When Colorado started selling legalized recreational marijuana in 2014, it gave most tourists and some residents no place to consume what they lawfully bought.
A Denver initiative on ballots being sent out Monday aims to change that, and one state lawmaker said it could be a “shot across the bow” that persuades the legislature to act on a statewide policy.
While some smaller Colorado cities and towns have allowed cannabis clubs, Denver voters are being asked to approve a potentially even more expansive program: Initiative 300 would create a four-year pilot program allowing regular businesses, such as bars or cafes or even yoga studios, to seek permits for bring-your-own marijuana, over-21 consumption areas that are indoors (allowing vaping and edibles, but not smoking) or outdoors (allowing smoking).
But there’s a hitch: Applicants for annual or temporary permits would need backing from a single neighborhood group, such as a city-registered neighborhood organization or Business Improvement District. Those groups could set operating conditions in exchange for their support.
Nothing is simple when it comes to the regulation of marijuana — and that’s been borne out for an initiative its backers have named the Neighborhood-Supported Cannabis Consumption Pilot Program.
The ballot measure, backed in part by marijuana entrepreneurs and smaller businesses, has sparked tensions among pro-marijuana activists who disagree on the right way to sanction social use. And it has drawn late organized opposition — under the name Protect Denver’s Atmosphere — from groups including Smart Colorado. They express concern the program would encourage more stoned driving, more mixing of pot with alcohol at bars that seek permits, and more public use of marijuana.
Thus this spectacle Oct. 11 in a Denver City Council committee briefing on the initiative: Several members of pro-marijuana Denver NORML, which failed to collect enough signatures to get a competing private clubs measure on the Nov. 8 ballot, argued in testimony that Initiative 300 was the wrong way to go.
Moments later, Bob Doyle from the American Lung Association in Colorado held up a vaping device and said, “This is the 21st century drug-delivery device. We do not need to be increasing the number of places we find these anywhere in Colorado, including Denver.”
Some supporters say the measure takes neighborhood sentiment into account on every permit, but some longtime neighborhood activists disagree. They argue the proposal would allow permit-seekers to shop for more friendly Business Improvement Districts as sponsors, while side-stepping neighborhood associations that are more skeptical.
“We do not want to get in a position of arguing and vying with BIDs,” said Margie Valdez, the zoning and planning committee chair for Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation, a citywide alliance of associations. “This is a way to divide and conquer.”
INC members voted 18-5 to oppose Initiative 300 on Oct. 8, with some arguing only city-registered neighborhood organizations should have a say on the permits.
Initiative backers say they are getting some neighborhood group support, with Uptown on the Hill east of downtown recently endorsing the measure. Some attribute INC’s vote to “petty political reasons.”
State Rep. Jonathan Singer, who has endorsed the initiative, says it “will be a good bellwether to see whether there’s a real appetite among the electorate to solve this problem” of tourists and renters whose landlords don’t allow marijuana at home having no place to use it.
The Longmont Democrat has floated ideas for legislation that would allow for private clubs or even “tasting rooms” at dispensaries, with no success.
If Initiative 300 passes, he said, the Denver measure would give police another option besides issuing citations to people who violate prohibitions on public marijuana consumption.
“Finally, law enforcement is going to have the opportunity to tell people: ‘You know what, you can’t smoke in the park, you can’t smoke in a hotel, you can’t smoke in any number of places — but here is where you can go,’ ” Singer said.
City officials who have raised legal questions about Initiative 300 are waiting to see whether voters direct them to implement the permit program. Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration so far isn’t taking a firm stance for or against; his marijuana policy director, Ashley Kilroy, says voters should consider the initiative carefully.
If it wins voter approval, the council would be tasked with reviewing the permit program and deciding whether to continue it after four years. But rules for voter-initiated ordinances would allow the council to amend or repeal it any time after six months passes, if its members muster a two-thirds supermajority.
Under state law, licensed marijuana businesses cannot apply for the consumption area permits, but their owners could seek permits for an adjacent property, as a city attorney has pointed out.
Some of the activists behind Initiative 300 pulled a similar measure last year before it qualified for the ballot. They returned, and others have said, with an initiative that incorporated concerns they heard expressed this year by community groups during the council’s impassioned debates about marijuana industry regulations.
Smart Colorado, a group that supports tight restrictions to keep marijuana products from getting into the hands of children, is the top supporter of the Protect Denver’s Atmosphere opposition group, providing most of about $25,000 an organizer says the group has raised so far. That compares with $34,711 raised through Sept. 30 by the pro-Initiative 300 campaign.
Both are relatively small sums to wage citywide campaigns. However, the big players in the marijuana industry, which are branching out into chains of dispensaries, have stayed on the sidelines.
Among pro-marijuana activists, the withholding of support for Initiative 300 by the Denver chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) stands in contrast to endorsements by NORML’s state chapter and its national office.
Besides Smart Colorado, the opposition group includes the Colorado Restaurant Association’s Mile High chapter, the American Lung Association in Colorado, the state chapter of the Group to Alleviate Smoking Pollution (GASP) and DUID Victim Voices, whose name includes the acronym for driving under the influence of drugs. Opponents note that bars and restaurants could face resistance to seeking consumption area permits from their insurers.
Rachel O’Bryan, campaign manager for Protect Denver’s Atmosphere, has speculated, though, that plenty of businesses near residential areas and along the 16th Street Mall would seek permits, affecting their neighbors negatively.
“Our belief is that this will not fix the problem in the city with open and public marijuana smoking,” she told The Denver Post. “This will only spread it throughout the city because the businesses are anywhere. The rooftops could be in any neighborhood.”
Supporters are predicting a slow and cautious roll-out of permits. Businesses seeking them are more likely to gain a business district’s or a neighborhood group’s approval along grittier parts of Colfax Avenue and Santa Fe Drive, where he is on the board for the Art District on Santa Fe, than in, say, Cherry Creek North.
One possibility, he said, is to try out a limited consumption area permit during Santa Fe’s First Friday events.
“I think we all know how conservative our neighborhood (and business) associations are downtown, and I can’t imagine that they’re going to allow these places to exist, at least on the front end,” one supporter told the council committee. “So the thought, and the fear, that this is going to run rampant is pretty silly.”
The initiative has a fan in Mike Eymer, who has donated $7,500 through personal and company checks. He’s the founder and CEO of Colorado Cannabis Tours, which allows customers on its private buses and limousines to use marijuana.
He sees a need for Denver to keep up with other states and cities that may embrace legal marijuana — providing more competition.
“Denver would be sending the message that they want to continue to flourish,” he said. “It would be arrogant to say that cannabis tourism has not benefited the economy as a whole. … These are very reasonable laws we’re talking about passing. We’re not talking about people smoking on the street.”