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Why You Can’t Smoke Cannabis in Public (Even in States Where Marijuana is Legal)

If you’ve never visited a state where cannabis is legal (and you’ve never been to Canada), you might imagine the fully-legal corners of the world as hash heaven – people picnicking with joints in hand, basking in Bob Ross-like golden rays of sunshine and the sweet freedom that comes from being able to light up whenever you please.

We hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but that’s not the reality – like, at all.

Smoking or vaping cannabis in public is still illegal in every part of the United States, including states where recreational marijuana is legal. Though laws on using tinctures and edibles outdoors vary, state laws on smoking or vaping cannabis tend to mirror laws on alcohol – i.e., if you’re in a space where you can’t crack open a beer, you probably can’t whip out a joint.

The only thing that makes cannabis law different than the laws on alcohol in these states? There are no marijuana bars. While Colorado and California may award cannabis licenses to businesses that provide on-site consumption areas, these “cannabis lounges” are the exception to a general rule among states that have legalized recreational marijuana: You can vape and smoke weed, but only at home.

This may matter to you because you want to get a buzz while picnicking with your partner, but it’s also a real medical issue.  For the over four million medical marijuana patients, it means they can’t take their medicine (legally) unless they’re basically back at home.  Easy during a pandemic maybe, but not practical when working or running errands.

While you can reap the medicinal benefits of cannabis through tinctures and edibles, smoking or vaping cannabis allows the THC to enter the system more quickly and generates a significantly stronger effect – so much so that, in severe cases (i.e. cases in which cannabis is being used to treat debilitating issues such as chronic pain, epilepsy, and insomnia) some cannabis clinicians say vaping or smoking marijuana is the only way their patients see results.

Violet Cavendish, Communications Manager at Marijuana Policy Project, says the ban on public smoking in states where medical marijuana is legal completely bars these patients, along with recreational smokers in states where adult-use is legal, from vaping or smoking cannabis in subsidized homes.

“Allowing for public consumption would provide a place to go for those who are unable to consume legal cannabis in their private residences,” Cavendish said. “People living in federally subsidized housing, for example, risk eviction for legal cannabis use, due to the discrepancy between federal and state marijuana laws.”

There are other complications barring many patients and recreational consumers from vaping and smoking in their homes. Some may not wish to expose young family members to secondhand smoke, or have roommates who forbid cannabis use in the home. Heather Despres, Director of Patient Focused Certification at Americans for Safe Access, a cannabis advocacy organization, said certain rental agreements effectively block medical marijuana patients from treatment, too.

“Currently, in states where medical or recreational marijuana is legal, many apartment complexes make residents sign agreements saying they will not consume it,” Despres said. “That means medical cannabis patients do not have access to areas where they can consume their medication.”

Despres said another issue is that full prohibition of public cannabis smoking or vaping bolsters the negative stigma around cannabis consumption. It’s logical: If you can smoke nicotine almost anywhere outdoors, something must be really wrong with cannabis to make it confined to private homes.

Some believe the prohibition of public cannabis smoking and vaping could also increase opportunities for the extortion of consumers by law enforcement. Zara Snapp, Co-Founder of Instituto RIA, a cannabis advocacy organization in Mexico, told GreenState that concern over this issue has driven many cannabis experts and activists to recommend a public smoking clause be added to Mexico’s pending cannabis legalization bill.

“In the current bill, fines could be levied up to 25,000 pesos for consuming in public spaces,” Snapp said. “We roundly reject this decision because it could promote extortion on the part of public authorities. By maintaining fines and sanctions around cannabis, you are essentially putting a price tag on how much [law enforcement] can ask for in a bribe. Sad, but true.”

Snapp said Instituto RIA is advocating for the legalization of marijuana consumption anywhere in Mexico where citizens are allowed to smoke tobacco. Their position begs the question – should the United States do the same?

According to Dr. Leigh Vinocur, a physician and certified cannabis clinician, the public health risks of smoking (and yes, even vaping) cannabis in public are too great to consider legalizing it. She does, however, believe tobacco smoking should be held to the same standard.

“I think smoking tobacco in public should be illegal, the way cannabis is,” Vinocur said. “The risk of disease and addiction from both of them are too great for them to be consumed in public. I’ve seen more disease and addiction caused by nicotine and alcohol than cannabis in my practice, but to be safe, I think all three should be confined to the home.”

Vinocur said, along with risk of disease and addiction, public cannabis smoking or vaping puts minors at risk of exposure – something many studies have found can lead to long-term neurological damage. Smoking or vaping cannabis outside also puts the elderly at risk, as a growing amount of research has shown marijuana can trigger cardiac issues for senior citizens.

Now for the million-dollar question: If you can’t smoke inside and you can’t smoke outside… where can you smoke?

The answer is, basically, nowhere. In states where marijuana is legal, you could, theoretically, smoke in your car, RV, trailer, or private shed, but aside from that, there are few options for those who are barred from smoking in their homes—unless you live in Colorado and California.

Remember those cannabis “bars” we talked about before? Well, Cavendish, whose organization has been instrumental in the recreational cannabis legislation of 10 states, says they may not just be a novelty confined to California and Colorado. Rather, she believes cannabis lounges embody a necessary compromise other states will soon adopt.

“Our model legislation for both medical and adult-use marijuana laws recommends that smoking cannabis in public remains prohibited. However, it is important that those depending on cannabis for medical purposes be allowed to administer their medicine.” Cavendish said. “We advocate for laws that would allow for on-site public consumption in states with legal cannabis, which would provide consumers with legal, regulated locations where they can consume cannabis, away from public locations.”

So add “visit weed bar” to your post-pandemic bucket list. And until then, stay low and get stoned in the comfort and privacy of your own home (or, if necessary, a hospitable friend’s – as long as you socially distance and bogart that joint.)

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