Now in month three of the legalization era, Virginians are enjoying newfound freedoms with recreational weed: they can grow up to four plants at home, consume in private at their leisure and give it away to friends and relatives age 21 and over.
And while a sanctioned recreational industry is still a ways off, that hasn’t stopped businesses from setting up their own enterprises where they can charge folks to smoke up.
In Virginia Beach, there’s a new “cannabar” at smoke, vape and CBD shop Queen’s Green Apothecary. As owner Nick Rocha explained to local CBS affiliate WTKR, “Similar to a bar where you go and drink, you’re just enjoying a different type of drug, and that’s full-blown marijuana.” Queen’s Green has been hosting DJ sets, drag shows and other assorted events throughout the summer, according to its Facebook page. Since July 1 (Legalization Day), customers have been able to pay $25 for a day pass, $50 for a weekend or $150 a month, per a recent post, to partake in the company of others.
Charlottesville also has its own namesake “Cannabis Club,” similarly adjoining a smoke, vape, CBD and Delta-8 shop at its downtown mall. The business is reportedly charging $200 for an annual membership, plus discounts on retail goods and admission to events, for patrons to bring their own weed in to enjoy on-site. “You can come and consume your cannabis products in our lounge since you’re not able to consume them on the street,” said owner Matthew Long in an interview last week with NBC 29.
You might be wondering, is this legal?
In short, no. While Virginia lawmakers have considerably relaxed laws governing cannabis — joining 17 states and the District of Columbia in permitting adult use — “it remains illegal to consume marijuana or offer marijuana to another person in any public place,” notes a state webpage devoted to cannabis policy.
What does “public place” mean, though? To quote the text of SB 1406, the legalization bill signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam this spring, “‘public place’ means any place, building, or conveyance to which the public has, or is permitted to have, access.” In addition to restaurants, parks, hotel lobbies and other spaces enumerated in the new law, that would also appear to include vape and smoke shops where anyone can walk in and purchase products.
JM Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and development director for NORML’s national office, said it’s “tiresome watching places like this pop up to make a buck on the backs of consumers. These businesses are clearly operating outside of what is legally allowed.”
Pedini said that the policy experts and advocates who successfully pushed for legalization for years had two primary objectives: reducing crime and regulating safe access to cannabis.
“The first objective was accomplished by the passage of the legalization bill in 2021,” they said. But regulation, criminal justice reforms and other elements still need to be hashed out by lawmakers, who will revisit the bill to reenact it and send it to the governor’s desk.
“And until that happens, there is no legal access outside of the state’s medical cannabis program,” Pedini continued. “Unfortunately what we’re seeing is businesses like these taking advantage of consumers who believe what they’re doing is legal.”
Fortunately for those consumers, law enforcement appears to be looking the other way. In the case of Virginia Beach police, when reached by WTKR, a department spokesperson said there’s room for interpretation in the law, and that officials planned to discuss enforcement with the Commonwealth’s attorney’s office.
Asked by The Outlaw Report whether canna-bars or clubs are legally permitted statewide, the Virginia Attorney General’s Office deferred to local law enforcement and prosecutors.
“I think local law enforcement agencies or Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Offices may be the best folks to talk to about this,” wrote Office of the Attorney General spokesperson Charlotte Gomer in an email.
The operators of both aforementioned cannabis clubs told TV stations that they’re offering safe spaces with dedicated outposts for recreational adult use. Long, in Charlottesville, also made the case that his business “can help educate the markets on what these products are doing for people and what’s the right way to consume them.”
Pedini, meanwhile, said it puts consumers at the mercy of law enforcement if they decide to crack down on such gatherings. They noted that police are still making cannabis arrests in Virginia, even if such charges are already declining rapidly in some regions, while “it does appear they’re willing to turn a blind eye to these businesses.”
Rather than further detailing the illegality of cannabis clubs in additional legislation, Pedini said a solution for lawmakers would be to add a fifth type of business license for hospitality purposes — joining retail, cultivation, wholesale and manufacturing — so consumers can trust that it meets specified safety and regulatory standards.
“The answer here is not to make a very clear law even clearer,” Pedini said. “It’s to add a license to allow establishments like this to exist in a regulated environment.”
Regardless, licenses won’t be approved for businesses for more than two years, with the first day of dispensary sales projected for January 2024.