By Jodi Green, Miller Nash LLP; Shay Gilmore, The Law Office of Shay Aaron Gilmore
Members of NCIA’s Risk Management and Insurance Committee
Although the concept of state-legal cannabis has been around in some shape or form since 1996, cannabis remains illegal to consume in most public places. In other words, legal cannabis consumption remains relegated to back alleys, derailing efforts to “normalize” cannabis use. Tourists visiting popular cities where weed is legal are caught in the unenviable Catch-22 of being able to purchase, but not publically consume, the product. And those who attempt to use cannabis in public still face criminal penalties in some states, with minorities three times more likely to be targeted for arrest, perpetuating racial disparities at a tremendous social cost.
Enter the cannabis lounge. Cannabis lounges — also known as “consumption lounges,” cannabis cafes, or some variation on that theme — are in simplest terms the cannabis equivalent of a bar or restaurant. Depending on state and local regulations, lounges offer users the chance to congregate in a public place and smoke a joint, try out a $500 gravity bong, or sip on a cannabis drink. With any luck, consumers may enjoy their cannabis with a snack or dinner, but mixing with alcohol is typically not allowed.
As with any “new” risks, some cities, states, and insurers are… concerned. Despite some obvious tax and social benefits, detractors cite a host of reasons to prevent lounges from coming to a city near you, including at the forefront: fears of public nuisance (odors, theft, and disruption) and overconsumption — especially because most states insulate cannabis cafes from liability for harm caused by obviously intoxicated or underage users, unlike dram shop laws for alcohol.
As another NCIA member recently pointed out, even in states that do allow cannabis cafes, regulatory bodies continue to struggle with how to shape the laws and regulations governing lounges to afford adequate consumer protection while allowing businesses to thrive. Moreover, without a better understanding of the regulatory landscape, some insurers — whose business model hinges on the ability to accurately price a risk — may be unwilling to play in this new cannabis lounge market.
A Sampling of State Approaches to Cannabis Lounges
Alaska led the country in 2019 in licensing on-site consumption. A handful of states and localities have followed Alaska’s guide, and more are anticipated to join this year, including Michigan and New York. We compare a few regulatory schemes below and also consider the impact of dram shop legislation on risks faced by the industry.
California, governed on the state level by the Medicinal and Adult Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act, delegates to localities the right to open consumption lounges. Put simply, cities have to affirmatively “opt in” to allow lounges. With a few contingencies — including that patrons must be 21 or older and no alcohol or tobacco can be sold on premises — “a local jurisdiction may allow for the smoking, vaporizing, and ingesting of cannabis or cannabis products on the premises of a” licensed retailer. See BPC § 26200(g).
To date, only a few localities have opted in to allow cannabis lounges, including San Francisco, Oakland, and Palm Springs. West Hollywood, in efforts to create an epicenter for canna-tourism, plans to allow up to 16 lounges within its jurisdiction. Because state law provides little regulatory guidance for lounges, localities generally provide more specific guidance. As an example, West Hollywood’s local municipal code requires security guards on site, as well as within a two-block radius surrounding the business during operation, and allows the sale of cannabis to an individual “in an amount reasonable for onsite consumption.” West Hollywood Municipal Code §5.70.041. Only one lounge is currently open in West Hollywood, the Artist Tree’s Studio Cannabis Lounge, which offers not only lounge access but cannabis yoga, live music, and comedy shows, along with a revolving selection of local art. The Woods, another West Hollywood dispensary with a soon-to-open courtyard lounge space, is also slated to open in 2022.
Although California law significantly limits third-party liability for alcohol-related accidents, it does not afford cannabis owners the same protection. For example, California Civil Code §1714 explicitly states that furnishing alcohol “is not the proximate cause of injuries resulting from intoxication,” which has essentially absolved bars, restaurants, party hosts, and most others of potential liability for selling or furnishing alcohol to customers and guests with an exception for liability arising from the furnishing of alcohol to an “obviously intoxicated minor.” See California Business & Professions Code § 25602.1. Without similar protections for cannabis lounges, injured parties could attempt to sue under a negligence theory if a business or employee serves an intoxicated patron who causes harm.
As of January 1, 2020, local jurisdictions in Colorado can opt-in to the state’s cannabis hospitality business license regime (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 44-10-609), and as of March of 2022, the City of Denver has approved cannabis hospitality businesses for operation. Denver operators include the first social equity applicant in Denver approved for a hospitality license, the Tetra Lounge, although from its website Tetra Lounge’s website describes itself as “a private lounge,” requiring a monthly or annual membership fee and a liability waiver to gain access.
As to dram shop liability, although Colorado law authorizes damages against a licensee for willfully and knowingly selling or serving alcoholic beverages to a visibly intoxicated person, the Colorado Legislature caps liability at $150,000 (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 12-47-801 (3)(II)(c)). This damages cap improves (i.e., reduces) the ISO hazard grade, resulting in the improvement of insurance options available for liquor liability. The legislature has not adopted the same or a similar damages cap on liability for cannabis consumption establishments.
In June 2021, Nevada’s Governor signed Assembly Bill 341 into law, authorizing the Nevada Cannabis Compliance Board (“CCB”) to license and regulate consumption lounges across the state, subject always to local approval. The State plans to issue up to 65 lounge licenses (40-45 for lounges attached to existing dispensaries, 20 for independent lounges) with 10 reserved for social equity applicants.
Most recently, on June 28, 2022, the CCB voted to unanimously approve a host of regulations for cannabis consumption lounges. Nevada’s extremely detailed state regulations prohibit the sale of “single use cannabis products” with more than 3.5 grams of “usable cannabis” and 10 mg of THC for edibles; prohibit the removal of any cannabis products from a lounge; require a mitigation plan for impaired driving and detailed employee training for overconsumption; and require consumer education and warnings to customers, among other things. As with other states, Nevada allows local jurisdictions to prohibit consumption lounges and to implement more stringent regulations than state law.
Unlike other states, however, Nevada law carves out protections for cannabis lounge operators just as it does for alcohol. Nevada law already protects businesses that serve or sell alcoholic beverages from injuries inflicted by an intoxicated person. And while any person who knowingly furnishes an alcoholic beverage to any person under 21 years of age is guilty of a misdemeanor, the law provides only for criminal penalties, not civil liability. The Nevada Supreme Court has repeatedly refused to impose responsibility on vendors selling alcohol absent a legislative provision. See Snyder v. Viani, 885 P.2d 610 (Nev. 1994) (holding consumption is the proximate cause of alcohol-related injuries and dismissing the negligence claim against a tavern owner for alcohol service). The same rules will apply to cannabis operators.
Over two years after full legalization of adult-use commercial cannabis in Illinois, cannabis lounges in Illinois are still relatively rare, with the first Chicago-area marijuana consumption lounge opening on April 20, 2022. Like other states, the State of Illinois does not directly license lounges, but it allows local governments to opt in.
Illinois creates a cause of action against sellers for injury by an intoxicated person. § 235 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/6-21. The standards for liability under the Illinois dram shop law include: (1) sale of alcohol to any person who, while intoxicated, causes injury, and (2) any person owning, renting, leasing, or permitting the occupation of any building or premises with knowledge that alcoholic liquors are to be sold therein, severally or jointly, along with the person selling or giving liquor. In Illinois, the Dram Shop Statute provides the exclusive remedy for alcohol related injuries. See Charles v. Seigfreid, 65 NE.2d. 154 (Ill. 1995). The Statute also provides stringent limitations on recovery of damages. There is no equivalent in Illinois for cannabis entities.
The Takeaway for Business Entities and Insurance Providers
As with cannabis law generally, lounge operators face a patchwork of state and local regulations that vary tremendously by jurisdiction. In most places, cannabis lounge owners are not protected by dram shop/gram shop laws that otherwise insulate bars and restaurants from liability for overconsumption. This means that companies must be vigilant in protecting themselves from liability by instituting compliance and risk-management procedures.
In some instances, such as California’s West Hollywood, which has far fewer safeguards and guidelines than Nevada, operators are largely left to their own devices in implementing adequate risk transfer and risk management, compliance, employee training, and consumer education to limit risk of liability. While the West Hollywood municipal code requires lounges to limit cannabis sales of cannabis “in an amount reasonable for onsite consumption,” the “reasonableness” standard is rife with ambiguity and could lead to disputes regarding liability and assumption of risk if a patron overconsumes.
Evaluating and preventing overconsumption and intoxication will be particularly difficult for cannabis when: patrons have varying experience levels with cannabis; products can be sold in more than a single serving, and no specific consumer education is required. Thus, even in locations that have more stringent regulatory oversight, companies would be wise to consult with experienced counsel and consultants to avoid or limit potential risks associated with regulatory uncertainty, civil liability, and government penalties for non-compliance.
This brings us full circle to the question of insurance. Even in the states that allow consumption lounges, very few insurance companies provide coverage for on-site consumption (although some do). If an exclusion prohibits coverage, the company may not have coverage for important and sometimes catastrophic events, such as property damage by fire, theft/robbery, cyber events, sexual harassment or discrimination claims by employees or others, and bodily injuries to, or caused by, patrons (on and off premises).
Most existing property, general liability, products liability, and other insurance policies — including those written for the cannabis industry — expressly exclude coverage for on-site consumption or bodily injury caused by intoxication. In fact, some existing cannabis insurance companies include a “health hazard” exclusion in their policies, which exclude coverage for any bodily injury arising in any way from the use of cannabis, including any health injury. Cannabis insurance policies may also exclude coverage for intentional or illegal acts, which some insurers may try to apply to any claim involving cannabis on the basis that the sale of cannabis violates federal law (the Controlled Substances Act), even if it is state legal.
For current licensees that are planning to open an attached or adjacent consumption space, current insurance policies may not cover injuries arising in the lounge space. Further, any failure to identify a change in business type could prompt an insurance carrier to deny coverage for subsequent claims based on a theory of misrepresentation.
In closing, cannabis owners should attempt to negotiate separate and/or broader coverage that carves out coverage for their cannabis-related activities, including on premise consumption, with their current insurer or seek to obtain coverage from a different carrier. Experienced insurance coverage counsel can assist with identifying reputable insurance brokers and negotiating policies that provide such coverage. Because of the limited options, companies would be wise to begin the process of identifying experienced insurance coverage advisors at the beginning of their licensing journey.