Since Washington State law forbids cannabis cafes, I'd been wanting to visit Barbary Coast, San Francisco's first pot smoking lounge, ever since it opened in early 2018. On a recent trip to the Bay Area, I got my chance.
I took a friend with me. We checked in at the front desk, where our IDs were scanned into the dispensary's system, and then waited in a long line to buy some pot. According to Omar Figueroa, a California attorney specializing in cannabis law, that state's admittedly "weird rules" allow for cannabis consumption lounges so long as there is "local approval." As for licensing, "The state doesn't really license it, but it has to be with a licensed dispensary," Figueroa said.
We got to the front of the line and looked over a weed menu with a budtender. Prices were considerably higher than Washington's, with grams starting at $10 and going for as much as $25, and eighths selling for as much as $75. My friend and I decided on buying a top-shelf $25 gram of high-sativa pot. Probably a bad move, in retrospect.
We then walked over to the lounge side of the business, which is walled off from the dispensary side, and waited in another line to get a table. Eventually, we were ushered inside. The red velvet walls, leather booths, and big-screen TVs looked more fitting for a steak-eating football fan than a vegetarian stoner like me, but whatever. We were in a consumption lounge in the United States! I'd only ever been to cannabis cafes in Vancouver, Barcelona, and Amsterdam.
At our table, we were given a full set of smoking essentials—glass pipe, bong, grinder, rolling papers, and a lighter. We were also given one of those square restaurant pagers from places like the Cheesecake Factory that buzz when your table is ready. It was placed on our table with no explanation.
We wasted no time smoking our first bowl of legal cafe cannabis in America. At first, it was comfortable and exciting, but then we started feeling anxious.
Pot cafes are an inversion of the normal stoner public experience. Instead of getting high and fearing everyone around you knows you are high, at a pot cafe, you're high but you know all of these strangers around you are also high. It's almost more disconcerting. I became fixated on a middle-aged man in a collared shirt smoking weed by himself in a big red leather booth. He was in a frenetic cycle of inhaling on a joint as deeply as he could and then putting it out in an ashtray and then immediately lighting it again and inhaling. It was making me uncomfortable. My friend was even more nervous—possibly because of the strain we chose.
Suddenly, the buzzer started rattling violently and sent us almost into a state of panic. This is, apparently, how they let you know that you've been occupying a table for too long. We nearly ran out of the crowded dispensary lobby and into the streets of downtown San Francisco.
Overall, the experience was unpleasant, but there's no chance that I'll have a better experience at a Washington pot cafe, because those don't exist. There are a couple dozen such lounges in California, Figueroa estimated. Some weed lounges do it right—my experience in Barcelona was incredible, with friendly people and extremely clean air—and others basically fail. But that's just like any bar anywhere.
Cannabis cafes remain a normal and sensible idea. Are you hearing me, Washington State lawmakers and business owners? Just no buzzing pagers, please.