“Raise your hand if you want a dab!”
Hands shot up for a free hit of cannabis concentrate on the Montalbán Theatre’s rooftop in Hollywood ahead of Sunday’s screening of “The Empire Strikes Back.” Other people smoked joints and ate edibles as they made the rounds at weed brands’ booths, ordered gourmet sandwiches, and swayed along to a DJ’s reggae remixes. At long last: a movie theater where you can smoke weed!
Any cinephile stoner will tell you cannabis and cinema is a combination on the level of peanut butter and jelly. Jokes are funnier, visuals pop, and music is transcendent. However, this divine paring has been largely relegated to smoking bowls in living rooms or popping gummies in theater parking lots.
That’s finally changing, particularly in Los Angeles, where a growing, but still very small number of movie screenings are loudly making weed a central part of the experience. A complex legal landscape, arduous regulations, and still-lingering stigma means that pioneers like Rico Montanez and James Jordan, organizers of the weekly Cannabis & Movies Club at the Montalbán, need to employ a lot of ingenuity and patience to pull it off.
“To create consistency and also find a commercial location that has a big insurance package and is willing to take the risk on this particular idea is extremely hard,” Jordan said. “It’s not that there’s not entrepreneurs out there that will swing the bat, it’s that they don’t have the legal strategy and framework that we spent a lot of time creating in order to attract the brands, particularly the bigger brands, who will not get involved if there’s no appropriate legal framework.”
There are plenty of one-off cannabis-themed events in Los Angeles, including movie nights. However, these are a part of the city’s underground landscape of unpermitted raves and pop-up art shows, the kinds that rise and fall over the course of 24 hours and avoid officials’ eyes in a grid of warehouses. Other events, like the marijuana-themed shorts festival THC Cinema in Sherman Oaks, cheekily tell patrons to “come prepared” as no smoking is allowed on site.
David J. Crewe/Courtesy Cannabis & Movies Club
The Cannabis & Movies Club taps a squad of lawyers to confab with the venue and the brands’ attorneys, while Montanez and Jordan rely on the expertise they’ve gained as co-founders of Emerald Market, a cannabis-focused marketing firm.
Nearly three decades after the first medical dispensaries opened in California and six years after the state legalized recreational marijuana, it’s challenging enough to open a retail store, which the state and cities tightly regulate; innovating within the letter of the law offers a whole other level of challenges.
“In California, the statues allow localities to veto any cannabis within their jurisdiction. Eighty percent of the state, geographically, has no cannabis,” said Professor Robert Solomon, co-chair of UC Irvine’s Center for the Study of Cannabis. “In this case, there is no particular prohibition in LA. What I understand the club is trying to do is comply with state law, or to say it differently, not violate state law. That means it can’t be public, so they form a club; it has to be out of sight, so they do it on a rooftop.”
The club is, in fact, technically a private club now 4,000 members strong. Anyone can join for free; tickets cost $25 or $75 for the date-night package, which comes with food, bong rental, and a reserved cozy loveseat. You can bring your own bud, or you can purchase it at the Montalbán — not from the club, which has no retail cannabis license, but from a separate established delivery service, organizers said.
For a glimpse at what a more permissible, public, and regulated marijuana events future could look like, travel a few miles to West Hollywood. It’s one of an exceptionally few places in the country where a “consumption lounge” is up and running.
In April, the Artist Tree retail chain opened up its Studio Dispensary Lounge in WeHo. Enter downstairs through the dispensary, buy your weed, and head upstairs to the restaurant-style smoking lounge, where you’re free to enjoy your purchases, order food, and watch what’s happening on stage — comedy shows, jazz, drag performances, and more.
There’s also outdoor seating plus a third floor where any cannabis consumption besides smoking is allowed; it also hosts yoga classes and sound baths. On July 19, The Artist Tree will host its first movie screening, “Dazed and Confused.”
A strict regulatory environment makes for some unique quirks: You can only consume weed purchased on site, but there are plenty of options including THC cocktails. All cannabis must be served in its original retail form, so in order to enjoy a cocktail (THC only, alcohol can’t be served in the same space) customers must first buy the canned drink and mix it with the rest of the cocktail ingredients.
“It seems like the public and municipalities are still very scared of cannabis for some reason,” said Lauren Fontein, a lawyer and co-founder of The Artist Tree. “Things are shifting so slowly toward fully accepting cannabis as a viable alternative to alcohol. In our minds, there really shouldn’t be a difference. But the things we have to go through are much more difficult than somebody opening a restaurant that serves alcohol.”
Fontein suspects the tough regulatory environment is a reason why her business remains so unique. In 2018, West Hollywood approved 16 licenses for consumption lounges. Today, Fontein’s is the only one up and running. The first, the Original Cannabis Cafe, shut down during the pandemic and plans to resume business later this year. theWOODS, a dispensary backed by Woody Harrelson and Bill Maher, plans to open its lounge this summer.
Bay Area cities have consumption lounges, as does Palm Springs. The city of Los Angeles has not issued any licenses.
Fontein, like Montanez and Jordan, dreams of a day when smoking a joint or cracking open a cannabis-infused drink is as commonplace as beer.
“We’re just a movie theater that allows cannabis,” Montanez said. “We don’t want to make it about cannabis. We want to make it about the interest and help destigmatize the industry. You don’t go to a baseball game just because there’s beer there. That’s what we want cannabis to be like as well.”