Justin Jones, far right, takes a hit amid onlookers (L-R) C.J. Fuchs, Dwayne Red Mendoza and Norm Hartman at the iBake pot club in Englewood in July 2015. iBake is one of a small handful of marijuana smoking lounges in the metro area. (Denver Post file)

Denver social pot use plans are getting overhauled

Activists behind a proposed Denver ballot initiative to allow some marijuana use in bars and other businesses say they will pull the measure, The Denver Post has confirmed.

Their new goal: crafting a compromise measure with city and business leaders.

The verbal agreement with a group that includes City Attorney Scott Martinez averts a public vote in November — one that might have allowed more extensive pot consumption in publicly accessible places than city officials and some business leaders were comfortable with.

Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project said fellow backers of the Limited Social Cannabis Use initiative planned to announce the withdrawal Thursday, before Friday’s expected certification of the measure for the Nov. 3 ballot.

Activists now will shift to working with city officials and the state restaurant and lodging associations to work out an ordinance that they hope will be considered by the City Council within the next year. The Downtown Denver Partnership, which represents business interests in that area, also plans to take part.

“We’re not approaching the withdrawal of this initiative lightly,” said Tvert, who also was a co-author of Colorado’s marijuana-legalizing Amendment 64 in 2012. “We believe that cannabis users deserve the freedom to congregate and socialize to the same extent as alcohol users.”

They found ready support in the ballot petitioning process, turning in 10,700 signatures, more than twice as many as needed.

Although Denver police have shut down private cannabis clubs, the city’s marijuana policy office this year began examining, as an evolving regulatory need, the potential of allowing some social use of marijuana. The idea came up in council races last spring, with some successful candidates open to the idea in part because tourists lack places to consume their purchases legally.

But city efforts were in early stages when Tvert and Brian Vicente of cannabis-focused law firm Vicente Sederberg — both frustrated with what they saw as inaction — began the push for the initiative.

Tvert and several people involved in the recent talks say it’s too soon to predict what will result. Options could range from a narrow ordinance that allows private clubs to a more extensive law that would break new ground in Colorado by allowing patrons of some bars to vape inside or smoke outside, as the initiative proposed.

The initiative withdrawal “ensures we now have the time and ability to include all interested stakeholders to reach consensus on this important issue,” said Councilman Albus Brooks, who represents most of downtown. “I am committed to working on a broadly acceptable solution.”

But finding common ground for an expansion of the current law, which restricts consumption mostly to private residences, might prove tricky. There’s also the chance that a consensus proposal won’t go far enough for activists.

While Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration took no position on the proposed initiative, the city attorney’s office questioned the legality of its scope, given state laws against public consumption that its lawyers viewed as conflicting.

And Sonia Riggs, president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association, expressed adamant opposition on behalf of about half of the state’s restaurants, in part based on concerns that insurers might drop coverage of all restaurants because of liability concerns.

This week, the Colorado Hotel and Lodging Association/Metro Denver Lodging Council and the Colorado Restaurant Association said in a statement that they appreciated the activists’ withdrawal of the initiative.

“Our respective industries are committed to working with the proponents and the city to find a solution that reflects the interests and concerns of all stakeholders,” their statement said.

The proposed initiative divided Denver restaurant and bar owners, who would have had the option to allow marijuana use. Riggs said Wednesday that she would approach the discussions with an open mind.

“I do understand there’s a concern from their part that they need to have addressed,” she said of initiative backers, “just as there’s a concern from our side.”

For their part, city officials say they can’t offer assurances. They also plan to gather input from neighborhood and community groups on the issue.

“We can’t guarantee an outcome on it, obviously, but it’s something we’ve been looking at,” said Ashley Kilroy, Hancock’s executive director for marijuana policy. “We do believe that there’s area for conversation around this and that there’s a lot of other considerations.”

Martinez said his office isn’t drawing bright lines, allowing city policymakers to consider all options first.

“I’m not going to throw down the legal hammer until there are specific” proposals, he said, adding: “We are all working to find clarity within the law so that people can operate with certainty.”

If activists are dissatisfied with the coming discussions, though, they will have a fall-back option: going back to the ballot on their own next year.

In a presidential election that probably will have wider turnout than this fall, Tvert sees an even greater chance for passage.

But he said a successful compromise with city officials and other interests as more likely to result in “a law that we know the city would be comfortable with and will not resist and will actually implement.”

Jon Murray: 303-954-1405

This story was first published on DenverPost.com