The next big thing in Cannabis could be coming to St. Louis
The next big thing in the marijuana industry could be coming here soon.
Top city officials are working on a plan to open the doors to cannabis cafés, pot smoking lounges and other establishments where people can consume the plant in public.
If it bears fruit, St. Louis would join a small but growing number of cities taking part in the latest trend in one of the country’s hottest new industries. The move would offer a boost for local entrepreneurs riding the wave of legalization here. It would add tax dollars to city coffers. And, advocates say, it would mark another big milestone in their long push to put weed on the same level as alcohol and tobacco in the eyes of the law.
“This is the next frontier,” said John Payne, who led the efforts to legalize marijuana in the state.
Aldermanic President Megan Green said discussions at City Hall are in early stages. Officials need to weigh concerns about secondhand smoke, make sure new establishments don’t upset their neighbors and, perhaps most importantly, consider the state’s rules.
Currently, the state restricts marijuana sales to licensed dispensaries — and people are not allowed to consume marijuana on-site there.
But weed entrepreneurs are already dreaming about the possibilities: They could re-create the famed Amsterdam coffee shops, where people smoke joints as casually as they sip their Joe. There could be tie-ins with restaurants, where the entrees come with a dose of THC. Chris Chesley, a co-owner of Star Buds dispensaries in Jefferson and St. Louis counties, mused about a special, temporary permit for a Willie Nelson concert at, say, the Enterprise Center.
“I think that would draw a bunch of people,” he said.
The push from City Hall is, in some ways, a natural next step for marijuana here.
After 40 years of “Just Say No” and the war on drugs, St. Louis aldermen started decriminalizing possession in 2013. Five years later, advocates got 66% of voters across the state to legalize the growing and selling of cannabis for medical use. Then last year, those same advocates and a burgeoning industry passed another constitutional amendment and nabbed their Holy Grail: full legalization for people 21 or older.
Now, advocates say, it’s time to build out a full array of public accommodations. There are already some private dinner clubs in the region, and at least one private lounge. But leaders want marijuana to have public bars and cafés just like the other vices.
“We’ve always said this should be like beer,” said Payne, the legalization leader. “And we’re moving in that direction.”
A handful of cities have already taken that step: The first public cannabis café in the country opened in Los Angeles four years ago. New York City got its first lounge in 2020. Offerings in Chicago and Colorado just celebrated their first birthdays.
Green, the aldermanic president, would like St. Louis to be next. Legalization has already brought an influx of new retailers, industrial facilities and jobs to the city. Permitting cafés and lounges could boost the industry and the tax base further.
Payne said he could see the new establishments becoming a tourism draw. Missouri dispensaries have already seen people coming from out-of-state to avoid restrictions in Kansas and Arkansas or the higher taxes in Illinois.
“Why not stay the night and enjoy the cannabis you’re buying here?” Payne said.
Green said she hopes to make the new regulations as permissive as possible to take advantage of any reticence in the rest of the region. In St. Louis County, the state’s most populous, the County Council has yet to take up the issue.
Green and a spokesman for Mayor Tishaura O. Jones said they are working through clean air health concerns and distance requirements from places such as schools, child care centers and places of worship.
But Green said she sees new establishments popping up mostly on existing commercial strips, like Cherokee Street, South Grand Boulevard, the Grove and Washington Avenue downtown.
“We already have bars there,” she said. “And we have clientele there looking for those kinds of options.”
It’s unclear what exactly those options will look like. But the industry is already figuring out ways to work around state rules barring use at dispensaries:
For instance, an owner could set up a coffee shop, bar or restaurant in another building next door, said Chesley, the dispensary owner. Customers could sit down at their table and order delivery on an iPad. Then the product could be brought out to be smoked, vaporized or infused into the food on order in the kitchen.
“You’d probably have to jump through hoops to get it done,” Chesley said. “But there are a lot of ideas out there.”
Green said she’s hoping to have a draft of the proposal to the city’s planning commission this fall. If approved, it would then go to the Board of Aldermen.