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Coming soon: The marijuana restaurant?

The opportunities provided by the legalization of cannabis for recreational use are about to be within reach of food and beverage places.

Restaurants may catch a buzz from legalized marijuana sooner than many expected, according to experts who explored the near-term opportunities for the industry at its annual convention, the National Restaurant Association Show.

The speakers noted that the legalization of recreational cannabis use in nine states hasn’t come with all the variables decided. For instance, they explained, the pioneers haven’t specified where and how cannabis and its derivatives can be consumed in public social settings. The focus to date has been on the sale, propagation and processing of marijuana, not the places where it can be consumed.

The exception is Colorado, where local jurisdictions have the authority to decide where groups can light up or indulge in edibles. That leeway resulted in the recent opening of what may be the nation’s first legal social consumption site, a beverage place in Denver called The Coffee Joint.

Cannabis advocates in Nevada, one of the nine states, are urging lawmakers to similarly permit locations to decide where weed buyers can indulge together in a public venue. “These are not going to be cannabis businesses, they are going to be restaurants and bars that permit cannabis consumption,” predicted Scot Rutledge, a lobbyist whose namesake firm is pushing to have that local control adopted in Las Vegas.

He asserted that cannabis restaurants will start appearing in the gambling mecca next year.

At stake is a piece of what’s expected to be a $22.6 billion business by 2021, said moderator Adam Hasley, director of advocacy research and insights for the National Restaurant Association. 

And, the speakers agreed, it’s still very much up for grabs. “There’s plenty of room for people who aren’t in the industry, who are going to get into the industry,” said Rutledge.

But there was also a consensus among the speakers that some speed bumps need to be negotiated.

For one thing, liability is one of the issues that remain unclear. What happens if a customer of a marijuana restaurant overindulges and then gets behind the wheel of a car? Could the establishment be held responsible, as it might if the driver had been overserved alcohol?

The presenters refuted the notion that the controls in place to combat drunken driving will merely be rolled over to pot. For one thing, the relevant laws are not always transferable. “In Nevada, we have dram shop laws, but we don’t have similar laws regarding cannabis,” said Rutledge.

For another, marijuana consumption is harder to measure than bloodstream alcohol, said Chris Sayegh, known as The Herbal Chef because of the private cannabis dinners he’s prepared and presented. THC, the psychoactive ingredient, is consumed, stored and burned in different ways, he explained.

Right now, said Hasley, there’s no equivalent of a Breathalyzer to gauge marijuana intoxication levels.

Another challenge, Hasley said, is handling revenues generated by the sale of marijuana and its derivatives. Cannabis is still technically illegal on a federal basis. Because banks are federally regulated, they cannot handle any of the money without running afoul of federal law.

The result: The estimated $22.6 billion in 2021 revenues will all be in cash unless regulations change.

The addition of marijuana to restaurant menus will also require some profound operational changes, predicted Sayegh. For instance, his marijuana events employ “guides,” not servers.

“We’re not going to have the same sort of servers in five years at these cannabis places” as customers currently find in restaurants, he asserted. “We’re going to have people who are more like a yogi, to lead these customers as servers to different experiences.”

His guides have been trained to spot signs that a guest may be uncomfortably high, such as a pasty complexion or a sudden withdrawal from conversations.

Sayegh also noted that cannabis is like any other ingredient: Chefs need to know how to incorporate it in recipes to enhance flavor and the overall guest experience.

“I’m not going to give names, but we’re already working with a couple of big culinary schools for people who want to learn how to cook with cannabis,” he revealed.

But the problems can be readily overcome, the panel agreed. The liability issue can be largely negated just by being smart, noted Rutledge: “Just don’t provide parking.”

“There is still time for all of you to become experts,” he continued. “We haven’t closed the door. We haven’t yet ended prohibition.”

When might recreational cannabis be legalized federally, as it will be sometime later this year in Canada? Rutledge predicted that operators have at least four years before the opportunity becomes real on a coast-to-coast basis.

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