Where will Canadians smoke all that legal weed?

A look at international examples of cannabis cafés and pot pubs: how consumption venues might look in Canada after legalization

If you told the average American in 1929—the height of the prohibition era—that in just half a decade jubilant boozies would be drinking celebratory champagne in restaurants and nightclubs, openly and legally for the first time since the 1920 Volstead Act, they might think you were mad.

Yet half a decade later, with the act repealed, drink the jubilant boozies did. Canada is reaching a similar milestone, and with the target date for cannabis legalization less than a year away, lawmakers at all levels of government have plenty of homework to do.

Minimum age limits notwithstanding, the federal Cannabis Act grants provinces individual autonomy to set regulations for both distribution and consumption. While distribution has largely taken center stage in public discussion, some cities are beginning to expand their focus to the logistics of consumption.

A zoning bylaw recently approved by Edmonton city council is intended to prepare the city’s regulatory framework for the addition of cannabis lounges, and to differentiate them from current zoning models for food and drink service.

"Other jurisdictions such as Denver,” wrote the city’s administration in a public hearing report, “have found it necessary to provide places for tourists to consume cannabis—cannabis lounges would provide a land use classification to accommodate this activity."

In the context of the new bylaw, Edmonton city council defines a cannabis lounge as:

“A development where the primary purpose of the facility is the sale of Cannabis to the public, for the consumption within the premises that is authorized by provincial or federal legislation.”

This is in contrast to some of the most recent international comparisons. In Uruguay, for example, consumers can smoke or vape cannabis anywhere in the country, but can only buy it at pharmacies or grow it themselves. In Denver, the first US city to approve cannabis lounges, venues are permitted only to sell beverages and food—no, not the THC-infused kind—with sales of actual cannabis prohibited on site.

Within Canada a number of smoking and vaping lounges have come and gone while loopholes existed in smoking bans. Ottawa, Vancouver, and Victoria, BC, have all previously had such venues, but have since taken measures to close the loopholes, causing lounges to shut down or convert to retail dispensaries.

In the above examples, customers buy cannabis at one location and then travel to a cannabis-friendly restaurant, pub, or other venue to consume it. But the longest-running and most successful example of venues providing convenient and comfortable places to consume cannabis, while also integrating synergistically with the surrounding community, is that of the cannabis cafés in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

The first such café opened its doors half a century ago in 1967. Since then cafés have become an iconic Dutch industry, benefiting communities across the country despite still technically operating in a legal grey area. Just like buying a coffee at Starbucks, customers can line up at the counter, buy some cannabis, and sit at a table to roll and smoke it.

The new bylaws in Edmonton could make it the first city in North America to have legal cannabis lounges that follow a similar model to the time-tested Amsterdam template. When cannabis becomes legal at the federal level, Edmonton lounge customers could sit down at a table, order a joint of Maui Wowie and a bowl of poutine, and consume both while enjoying some live music or a comedy showcase.

But local bylaws are just one leaf on the legislative branch. Provinces have been tasked with setting the regulations to which municipal governments will have to adhere. That means if Edmonton wants to pioneer Canada’s first legal pot lounges, they’ll have to get the provincial government on board.

Alberta’s provincial government is currently conducting public surveys and consultations, aiming for the first draft of a provincial framework to be ready this fall.

Featured image by LeDeuxAlpe.

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1 comment

  1. Maxcatski Reply

    I am concerned that the current smoking bylaws will be applied to cannabis as well as tobacco. There is some justification for this. Some smokers mix tobacco with their cannabis. ( I know, I know, but I used to do this myself when I was a tobacco addict.)

    I strongly support public consumption but we may be forced to accept the same constraints that apply to tobacco smoking.

    At the very least, let's not make cannabis smoking more restrictive than tobacco. I dream of cannabis cafes - but I may have to go to Amsterdam to find one!