Do You Have a Right to a Cannabis Cafe?

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Standing on the grounds of Oregon’s state capitol a few years ago, Madeline Martinez approached a state trooper and asked the officer where she could smoke a joint.

Cannabis consumption has been legal for adult use since 2014, so while the trooper was initially confused, he eventually shepherded her to an outdoor space reserved for cigarette smokers.

That outcome didn’t please Martinez, who believes access to cannabis and the right to smoke indoors or out should be nearly universal. The former owner of the World Famous Cannabis Cafe, a Portland landmark that allowed people to consume cannabis (and play games, and sing karaoke) until it closed in 2016, Martinez is pushing state lawmakers for the explicit right to light up indoors.

Martinez’s arguments aren’t entirely new, nor are the counterarguments that smoke-filled lounges hurt public health. The two sides will begin to debate today, as a state Senate committee is expected to take up SB 639, which would provide an exemption to the Indoor Clean Air Act, and allow businesses to offer cannabis tours, delivery, and to apply for special-event permits that would allow the temporary sale and consumption of cannabis.

While Martinez believes in the social dynamics of a place like her old cafe—she argues that cannabis smokers should be able to gather just as alcohol drinkers gather in bars— the issue of where people can smoke goes deeper. Public consumption of cannabis is banned most places where cannabis is legal, and to Martinez this represents one of the last major impediments to access the drug. The ban particularly affects people of color, the economically disadvantaged, the elderly, and those who have debilitating conditions because those groups are often socially isolated and are more often discriminated against by landlords and police, Martinez told Cannabis Wire.  

“I think it’s a crime for the state of Oregon to sell something legally to someone and then not give them a place to smoke it,” Martinez said.

Lawmakers sponsoring the bill did not respond to requests for comment.

Robb Hutson, who is on the board of the Oregon’s Upstream Public Health, a non-profit health advocacy group, told Cannabis Wire that the group is hoping to steer the bill toward a compromise that would designate cannabis smoking areas outdoors.

He said lawmakers who favor public consumption spaces, boosted by a growing lobbying effort, have gained significant traction in the statehouse. “This is the year where it … has a lot more potential for passing now than it has in the past,” he said.

Sam Chapman, the legislative director at the cannabis lobbying group New Revenue Coalition, is a primary driver of the consumption space legislation. Chapman told Cannabis Wire that he expects it to be difficult to overcome the public health lobby.

“At the end of the day it comes down to where leadership is at,” he said. “They are very close with the public health lobby and it’s often tough to help them see the other side of this.”

A House bill, HB 2233, which has not been scheduled for a hearing, is more in line with public health groups’ thinking. It would allow for edibles and smokable cannabis to be consumed in a licensed and designated outdoor space, without allowing indoor smoking. Even in the case of the House bill, however, the legislature has work to do, Hutson said, including preventing increased stoned driving.

On the smoking issue, Upstream’s Hutson argues that lawmakers should not allow for any exemptions to the Indoor Clean Air Act, including for cannabis spaces involving vaping, even if they have advanced filtration systems. “I don’t think we have enough science yet,” he said. “I think that anything that creates exemptions for the Indoor Clean Air law can be problematic. From a public health standpoint, if you’re going to smoke anything, let’s keep it outside.”

Secondhand smoke—especially for employees who are inhaling all day—can have significant health effects, he said. Hutson pointed to a city of Portland survey that showed most agree that they should be protected from secondhand smoke—both outdoors and indoors.

The question of where to consume cannabis raises other knotty issues as well. Renters can’t legally smoke without a landlord’s permission, for example, and those who receive federal subsidies, known as Section 8, are barred altogether due to federal prohibition of cannabis. There is the question, too, of where to send those who buy cannabis and are staying at hotels, which also usually ban cannabis smoking.

Samantha Montanaro, the co-founder of Portland-based Tokeativity, an organization that seeks to empower women around cannabis-related issues, has engaged its members on the consumption space debate.

Even though Oregon has a liberal view on cannabis, Montanaro told Cannabis Wire, the smoking ban illustrates the fear and stigma that persists, something that cannabis lounges would work against. Montanaro sees something of a nanny state at play in the issue, regardless of competing opinions on the dangers of indoor use, which she doesn’t believe rise to the level of  chemical-laden cigarette smoke.

“Cannabis consumption has still not been normalized,” she said. “My government doesn’t want me to be able to consume…something that is my right to consume as an adult.”

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