Marijuana activist Emmett Reistroffer and cannabis consultant Kayvan Khalatbari hand deliver more than 10,800 signatures for a public cannabis use ballot initiative to the Denver Elections officials. Backers of a Denver initiative that would allow adults to consume cannabis in regulated, neighborhood-approved consumption spaces submit a petition to city officials with more than twice the umber of voter signatures needed to qualify for the November ballot. (Vince Chandler, The Denver Post)

Social pot use: Issue heats up in Denver as competing initiatives turn in signatures

The Denver Elections Division still has to verify signatures, but if both groups have enough, voters will decide on social pot use in cannabis-specific clubs or regular businesses designated for consumption

Denver elections officials are reviewing petitions for two potential local ballot measures that would allow the social use of marijuana — one in private clubs and the other in regular businesses, such as bars or cafes or even yoga studios, under certain conditions.

Backers of the competing social pot use initiatives each turned in thousands of petition signatures this week, the latest on Friday.

Whether to allow more prominent use of marijuana — and where — is shaping up as the biggest local debate ahead of the Nov. 8 election. For Denver, it could solve a problem that emerged in the wake of Colorado’s legalization of recreational marijuana: Outside of their private property, there are few places for people to consume it.

The issue is particularly vexing for tourists, but one supporter said that’s not the only result of the lack of choices.

“We’ve seen public consumption citations and arrests increase dramatically here in Denver over the last couple of years,” said Kayvan Khalatbari, co-owner of Denver Relief Consulting, which is the main backer of the proposed initiative that focuses on consumption areas in businesses.

“We’re seeing some of the highest disparities in arrests for people of color over white folks for public consumption of cannabis,” he said. “And it’s often not because of the tourist issue, and giving them a place, but for the residents of Denver.”

He was among supporters who say they filed 10,800 signatures Friday for the Neighborhood-Supported Cannabis Consumption Initiative, so-named because each business that applies for a consumption area permit would need support from a neighborhood organization. It takes 4,726 valid signatures to make the ballot, and the Denver Elections Division has more than three weeks to verify the signatures.

In this June 11, 2016 photo, a marijuana reform advocate with the group NORML holds a clipboard while waiting for passersby to sign a petition to get a pot club initiative on the ballot in the next election, in Denver. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
In this June 11, 2016 photo, a marijuana reform advocate with the group NORML holds a clipboard while waiting for passersby to sign a petition to get a pot club initiative on the ballot in the next election, in Denver. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Earlier this week, Denver chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) said it filed more than 6,500 petition signatures for its Responsible Use Denver initiative, which would allow private marijuana clubs. That tally leaves less room for error, but chapter director Jordan Person said supporters were continuing to collect more signatures through Monday’s effective petition deadline.

“We’ve worked so hard, and now I’m happy that now it’s coming to a head,” she said.

Denver city officials haven’t acted on the social use issue, in part because some question if state law fully allows local laws allowing some form of public consumption. A few cities and towns in Colorado have allowed private clubs. Though Denver city attorneys raised some questions about both proposals as they were being drafted, officials have declined so far to weigh in on the potential initiatives.

Person and Khalatbari said either initiative would offer an improvement for Denver, though each argues their approach would be better. Each would require patrons to bring their own cannabis products.

“It’s going to be a personal preference for voters,” Person said. The campaign, which could involve radio ads and other outreach from both sides, “is going to be about education,” she said.

Conceivably, voters could approve both, though it’s unclear whether each would then take effect — since they don’t necessarily conflict — or if the higher vote-getter would.

NORML’s supporters argue voters may find private clubs more preferable since those would be less noticeable and would keep consumption private. Those places would not be able to sell prepared food or alcohol. The initiative also would create permits for special events that allow pot consumption.

Marijuana lawsuit targets Kayvan Khalatbari Illinois involvement
Kayvan Khalatbari co-owns Denver Relief Consulting and the Sexy Pizza restaurant chain. (Cyrus McCrimmon, Denver Post file)

Khalatbari’s group includes some of Amendment 64’s original backers, who argue for a mainstreaming approach that would provide 21-and-older areas for marijuana use within existing businesses. They pulled a similar social-use initiative last year after city officials agreed to discuss potential solutions, but no action resulted.

This time, Khalatbari and activist Mason Tvert say their proposal is better, in part by requiring a business seeking annual or temporary permits to obtain support from a neighborhood group or business improvement district. Those groups could set conditions that city licensing officials would incorporate into the permit.

Their goal, they said, was for a handful of responsible businesses to lead the way in marijuana-friendly neighborhoods during a four-year pilot period. By the end of 2020, the initiative would give the council the ability to let the new ordinance expire, tweak it or make it permanent.

The indoor consumption areas couldn’t allow smoking under state law, and outdoor areas would have to be outside the view of public rights-of-way and places that draw children.

Since state law bars marijuana business licensees from allowing consumption on site, dispensaries wouldn’t be allowed to take advantage.

This story was first published on DenverPost.com