their employees, as well as providing good wages, health insurance, and pension benefits.

There's a lot of money to be paid in the cannabis industry and we want to see employees of these lounges being compensated fairly.

Another element we looked at was hiring practices. How would business owners be promoting social justice by advertising positions to veterans, the LGBT community, and to women?

We really emphasized in the application process that once these establishments open we want people to have a good experience. If they don't, they won't come back.  

One key component we looked at in assessing applications was education. How will employees who will be working in these lounges be educated so they can thoroughly explain the different products to customers and how they might be affected by them? And how are they being trained so they'll be able to identify and deal with customers who are intoxicated or impaired?

On a related point, several of the businesses will be offering free or discounted Uber and Lyft rides. That's in keeping with trends in West Hollywood where driving has dropped really significantly over the past few years. Most people who are coming to restaurants and clubs here aren't driving.

We also looked at the extent to which the proposed businesses would be purchasing from small cannabis cultivators. We gave points to business that had a plan for that because we don't want to see longtime small cultivators driven out by new, large-scale growers.

Q: What's your vision for cannabis lounges in West Hollywood? Do you see the city becoming the Amsterdam of America?

A: We're certainly open to that happening. We'd like to be a destination for cannabis tourism. That's why we want our cannabis businesses to be interesting and unique, attracting people who will go on to visit our restaurants, bars, and stores.

We can anticipate all kinds of activities within the consumption lounges, including comedy shows; cooking, yoga, and wellness classes; DJ sets, and cannabis happy hours.

Q: When do you think the first consumption lounges will open in West Hollywood?

A: The approved applicants now have to get a business license from the city, secure a physical location, obtain the appropriate planning permits and obtain a State of California cannabis license. All said, it will take at least six months, which will put us at early summer for the first of the lounges to open.

By the Numbers

313: Applications from 122 applicants for 40 licenses across 5 categories

94: Applications for adult-use retail dispensaries licenses

81: Applications for smoking, vaping, or edible consumption lounge licenses

66: Applications for delivery service licenses

50: Applications for medical dispensary licenses

22: Applications for edibles-only consumption lounge licenses

13 months: The duration between Nov. 20, 2017, when West Hollywood passed its cannabis ordinance, to Dec. 18, 2018, when the winning applicants were announced.

5: Cannabis Application Evaluation Committee members reviewing the proposed businesses