Underground Dabbing Lounges Provide a Glimpse of L.A.'s Recreational Weed Future

It’s one of those rare days in Los Angeles when it’s hot and gloomy at the same time. I’m somewhere in Compton, and the only other soul on the sidewalk is a large white pit bull, who calmly guards his building, wearing a collar but no leash. The warehouses on this street are faceless. There are no businesses to pop into. Blue Bottle Coffee hasn’t made its way to this part of town. I find the address I’m looking for and head in through the ajar industrial gate.

The perfunctory signup procedures at L.A. dispensaries are all the same. License and recommendation. Sign and initial 10 different places without reading any of them. Just get me inside to the weed. Here, behind the Plexiglas window where the receptionist sits, there is a cute fluffy dog. I’m given a coupon that reads “First-Time Patient.”

It gets loud, bright and fragrant when I enter the showroom. Bouncy hip-hop music plays throughout the high-ceilinged space. Near candy dispensers and comfortable leather recliners, a vintage arcade version of Mortal Kombat is plugged in and ready to play. There is marijuana everywhere. Long, sparkling display cases are well-lit and filled with crystallized flower. In a portrait that's painted on canvas, that same dog from the lobby hungrily eyes a giant nug. Below a flatscreen television that shows daytime talk show The Real, several young people laugh, talk and patiently wait their turn for a dab at the bar.

If California passes Proposition 64 in November, lounges like this one will abruptly become legal throughout the state. According to the language of the bill:

“Local governments may permit on-site consumption at licensed retailers and microbusinesses provided: Access is prohibited to persons under 21, consumption is not visible from any ‘public place’ or non-age-restricted area, and sale or consumption of alcohol or tobacco aren’t allowed.”

If Los Angeles were to embrace the citywide practice of allowing dab lounges, it would become a remarkably different marijuana tourism destination than a place like Denver, where, according to the city’s visitor guide, use is strictly prohibited within dispensaries. 

A dab, for the uninitiated, is a concentrated version of the marijuana plant. The process of creating dabs is complicated, and ideally only performed by individuals familiar with the chemistry involved in using solvents to remove THC and/or CBD from the flower. In its completed form, dabs, or “wax,” look just like that — small, amberlike oily bits. Smoking wax requires an elaborate rig, which is too expensive for many people to keep at home. These devices are similar to bongs, in that vapor is filtered through water as a hit is taken through a glass neck. While flame is applied directly to flower in a bong, however, wax rigs contain a piece called a “nail,” which is often glass or titanium, and heated to extreme temperatures with a torch. Once the nail turns orange, a small glob of wax is dropped onto it. As the wax sizzles away into vapor, the user inhales.

Wax often is referred to as the “crack” of pot. A more fitting comparison would probably be “the hard alcohol.” Because of its concentration levels, a small serving will get even a highly tolerant user buzzed. Like bourbon, there are flavor notes to concentrates. Like shots, there is a happy ceremony to throwing one back. I sit down before one of the clean glass rigs before me. It’s all clear pipes inside one another. There is something very high school science class to these things. Beside me, also at the bar, four young men lean cheerfully into their own glass rigs.

The budtender is a young, peppy woman in a baseball hat, who moves from customer to customer with a bartender’s competent agility.

“Are you guys friends?” she asks two of her customers.

They shrug and giggle through red squinty eyes. “We are now,” says one of them.

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“I like that. There’s water over there,” she reminds them both gently.

I hand her my coupon, and she fires up my rig. With a child’s pyrotechnic fascination, I watch the torch heat up the nail. It’s time. I bring my face down to the glass. Using a small wand, she runs a crumb of the wax along the rim of the scalding nail. I breathe in as long as I can. The music sounds even better now. The hosts on The Real wonder whether Ryan Seacrest is really dating a supermodel. “I have to come back here.” I intend to write this place up.

The manager notices me with my notebook, though, and she clenches up nervously. She asks me what I’m doing. They don’t want press here. Not about the bar. They’re going through an issue with the city and can’t publicly reveal that they allow dabs.

This lounge is one of many in Los Angeles that operate in the blurry gray area of California’s current marijuana laws. Technically, it is illegal to consume marijuana on the premises of a medical marijuana dispensary, but there are a number of places like this one, in nondescript buildings across the city, where dabbing is not so subtly allowed, where, through word-of-mouth or pure luck, you could stumble across a spot to get stoned with your friends, or get chill enough to make new ones.

It is unclear, however, how residents who are unfamiliar with marijuana culture will react to the torches used in dabbing, or whether neighborhoods will welcome wax bars, so long as they believe “weed crack” is being purveyed. But for now, it is happy hour at this spot: one free dab hit for everyone who comes in during these two hours. You can take a joint to-go instead if you don’t have time to hang. The bar has gotten busier.

“I appreciate your patience, guys,” the budtender says, and means it.

I move over so the kid next to me with the cool red headphones can take his happy hour hit.

“I’m just writing down a couple of things,” I explain, unnecessarily.

“Do your thing,” he tells me. He’s stoned, too. I could get used to this.


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