Photo courtesy of Lowell Herb Co.

America’s First Weed Cafe Opened, But Not Everyone’s Happy About It

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Lowell Farm Cannabis Cafe is bustling with bong rips, vaporizers and farm fresh munchies. 

Lowell Café, the nation’s first weed café and lounge, opened to the public on Oct. 1. On opening day, the café, located in West Hollywood on a relatively quiet strip of La Brea Boulevard, overflowed with guests. Reservations had been booked over a month in advance, and entering as a walk-in was almost impossible. The opening attracted local celebrities such as TNT’s “Claws” star Karrueche Tran, and countless photos and videos flooded social media.

The following day, on a sun-drenched afternoon, the second wave of patrons filtered into the café. With the commotion of the grand opening finished, the second day, in a sense, felt like the first real day of operations. Still, the line outside reached down the block, along the building’s plant-covered exterior. The parking lot, available for groups with a designated driver, was filled to capacity. The smell of cannabis lightly but unmistakably veiled the property, despite a $200,000 casino-grade filtration system and the use of Cannabolish, a cannabis odor-remover.

A perhaps less welcome guest, a police officer, also pulled up curbside. He stopped beside the exit to the parking lot. Inside his car, he rested his chin on his fist, and studiously eyed the property. “It comes with the territory,” a nearby security guard quipped.

In December 2018, the city of West Hollywood awarded Lowell Farms: A Cannabis Café the first of eight available Cannabis Consumption Area licenses. The café was selected from a pool of more than 300 applicants. The essence of their pitch, according to co-founder Courtney Zalewski, was simple: legal weed will soon be ubiquitous, and people will almost inevitably consume in public spaces if they do not have an alternative option, like a cannabis café, where they can gather and partake. Their pitch was strong, fortified by their partnership with the Houston brothers Jonnie and Mark, who own and operate several successful L.A. nightlife hotspots and by the strength of the Lowell Herb Co. brand, which is one of the best-selling cannabis companies in the state.

Opening day at the Lowell Café attracted a full house of patrons, many who had made reservations weeks in advance. Photo courtesy of Lowell Herb Co.

Because it’s the first of its kind, the café is also the subject of heavy scrutiny — by competitors, local government and neighboring businesses. The city of West Hollywood says it will carefully monitor the café’s impact on the neighborhood during its first year of operations, including how it will affect the synagogue across the street, whose rabbi has preemptively registered a complaint.

Down the street at Hailin Tattoo, an employee named Zan says they have no problem with the café moving into the neighborhood.

“It’s not bothering to us, it’s not benefiting to us, it’s just, like, there,” he says. “It’s another business, so it’s always welcome.”

But across the intersection, at the long-standing neighborhood staple Harry’s Automotive, Harry Galajian, the shop’s owner, had a different take.

“It would be nice if it will never open up, but it’s opened up already,” he says, lamenting the fact that his children, who are often in and around the shop, might be exposed to cannabis. “It’s not a good idea.”

Objections like Galajian’s seem inevitable, but so does the proliferation of similar cafés. Public demand is real — reservations at the Lowell Café are still booked for several weeks, though walk-ins are possible — and the experience they offer is undeniably novel. It’s also likely they will offer a boon to the growing cannabis tourism industry and local economies in the process.

In Colorado — which legalized recreational cannabis use in 2012, a full four years before California — a mash of conflicting regulations has prevented similar establishments from taking off, despite the availability of on-site consumption licenses since 2016.

“There’s a lot of gray area about where you’re able to consume,” says Olivia Mannix, CEO and founder of Cannabrand Inc., a Colorado-based marketing agency specializing in the cannabis industry. “Really, the only place you can do it is in private locations.”

Colorado’s Clean Indoor Air Act, which makes it illegal to smoke indoors in public spaces, means that the businesses awarded Cannabis Consumption Establishment licenses have been limited to providing only edibles and electronic vaping products to customers. As they’ve discovered, the appeal just isn’t the same.

“This is definitely a huge hurdle for the industry in the state and it’s a pain,” Mannix says. “I think it’s important for people to be able to gather in public domains, and it makes it really hard having all this gray area. If people can go to bars and drink, why can’t they go to cannabis bars and consume?”

The license awarded by West Hollywood explicitly permits the on-site sale and consumption of cannabis, eliminating any possible ambiguity.

A Place Where Cannabis Users Legally Convene

Inside the café, the production team has created an atmospheric, almost oasis-like space. There are enough plants to rival a midsize greenhouse. Two 60-year-old olive trees punctuate the patio and cast sun-spotted shade on an array of tables. Above the “dab bar,” where experienced consumers can smoke cannabis concentrates, a pair of wooden ceiling fans spin, propelled by an antique pulley system. Mellow hip-hop plays over the speakers, which seems to suit the mostly young, trendy crowd — though there are also several families seated at larger tables, eating and laughing and passing around joints.

Andrea Drummer, a Le Cordon Bleu graduate, developed the café’s farm-to-table menu. She’s been involved with the project from the start. Lowell Farms used to sponsor dinners hosted by her cooperative, Elevation VIP, where she prepared cannabis-infused dishes for artists such as Wale, Miguel and Wiz Khalifa. The café’s menu, however, is weed-free — it’s restricted under their current license — but each item was conceived to complement the cannabis experience.

While the food may not be infused with cannabis, patrons at the Lowell Café can light up a joint while enjoying treats from a specially formulated farm-to-table menu. Photo courtesy of Lowell Herb Co.

The cannabis menu is presented, like a wine list, alongside the food menu. A “flower host,” like a sommelier, guides you through the options and makes recommendations based on your tolerance level and desired outcome. Beside each offering are a series of adjectives including “uplifting,” “stress-reducing,” “powerful” and “deep body high.”

Guests can also bring cannabis, purchased elsewhere, inside the café for consumption. This was an important element in their pitch to the city. It turns the café from a restaurant and smoking lounge into something of a refuge, a place where cannabis users can safely and legally convene. To use the space, Lowell charges a $30 “tokage” fee — like a corkage fee for, yes, wine — which allows guests to rent smoking accessories. This can include Pax-brand vaporizers ($10-$30),  handmade, terracotta pipes ($15), bongs ($30) and even Lowell-brand hookah-inspired bongs for smokers in groups ($200). Grinders, rolling papers and hemp wraps are free.

Taylor, a WeWork employee who chose not to share his last name, visited the café on Oct. 2 to try one specific accessory: the Puffco Peak, a concentrate vaporizer that retails for over $375. The device is cone-shaped, about the size of a beer bottle, and looks something like an icicle. When it was brought out by the flower host, Taylor struggled to heat it up. The flower host, called back to the table, also had trouble. She brought over a second one and they fiddled with it, and eventually got it to work. Moments later, Taylor exhaled a thick cloud of vapor.

“It rips,” he says, eyes watering.

If we visit bars to experience happy mindlessness, these cafes, if they flourish, could be the shared space we go to experience that with a twist — happy mindfulness. Sitting at a table at the Lowell Café, surrounded by laughter, chatter and smoke, it wasn’t hard to imagine. Of course, it’s also possible that this reporter was just, well …


Lowell Farms: A Cannabis Café

1201 N. La Brea Ave., West Hollywood, CA 90038

Los Angeleno