Nick Adams / Reuters / Landov

America needs marijuana bars

For building a national pub culture, pot is better than alcohol

September 29, 2014 6:00AM ET

Blogger-pundit Matt Yglesias really wants more bars. First at Think Progress, then at Slate and now at Vox, the commentator has waged a one-man rhetorical war on the country’s urban liquor boards. The current licensing system, in which the number of bars is constrained by city bureaucrats rather than market demand, Yglesias has argued, leaves us with a paucity of public drinking spots where they’re wanted. From New York’s East Village to Adams Morgan in Washington, D.C., license limitations have caused bars to become rare, expensive, crowded and all around worse.

There’s just one problem with Yglesias’ more-bars plan: alcohol. America has a serious issue with responsible drinking, and increasing the number of sales locations probably won’t help. Alcohol abuse already kills tens of thousands of Americans annually and costs hundreds of billions of dollars a year in lost productivity, health care and property damage. It’s an especially big problem for college students and other young people; Jake New reported for Insider Higher Education that at least eight college freshman died in the first few weeks of school this year, most in alcohol-related accidents or overdoses. “Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen a fairly dramatic increase of alcohol-related hospitalizations in this age group,” George Koob, the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism at the National Institutes of Health, told New. More bars would contribute to what’s already a public health crisis. Studies in Los Angeles and Cleveland suggest adding a bar is associated with about three additional violent crimes a year.

It’s hard to imagine bars without alcohol. Caffeine is popular, but it’s not what economists call a substitute good for booze. Luckily, those aren’t our only options. In a post for Vox, German Lopez suggested that the strongest argument for marijuana legalization might be that people will use it instead of alcohol. Although prohibition has no doubt suppressed use, marijuana’s social costs per user are negligible, especially compared with alcohol’s. A recent National Institutes of Health study suggested that marijuana appears to fit the seven published criteria to be a substitute medication for alcohol, in the same way doctors prescribe methadone for heroin dependence. From a public health perspective, every drink we can replace with a toke is a victory.

Individual states, moved by a combination of hard evidence and shifting public opinion, are advancing with plans to legalize recreational marijuana use. So far, only Colorado and Washington have gone all the way to legalization, but the whole country is headed quickly in that direction. Despite all the new regulatory architectures for growing, distributing and using marijuana without violating the law, no states have been willing to propose what responsible common use in public could look like. Not one Amsterdam-style coffee shop has managed to keep its doors open. Still, there’s a demand for marijuana bars or weed cafes or whatever we end up calling them, a demand that’s being suppressed far more strongly than the demand for more alcohol bars.

Eventually Americans will have public places to go and get high with their friends.

Although federal law schedules marijuana with the worst of the worst drugs — for now, that is — small entrepreneurs have taken the first cautious steps toward establishing common spaces to get high. To do it, they have had to navigate webs of local regulations that were never written to apply to marijuana. In Washington, the Liquor Control Board banned weed from liquor-licensed establishments after a bar named Frankie’s navigated the law and opened an upstairs smoking club. In Colorado a tea shop opened an after-hours marijuana co-op where patrons could take their own and smoke, until the town of Lafayette put the kibosh on use in business locations. One problem with weed bars is employees’ right to a smoke-free workplace; even if cops allowed indoor marijuana smoking, no one would be allowed to work there. The Tacoma, Washington, pizza and rum bar Stonegate tried using vaporizers to get around this issue, but local authorities revoked his business license. Though owners seem willing to conform to whatever guidelines they’re given, so far, no locality wants to be the first to host an American marijuana bar.

This is going to change. As the stigma around recreational marijuana use falls away, I’m confident that government prohibition will attenuate accordingly. Eventually Americans will have public places to go and get high with their friends. And given the way regulation is shaping up, they may be very different, depending on where you live. I think that’s most likely a good thing, since I don’t expect anyone is going to get it just right the first time. It’s going to be a learning process, but we can’t start until government at all levels relaxes a bit and allows the experimenting to proceed.

In his substantial writing on the topic of bars, Yglesias is predominantly concerned with economic growth in the service sector, but there’s an equally strong argument to be made for increasing what’s called parochial space. In his cultural history “Made in America,” sociologist Claude S. Fischer documents the decline in bars, fraternal lodges, social clubs and neighborhood celebrations. Over the course of the 20th century, Americans retreated into their homes, off to the suburbs, broadcast entertainment and the nuclear family. Fewer and fewer people have a third place (not work or home) where everyone knows their name. These spaces promote community integration, friendship and extrafamilial networks of support; it’s in the public interest to have more of them.

Legal marijuana bars would resolve all the problems Yglesias has with current licensing policies and give the U.S. a much-needed injection of parochial space, all without the harms that come with increased drinking. Not to be dramatic, but it’s easy to see how making marijuana available as an alternative intoxicant could save lives. At very least, it’s a socially healthier solution than more alcohol. And even if the author of “I Have Smoked Pot and Don’t Really Care for It” won’t be a frequent visitor, those of us who would rather get high than drunk will decamp and stop overcrowding Yglesias’ neighborhood gastropub. Marijuana bars are an urban-planning win-win, and Americans will get them eventually. For stoners and drinkers alike, the sooner, the better.

Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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