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March 18, 2019

The Summit Lounge: Massachusetts' marijuana meeting place

Photo | Elizabeth Brooks The Summit Lounge in Worcester

News flash, Massachusetts: it is now legal to buy, grow, use, smoke and ingest cannabis.

However, tokers must do so in their own home, provided their landlords and roommates are cool with it.

There is no such thing, in Massachusetts at least, as a public marijuana cafe or a bar at which someone can light up.

Public social consumption remains illegal in Massachusetts, but for a monthly fee of $15, you can join the only private cannabis lounge in Massachusetts.

The Summit Lounge opened on Worcester's Water Street just over a year ago. Membership has hovered around 300 since. The club isn't regulated by the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission (CCC), but it has become an important focal point of the state's legal cannabis industry and could help provide the framework for social consumption regulations.

The club doesn't sell or otherwise provide any cannabis products containing THC, the part of the marijuana plant which gets you high, said owner Kyle Moon. The club does sell CBD products – marijuana-based extracts without THC – along with providing pipes, bongs and other devices for members.

In order to get high at Summit, members must bring their own marijuana, joints or edibles to enjoy in the club around other like-minded folks. They can buy it at one of the nearly 50 Massachusetts dispensaries selling recreational and/or medical marijuana, grow it at home or receive it as a gift.

The go-to place for regulators, entrepreneurs

When Leicester cannabis operator Cultivate became one of the first two recreational marijuana retailers to open east of the Mississippi River in November, Summit became a stop on the cannabis tourists' tour after visiting the store, provided they signed a membership agreement and paid a fee.

Summit members vary from new users, longer-term recreational smokers and medical patients.

Summit has no official relationship with any marijuana businesses, Moon said. Dispensaries have held company parties in the club, but Moon declined to identify which ones since memberships are private.

Summit has become a meeting space for cannabis entrepreneurs, Moon said, and employees of cannabis companies in Central Massachusetts and elsewhere in the state are members.

The lounge has even served as a central meeting point for Western Mass. cannabis firms and their Boston-based attorneys, said Moon.

When asked if they had relationships with the lounge, three Central Massachusetts cannabis operators declined to comment due to the lounge's legality, which operates in the gray area of current law.

The lounge is a private club and doesn't sell marijuana, so it isn't regulated by the CCC. At the time of its opening in 2018, the club has obtained all necessary licenses from the city to operate a private club. That included a smoking permit, but what was being smoked wasn't entirely clear when the city approved it.

“Anything that's legal in Massachusetts,” Moon remembers telling city officials.

Despite marijuana businesses being unwilling to at least publicly associate themselves with the club, industry regulators and professional associations have acknowledged the lounge's importance.

Moon and the club have been nominated for award two awards from the New England Cannabis Community Awards, which is being hosted by the New England Cannabis Network at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston on March 22.

Moon is nominated for New England Young Entrepreneur of the Year, and the lounge itself is nominated for the Champion in Corporate Social Responsibility award.

CCC Commissioners Shaleen Title and Chairman Steven Hoffman have visited the club, Title as a visitor and Hoffman to give a talk and requesting his speaking event to be smoke free.

In a few months, however, the club's framework could change dramatically.

Social consumption regulations

CCC is discussing social consumption regulations and is creating a pilot program with officials from North Adams, Amherst, Springfield, Provincetown and Somerville.

Neither the Summit Lounge nor Worcester officials are included in that working group, despite more than a year of information from Summit Lounge. Hoffman, also a member of the working group, said he has explicitly encouraged Moon to provide comments when the group calls for public input.

Because the club isn't licensed by the CCC, it will have no official role with the working group helping to form the regulations, Hoffman said.

Title, who has been an aggressive advocate for social equity, diversity and public consumption, did not endorse Summit, but said the club has value to the legal marijuana industry.

“There's always going to be a need as long as there are consumers who, for whatever reason, aren't able to consume at home,” she said. “It looks like [Summit] is one way to fill that need.”

Public consumption businesses were originally slated to be part of the state's cannabis industry when it began taking business applications last year. Those initial thoughts would have included the traditional idea of a pot cafe where a consumer could purchase and use cannabis onsite.

Those same rules would have prohibited users from bringing their own stash, and cafes would be held to the same set of strict regulations retailers comply with.

If that's the case, Summit could be forced to begin selling product from a third-party grower through the CCC's framework, Moon said. Those discussions have already begun internally.

The commission is eyeing what Hoffman called a mixed-use license, where a company would offer a service like yoga and allow cannabis consumption to enhance the value of that product.

“As we get into this dialogue, we will consider those same things again,” he said.

However, the CCC last year put those kind of establishments on hold due to concern from public safety officials but agreed to revisit the issue beginning last fall.

The sample size is small, but both Moon and Worcester officials say Summit has caused no public safety issues.

Worcester spokesman Michael Vigneux said the city is monitoring the lounge to ensure all rules and regulations are being followed.

After the club opened, the city adopted zoning regulations requiring on-site consumption businesses to apply for a special permit and follow the same set of local rules as other cannabis businesses.

According to Moon, Summit had just one instance where a member got too high. He slept it off.

California, Colorado models

Title and Hoffman both said it's too early to tell what social consumption will look like if the CCC allows those businesses in this time around, but similar businesses operate in other states where recreational marijuana is legal. Other cannabis-legal states currently working on similar regulations, like Maine and Alaska.

California is the only state to allow what it calls tasting rooms to be attached to dispensaries, but the approval of that part of the industry is up to local governments. So far, consumption businesses operate in San Francisco, Oakland and South Lake Tahoe, according to a CCC memo from October.

In Colorado – the first state to open a recreational store in 2014 – there is at least one social consumption operator, the Coffee Joint, opened in Denver in 2016. That business operates similarly to Summit, and guests must bring their own cannabis.

Moon said he and family members got the idea for Summit Lounge from Colorado after visiting.

In the event Summit is either forced to or decides to enter the CCC's legal framework when public consumption businesses are allowed, Moon and the family-run business are developing standard operating procedures and a solid business plan to pitch to an investor to create capital for what could be costly improvements.

“I hate to say, it's becoming like a real business,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said CCC Commissioner Shaleen Title visited Summit Lounge give a talk. She visited as a guest. The WBJ regrets the error. 

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