A tourist from Charlotte, N.C., smokes a joint on the bus during a marijuana tour hosted by My 420 Tours in Denver in December 2014. (Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post)

Denver’s social marijuana use panel clashes over rollout details

Denver city officials have brought together a disparate group to advise them on how to implement the city’s first-of-its-kind social marijuana use permit program. When the panel met this week, the gaps between competing interests were hard to miss.

Neighborhood advocates and others wary of open marijuana consumption pressed during a two-hour discussion Wednesday for concrete restrictions on a number of fronts for Initiative 300-authorized consumption areas. Businesses will be able to apply later this year for city permits to create set-off, 21-and-over areas where customers can consume their own cannabis.

But among marijuana legalization activists on the panel, a chief sponsor of Initiative 300 said that while he was looking to compromise, he could only move so far. Emmett Reistroffer from Denver Relief Consulting, who led the pro-300 campaign, warned that too many changes could make the new law unrecognizable to voters.

Already, he and other backers are fighting in court to reverse a new state liquor license rule that will bar alcohol-serving establishments from seeking the new permits.

“There were roughly 170,000 Denver voters who voted for this initiative, and I’m the only one sitting up here really representing the ‘yes’ side,” he said. “I just don’t want that whole wall to fill up with suggestions here and then I have to figure out: How does all of that fit into the intent of what these voters approved?”

Rachel O’Bryan, who managed the anti-Initiative 300 campaign — and now also serves on the city’s advisory group — replied: “I just want to say on the record: 150,000 voted against it,” including majorities in some outlying council districts.

“So there is a significant portion of the city that didn’t want to see this — and now that it’s going forward, I’m sure they want to see it incredibly, carefully, thoughtfully regulated,” she said.

And so it went during the third meeting of the Social Consumption Advisory Committee.

Ultimately, city officials will make the final call on the regulations. As they seek input, they are leaning on an advisory committee whose members come from a range of perspectives that also include marijuana industry representatives and other vocal opponents of Initiative 300.

That’s by design, said Ashley Kilroy, Denver’s longtime marijuana policy director and now its licensing director. She observed that the dynamic of hotly competing viewpoints that was on exhibit more strongly during the third meeting came after the first two dealt with less controversial regulatory details that produced more consensus.

Already, participants have brought up issues and concerns that weren’t on her radar, which was one of her motivations in selecting the wide-ranging group. “We also picked people who we thought would be vocal … but would be able to do that respectfully,” she said.

The advisory group has disagreed to varying degrees on how to ensure consumption areas aren’t too close to where children regularly gather, how much training permitted businesses should give employees on recognizing and dealing with intoxication, and how stringent the city should be about odor control.

But they have found some common ground, typically on more mundane issues such as location restrictions, which draw on the city’s previous experience regulating the liquor and marijuana industries.

The Department of Excise and Licenses has said it could begin accepting businesses’ applications for Initiative 300 permits sometime this summer. First, though, city licensing officials are aiming to finalize proposed regulations in coming months.

Other considerations could weigh on their decisions, including the prospect of new state legislation on marijuana. And they also are keeping an eye on signals from the federal government, which through White House spokesman Sean Spicer loosely signaled Thursday that a heavier hand could be in the offing when it comes to enforcement against states’ recreational marijuana laws.

The contours of Initiative 300

Initiative 300, which 53.6 percent of city voters approved in the November election, requires the creation of a four-year pilot program. Most businesses, including cafes and even yoga studios, will be able to seek one-year or event-based permits for separate consumption areas indoors or outdoors (for smoking).

The initiative included several initial stipulations, including some geared toward safety and limiting children’s exposure.

Importantly, it requires that permit-seekers first obtain backing from a single local neighborhood or business group — which gives the outside group a chance to influence operating conditions and set more stipulations.

Still a big issue: mixing alcohol and pot

A complicating wrench has been thrown into the advisory committee’s discussions in the form of a recent lawsuit lobbed at the state by plaintiffs including Reistroffer, business partner Kayvan Khalatbari and his Sexy Pizza chain, and the Initiative 300 committee.

The suit, filed Feb. 3, challenges a new Colorado Liquor Enforcement Division rule that bars liquor licensees from allowing the consumption of marijuana on their premises — effectively keeping them from participating in Denver’s new permit program.

Aubrey Lavizzo from the La Alma Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association said having a lawsuit plaintiff at the table violated the spirit of the advisory committee. He said the committee faces enough challenges as it helps city officials navigate uncharted waters.

For now, the prospect of bars or other alcohol-serving establishments seeking Denver’s new permits is moot because of the state’s rule.

But the committee broached the subject Wednesday in a spirited discussion. Denver licensing director Ashley Kilroy said the committee would have the option of recommending a Denver-specific rule on “dual consumption” if it chose, to ensure certainty in case the lawsuit succeeds or Colorado’s rules change.

Reistroffer made clear why he and other backers view the issue as important: People already smoke or consume marijuana at concerts and in bars, even if it’s illegal.

“The intent of the initiative was clearly to keep places like entertainment and music venues in mind,” he said, since their main offering is live music or performances. “They (also) serve liquor. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to be serving liquor at the same time as cannabis — they could have a special event for cannabis. But under the liquor rule, that’s completely taken out of the equation.”

But who should decide, if Denver gets the chance to allow liquor licensees to participate?

Reistroffer suggested a permit-backing neighborhood association would be best suited, since it could set conditions on the level of commingling it deems appropriate for that area of the city.

Others disagreed, with Lavizzo among community representatives who argued that the city might be best suited to make a blanket rule on such a complex topic that they saw as sure to be met with resistance by skeptics of Initiative 300.

Still more distinguished between an open rule for liquor-serving businesses and what might be a more narrow “single consumption” stance. That would force liquor-serving businesses to choose between allowing alcohol or marijuana on a given day, or for special events.

“This is huge,” said Margie Valdez of Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation, “and I would hate to see us try to resolve the issue in a 20-minute or 10-minute conversation, because it really does present a huge problem for residents and neighborhoods in Denver.” She sighed: “Aye-Yi-Yi.”

What comes next?

The advisory committee didn’t come close to resolving the question. In the end, if the state’s rule changes or is struck down, the issue could be up to the Denver City Council or licensing officials to resolve.

Three more meetings of the panel are set, on March 10, March 24 and April 6. All start at 9 a.m. and are in the same fourth-floor room in the downtown Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building.

This spring, once licensing officials propose rules governing Initiative 300, the city plans to have a public hearing to get further input before adoption. Kilroy said the working group also will get a chance to respond to the document that results in part from its discussions.

“It’s been very valuable for me to hear from all these different voices,” she said, “so that when our staff is ready to take all this information and distill it, we feel that we’ve heard all the different perspectives.”

This story was first published on DenverPost.com