Not just in your living room. 420-friendly screenings have finally arrived in LA — and pulling them off is a complex undertaking for organizers.
“Raise your hand if you want a swab!”
On the roof of the Montalbán Theater in Hollywood, hands shot up after a free hit of cannabis concentrate ahead of Sunday’s screening of The Empire Strikes Back. Other people smoked joints and ate edibles while circling the cannabis brand booths, ordering gourmet sandwiches and swaying to a DJ’s reggae remixes. Finally: a cinema where you can smoke weed!
Any cinephile stoner will tell you that cannabis and cinema are a combination at the level of peanut butter and jelly. Jokes are funnier, visuals pop, and music is transcendent. However, this divine shelling has been largely relegated to smoking shells in living rooms or popping gummies in theater parking lots.
That’s finally changing, especially in Los Angeles, where a growing but still very small number of movie screenings are vocal about making weed a central part of the experience. A complex legal landscape, cumbersome regulations, and a lingering stigma mean that pioneers like Rico Montanez and James Jordan, organizers of the weekly Cannabis & Movies Club at the Montalbán, will need a great deal of ingenuity and patience to pull this off.
“Getting consistency and also finding a commercial location that has a great insurance package and is willing to take the risk for this particular idea is extremely difficult,” Jordan said. “It’s not that there aren’t entrepreneurs out there who are going to swing the bat, it’s that they don’t have the legal strategy and framework that we’ve spent a lot of time creating to support them To attract brands, especially the bigger brands, who will not engage if there is no appropriate legal framework.”
There are many unique cannabis-themed events in Los Angeles, including movie nights. These, however, are part of the city’s underground landscape of illicit raves and pop-up art shows, the kinds that pace the streets over the course of 24 hours, escaping the gaze of officers in a grid of warehouses. Other events, like the marijuana-themed short film festival THC Cinema in Sherman Oaks, cheekily urge guests to “be prepared,” as smoking isn’t allowed on-site.
David J. Crewe/Courtesy Cannabis & Movies Club
The Cannabis & Movies Club draws on a team of attorneys to liaise with the venue and brand attorneys, while Montanez and Jordan rely on the expertise they brought as co-founders of Emerald Market, a cannabis-focused marketing firm, have acquired.
Nearly three decades after the first medical dispensaries opened in California, and six years after the state legalized recreational marijuana, it’s difficult enough opening a retail outlet that the state and cities tightly regulate; Innovation in compliance with the law presents a whole different level of challenges.
“In California, statutes allow municipalities to veto cannabis in their jurisdiction. Geographically, 80 percent of the state is cannabis-free,” said Professor Robert Solomon, co-chair of the Center for Cannabis Studies at UC Irvine. “In this case, there is no special prohibition in LA. What I understand is that the club is trying to comply with state law, in other words not to 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 roof.”
The club is actually a private club with 4,000 members. Anyone can join for free; Tickets are $25 or $75 for the date-night package, which includes food, bong rental, and a reserved cozy love seat. You can bring your own bud or buy it at the Montalbán – not from the club, which doesn’t have a cannabis retail license, but from a separate established delivery service, organizers said.
For a glimpse of what a more legal, public, and regulated future of marijuana events might look like, travel a few miles to West Hollywood. It is one of the exceptionally few places in the country that operates a ‘consumption lounge’.
In April, retail chain Artist Tree opened its Studio Dispensary Lounge in WeHo. Head down through the pharmacy, buy your weed and head upstairs to the restaurant-style smoking lounge where you can enjoy your shopping, order food and watch what’s happening on stage – comedy shows, jazz, drag performances and more.
There is also outdoor seating as well as a third floor where all cannabis use is allowed aside from smoking; It also hosts yoga classes and sound baths. On July 19, The Artist Tree hosts its first film screening, Dazed and Confused.
A strict regulatory environment makes for some unique quirks: you can only consume locally purchased weed, but there are plenty of options, including THC cocktails. All cannabis must be served in its original retail form. To enjoy a cocktail (THC only, alcohol cannot be served in the same room), customers must first purchase the canned drink and mix it with the rest of the cocktail ingredients.
“It seems like for some reason the public and communities are still very scared of cannabis,” said Lauren Fontein, attorney and co-founder of The Artist Tree. “Things are slowly moving towards full acceptance of cannabis as a viable alternative to alcohol. In our eyes, there really shouldn’t be any difference. But the things we have to go through are a lot harder than someone opening a restaurant that serves alcohol.”
Fontein suspects that the strict regulatory environment is one reason her business remains so unique. In 2018, West Hollywood approved 16 consumption lounge licenses. Today, Fontein’s is the only one still in operation. The first, the Original Cannabis Cafe, was closed during the pandemic and plans to resume operations later this year. theWOODS, a pharmacy supported by Woody Harrelson and Bill Maher, plans to open its lounge this summer.
Cities in the Bay Area 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 beverage is as commonplace as beer.
“We’re just a movie theater that allows cannabis,” Montanez said. “We don’t want to do it about cannabis. We want to spark interest and help destigmatize the industry. You don’t go to a baseball game just because there’s beer. That’s how we want cannabis too.”