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New Jersey is planning for public marijuana lounges. But some are criticizing proposed restrictions.

One contentious restriction bans the marijuana lounges from selling food or drink.

Justin Dugary of Barrington, New Jersey, pays for his purchase at Curaleaf in Bellmawr, New Jersey. He lined up at midnight to be the first person in line. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)
Justin Dugary of Barrington, New Jersey, pays for his purchase at Curaleaf in Bellmawr, New Jersey. He lined up at midnight to be the first person in line. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / MCT

It’s been nearly a year since New Jersey debuted its recreational cannabis market, but adults who choose to partake have since been limited to consuming marijuana in private.

That may soon change with the coming arrival of “cannabis consumption areas,” the draft rules for which the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission released last week. They would allow marijuana dispensaries to have indoor or outdoor spaces where customers can smoke, vaporize, or eat cannabis products in a public setting, like a weed lounge version of a bar or restaurant.

But not exactly. According to the proposed rules, cannabis consumption areas would be more restricted than their boozy counterparts. And it’s not entirely clear what they’ll look like, when they’ll open, or what exactly they’ll be able to offer patrons.

“It’s hard for people to picture what a cannabis lounge under these rules looks like,” said Chris Goldstein, regional organizer for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

One restriction consumers have taken issue with is the proposed rules’ ban on consumption areas selling food or drink. Customers would be able to bring their own food, or have it delivered. But the munchies can’t come directly from the dispensary, so don’t expect an Amsterdam-style coffeeshop experience in the Garden State just yet.

The food and drink prohibition comes from the law that covers recreational cannabis in the state, said Toni-Anne Blake, spokesperson for the regulatory commission.

“What do consumers expect from a consumption lounge? Basically, your average coffeeshop, then add in marijuana and other products,” Goldstein said. “What will they do there that they can’t do at home?”

At the moment, that’s a good question. Seven of the nine other states that allow similar consumption areas have rolled them out. Many feature video games, TVs, and couches, plus new and novel ways to consume cannabis via different smoking devices and vaporizers, said DeVaughn Ward, senior legislative council for the Marijuana Policy Project. Some also host events, or allow food to be served if the state permits it.

“It’s a sports bar or game-room-type atmosphere,” Ward said.

But New Jersey’s proposed rules are silent about those forms of entertainment at consumption lounges. They don’t expressly forbid events or other activities, but they don’t explicitly allow them, either. The CRC was unable to immediately clarify whether such options would be allowed.

The proposed rules, however, do specify a couple of places where marijuana can legally be used outside the home: motels and hotels. Those establishments can allow cannabis consumption in guest rooms, and the state allows up to 20% of rooms in a motel or hotel to be smoking rooms. But having something like a public consumption area wouldn’t be allowed. And, of course, they cannot sell cannabis products.

The number of consumption areas may be limited to start. New Jersey is home to 21 dispensaries that serve recreational users, and nine that serve medical marijuana patients exclusively. The proposed rules allow marijuana businesses to apply to open one consumption area. A consumption area must receive approval from the municipality where it is located, which itself must pass an ordinance allowing the lounge. The CRC must also approve the consumption area.

For advocates like Goldstein, tying the areas to dispensaries is an issue. That means there will be no standalone, independent lounges under the proposed rules. And New Jersey’s retail dispensary landscape is currently dominated by corporate, multistate operators, Goldstein said.

The consumption areas must be separated from the dispensary’s sales floor. Indoor lounges will be required to have ventilation systems similar to those in cigar lounges, while outdoor lounges must have ventilation equipment that prevents smoke from entering indoor public places, according to the draft rules. Outdoor lounges also cannot be visible from the street.

Once consumption areas open, employees will need to be trained to identify people who have over-consumed cannabis. Free samples will not be allowed.

Retailers will also be required to make a “good faith effort” to ensure that only regulated cannabis is being consumed in the consumption area. However, the CRC was not able to immediately detail what those efforts might entail.

Still, Ward noted that consumption areas are integral for a wide range of marijuana consumers ranging from tourists to residents who live in areas or buildings where using cannabis is prohibited, such as apartments or public housing. The coming spaces, he said, will be “an outlet for people to enjoy marijuana products in a safe environment.”

You can go to one of these places that doesn’t break the rules in the place you live, or violate anyone else’s ability to enjoy their own space,” Ward said.

Blake, meanwhile, noted that the draft rules may change pending public comments, and there is no timeline for implementation.

“We encourage people to weigh in,” Blake said.