It’s a gift store.

It’s a head shop.

And it’s a weed church.

Stoner swag greets you as you walk into this one-of-a-kind shop in Philadelphia. There are also T-shirts and CBD products for sale.

But in the back of Philadelphia Temple of Hemp and Cannabis is something far more unusual — a sanctuary and lounge where medical marijuana patients are encouraged to light up.

“It’s not your normal church,” says Patrick Duff, the co-owner and high priest of the Frankford Avenue shop that brands itself Philly THC. “In fact, it’s licensed as a gift shop. We pay taxes. But the reason we opened is that there was nobody providing a space for marijuana patients to come together and take their medicines socially.”

As the wave of marijuana legalization sweeps across the nation, what’s missing are safe spaces for consumption, according to advocates. That’s especially critical for those living with friends or family who don’t approve of cannabis, or tenants in federally subsidized housing who risk eviction because marijuana is still considered illegal by the U.S. government.

Patrick Duff is the proprietor of the Philadelphia Temple of Hemp and Cannabis in Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood. The Frankford Ave. shop sells CBD products and, more unusually, has a "sanctuary and lounge" in the back where medical marijuana patients can consume their meds.
SAM WOOD
Patrick Duff is the proprietor of the Philadelphia Temple of Hemp and Cannabis in Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood. The Frankford Ave. shop sells CBD products and, more unusually, has a "sanctuary and lounge" in the back where medical marijuana patients can consume their meds.

Philly THC, in the city’s Kensington neighborhood, seeks to plug that gap. It will be the first lounge of its kind in the region, if not the first to operate out of the shadows to the east of the Mississippi River.

Most jurisdictions forbid consuming any cannabis in public.

A handful of advertised cannabis cafes have popped up in Denver and San Francisco — in states where recreational use of marijuana is legal. Alaska this week enacted regulations that allow on-site consumption of marijuana. Clandestine cafes operate out of sight or by invitation only. Duff presents Philly THC as a place for “medical and sacramental” use of cannabis.

“Someone who is living in government-subsidized housing could lose their housing if they [consume cannabis] at home. Many apartment buildings forbid smoking or vaping of any kind," said Justin Strekal, a Washington-based spokesman for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "Some people don’t like to medicate in front of their families. So cafes fill a real need.”

Most head shops pretend their pipes and bongs are for use with tobacco only to skirt laws against drug paraphrenalia. PhillyTHC takes a different stance. Pictured here is a sign near their smoking devices.
Most head shops pretend their pipes and bongs are for use with tobacco only to skirt laws against drug paraphrenalia. PhillyTHC takes a different stance. Pictured here is a sign near their smoking devices.

The temple

Hanging over the blue vinyl booths in Philly THC’s middle room is a bright psychedelic painting of the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, whom cannabis-consuming Rastafarians revere as the messiah. An acrylic portrait of Bob Marley keeps a sloe-eyed watch from the opposing wall.

Farther to the rear is a white leather sectional sofa parked in front of a TV, set up for video games.

Two repurposed diner booths nestle along a brick wall. On each table sits a “dab rig,” a glass device similar to a small bong. Duff and his Philly THC partner, Raymond Bungay, use the rigs to teach patients how to consume highly concentrated cannabis extracts. Most newbies have never encountered the products — wax, shatter, budder, and live resin — before their first trip to a marijuana dispensary.

“This is a place where people can be educated,” Duff said. “There’s always someone here who can help with the equipment.”

Bungay, who views cannabis use as a religious sacrament, quit using opioids 15 years ago with marijuana’s help, he said. He also operates a rock and mineral shop two blocks away.

He takes a long puff from a dab rig and slowly exhales the vapor. “Want to try some?” he asks.

Ray Bungay, co-owner of Philadelphia Temple of Hemp and Cannabis, vapes hemp flower rosin from a dab rig in the shop in Philadelphia, PA on March 13, 2019. A painting of Haile Selassie hangs above.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Ray Bungay, co-owner of Philadelphia Temple of Hemp and Cannabis, vapes hemp flower rosin from a dab rig in the shop in Philadelphia, PA on March 13, 2019. A painting of Haile Selassie hangs above.

Gray area, legally

Is a commercial space to consume cannabis legal?

That’s a bit of a gray area as far as current laws go. Lounges would be made legal under a recreational marijuana bill pending in New Jersey. Soon-to-be introduced legislation in the Pennsylvania Senate would also provide for cannabis cafes.

But social consumption of cannabis is prohibited even in most states that have legalized marijuana.

Duff insists his cafe is 100 percent legal.

“I read the law. I read it carefully,” he said. “Nothing in the state’s regulations prevents us from doing this.”

Turns out he’s right.

“We don’t have any jurisdiction over it,” confirmed a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the agency overseeing the state’s medical marijuana program.

“There’s no restriction,” said April Hutcheson, the spokesperson. “Patients can use medical marijuana anywhere they are comfortable as long as they have a card and are only using the medication they purchased for themselves. I don’t think it violates our regulations. Smoking [marijuana] is prohibited by the law.”

A bag of CBD-rich industrial hemp flower on a display case at Philly THC, the Philadelphia Temple of Hemp and Cannabis. The shop, on the 2500 block of Frankford Ave., also features a consumption room at the back.
A bag of CBD-rich industrial hemp flower on a display case at Philly THC, the Philadelphia Temple of Hemp and Cannabis. The shop, on the 2500 block of Frankford Ave., also features a consumption room at the back.

Duff, who claimed he “checked with 15 attorneys” before opening, said smoking anything is “absolutely prohibited” at Philly THC.

“There’s no tobacco use allowed, and no fire, and you can’t use a torch,” Duff said.

The shop provides ceramic-tipped electronic devices that bring cannabis to a temperature just a few degrees short of combustion.

And, since Philadelphia decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2014, the District Attorney’s Office has stopped prosecuting anyone on a marijuana charge if they possess less than 30 grams of cannabis.

“It doesn’t sound like they are breaking any laws,” said Ben Waxman, spokesperson for District Attorney Larry Krasner. “We would have an issue if they were distributing or selling marijuana, but that doesn’t sound like what is happening at this place.”

So Philly THC appears to be in the clear.

‘A way to make amends’

Philly THC opened in early February. The first month’s take was about $12,000, Duff said. Not bad for a business on a formerly bedraggled block near Kensington’s most notorious heroin corners. Those revenues were primarily generated from the sale of industrial hemp products high in CBD, a compound in the cannabis plant that does not provide the euphoria of THC.

Strekal believes that in the not-too-distant future, it will be relatively common for there to be licensed establishments where people can socially consume cannabis.

“It’s going to be a multibillion-dollar industry, a subset of the emerging U.S. marijuana economy,” Strekal said. “They won’t be as numerous as alcohol bars, but they will dot the land.”

Glass vaping devices at Philly THC, created by Philadelphia artist Beatriz, are not intended to be used for tobacco.
SAM WOOD / INQUIRER STAFF
Glass vaping devices at Philly THC, created by Philadelphia artist Beatriz, are not intended to be used for tobacco.

The hemp flowers Duff sells look and smell just like real weed — same color and shape, same dank scent. “It doesn’t get you high," he said. "It just makes you very relaxed.” He and Bungay also produce their own CBD resin, oils, and salves.

A woman at the New Kensington Community Development Corp. across the street said Duff helped her sign up to be a medical marijuana caregiver.

The hardest part of opening the temple was finding a willing landlord. It took nearly half a year, Duff said.

“I was very honest, and told them I wanted to open a retail gift shop with a lounge for marijuana patients to medicate. More than 80 percent said no.” The landlord who agreed is a former Brooklyn cop who rents the space above the shop on Airbnb, Duff said.

Customers ask Duff if he’ll franchise the idea.

Shawn Wilson, a retired Philadelphia police narcotics officer, wants to open a similar Philly THC “temple” in Germantown. “I feel really bad for locking up so many people up for marijuana back in the day," Wilson said. "This is a way to make amends.”

“It’s all about wellness,” said Wilson, a card-carrying medical marijuana patient who was shopping Thursday at Philly THC. “I use both CBD and THC myself for wellness and worship.

“I’m very serious about opening a space for it,” Wilson said. "I already have a building.”

 A stack of books sit inside lounge area in the Philadelphia Temple of Hemp and Cannabis in Philadelphia, PA on March 13, 2019.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
 A stack of books sit inside lounge area in the Philadelphia Temple of Hemp and Cannabis in Philadelphia, PA on March 13, 2019.