It's nearly midnight on a Wednesday night at trendy Echo Park dive bar Little Joy, and one of the patrons is pissed.
The 27-year-old with a giant black beard, who we'll call Bill, bought a portable vaporizer a year ago and has quietly been getting stoned at bars like this one ever since. But on Tuesday, L.A. City Council passed an ordinance deeming electronic cigarettes and vaporizer pens equivalent to actual cigarettes, effectively banning them in public places like clubs, restaurants and parks.
The gradual legalization of marijuana in the U.S. has been accompanied by advancements in smoking technology. Vaporizer pens typically contain cannabis concentrates like butane hash oil, also known as wax. They help you get high more discreetly, and some don't produce any smoke at all.
E-cigarettes, meanwhile, usually refer to nicotine vaporizers, which are heralded by some as a safer alternative to regular cigarettes. The smoke produced by they and their cousins, e-hookahs, are often not subtle at all.
“These idiots with their cotton candy clouds of smoke fucking ruined it for everyone who wants to smoke weed discreetly,” Bill fumes, referring to flavored e-hookah pens like those made by Imperial Smoke. “They look retarded, blowing these huge clouds of flavored
tobacco smoke. Now I'm gonna have to go back to smoking bowls in the alley outside the bar.”
In any case, vape pens and e-cigs of all kinds will be banned under the new ordinance, which could take effect as early as mid-April.
The ordinance squashes what had been a rapidly-flourishing subculture in L.A.: People lighting up indoors with impunity. It's currently happening all over the city – at bars, clubs, concerts, even on the beach. Though, anecdotally, many have complained about e-hookah pens and their giant plumes of smokes, bartenders and waitresses don't usually seem to mind much. And vaping is still gaining speed.
Eli Behar, 24, another Wednesday night patron at Little Joy, doesn't normally smoke. But out of curiosity he recently bought a disposable Blu e-cigarette, good for 300 hits, at a gas station.
“I'm a sucker for advertising,” he explains. The e-cig wasn't for him, but he doesn't support the city-wide ban. He doesn't think it's practical, for one thing.
“Who's gonna enforce that law?” he asks. “The guy who picks up empty glasses at the bar? I doubt it.”
On the other side of the booth sits Eli Rodriguez, 25, who is wearing a red flannel. Rodriguez bought a micro vaporizer pen a few months ago so he could get high at bars while his friends were drinking, but these days he's over it. Too messy to clean and refill, he says.
He feels like the ban is a good idea, because he gets the impression vaping is more harmful, health-wise, than regular joints or cigarettes. He's not basing that information off of much hard science, but then again neither is the L.A. City Council. Very few studies have been done at this point about the first- and secondhand health effects of e-cigarettes and vape pens.
In any case, what's clear is that an emerging little subculture will come to an end.
Not everyone is too put off by this, however. Take Bill's friend.
“That was kind of annoying that you had that vape pen,” says the man, who is 36 and also declines to give his real name, given the legal uncertainty of the issue.
“Why?” asks Bill.
Responds his friend: “You looked fucking stupid.”
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that e-cigarettes contain tobacco.