Dancing and smoking in the rain after lighting up at the Denver 420 Rally at Civic Center Park in downtown Denver, Colorado, April 20, 2017. (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post)

Want to go to one of Denver’s new social pot use events? Proposed rules say you’ll need to sign a waiver

Businesses that obtain permits to offer Denver’s first-in-the-nation areas for social marijuana use would have to require patrons to sign waivers as they enter. They would have to follow a ventilation plan if they allow the use of vaping devices indoors.

And if they have a liquor license, they would have to halt any alcohol sales and seek a temporary suspension of the license while marijuana use is occurring, preventing any “dual consumption” by customers.

Those are among rules proposed by the city’s top licensing official Thursday — and they are the chief sticking points that likely will register objections in coming weeks from backers of last fall’s Initiative 300.

The voter-passed law directed the city to implement a four-year pilot program that allows some businesses to seek annual permits to create set-off, 21-and-over areas where customers can consume their own cannabis — so long as a business obtains some backing from a local neighborhood or business association. The new law also allows one-time events to seek permits.

“Since the very beginning, we wanted this to be a discussion between neighborhood groups and businesses,” said Emmett Reistroffer from Denver Relief Consulting, who led the pro-300 campaign. “We think some of these rules kind of circumvent that intent.”

Meanwhile, opponents of I-300 have concerns of their own, including seeing too few restrictions to keep children at a business away from the new “designated consumption areas,” whether indoors or out, and to protect nearby residents from any effects of marijuana use at a local business.

“There is absolutely no buffer zone in these rules for consistent marijuana use backing up to homes,” said Rachel O’Bryan, who managed the anti-Initiative 300 campaign.

There were bound to be plenty of complaints from both sides to the draft rules, which Denver’s Department of Excise and Licenses posted online Thursday afternoon. A widely represented advisory committee that met from January to April offered starkly conflicting input on some issues.

But the group did reach consensus or even unanimous agreement on most matters, noted Ashley Kilroy, executive director of the licensing department and Mayor Michael Hancock’s longtime marijuana policy adviser.

Those include requirements that business applications for consumption areas be subject to public “needs and desires” hearings, as are licenses for liquor- and marijuana-selling businesses. And businesses would need detailed plans for employee training to avoid underage entry and risky situations.

“I’m glad it’s a pilot program, because we don’t know yet what we don’t know,” Kilroy said. “Our city has taken the same path that we’ve tried to take with regard to marijuana legalization overall — which is that we’re deliberate and we’re measured, and we’re trying to listen to as many stakeholders as possible,” placing particular focus on safety and public health.

Still, sponsors are “ready to move forward”

Reistroffer said that even though he and other I-300 backers likely will lodge objections at a public hearing next month, the draft rules largely advance the ball toward implementation — something he hopes to see happen quickly.

“Overall, I think we’re just ready to move forward and to allow businesses to get these permits,” he said, “so that the community and, really, the entire world can start to learn from this program.”

Kilroy’s department tentatively plans to finalize the regulations late next month and begin accepting permit applications in July from those willing to pay fees that total $2,000. They could come from a plethora of businesses that might include yoga studios, coffee shops with back-door patios, or even bars or restaurants that are willing to meet strict liquor exclusion rules for regular or one-off events.

A public hearing on the administrative rules has been set for 5:30 p.m. June 13 on the fourth floor of the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building near Civic Center.

Before they apply, businesses first must obtain backing for the permit from a local civic group, which could include a city-registered neighborhood organization or a business improvement district, which could set operating conditions in exchange for their support.

Here are some of the other proposed rules:

Location restrictions: Businesses that seek permits already cannot place consumption areas where they’d be visible from the public right of way under Initiative 300, or within 1,000 feet of schools. The proposed regulations add that restriction for child care centers, alcohol or drug treatment facilities, and city-owned recreation centers and outdoor pools. Permits also wouldn’t be allowed within residential zone districts, but Kilroy said that doesn’t include properties with mixed-use zoning (a concern that Reistroffer had). Events taking place on public property could not seek marijuana consumption permits — and events that serve alcohol couldn’t seek the permits, regardless of where they occur.

Permit considerations: Besides ventilation and odor-control plans, applicants would have to show evidence of detailed preparations for marijuana waste disposal and prevention of underage entry to the consumption area, over-intoxication by patrons, driving while intoxicated and illegal distribution of marijuana. Businesses can’t sell marijuana themselves. While hearings would be automatic for business permits, event permits would face a public hearing only if 10 people request one.

Operation restrictions: Businesses and event organizers that are granted permits would have to follow the plans they submit. They also would have to obtain signatures on waivers in which patrons acknowledge they are responsible for their own actions, will consume responsibly, won’t drive impaired and won’t share marijuana in exchange for money. The state’s indoor smoking ban also would apply, unless a business or event is staffed by no more than two employees or volunteers.

How bars could have marijuana events

State rules already prevent marijuana shops from allowing consumption on site, so they couldn’t seek Denver’s new permits. And last fall, state licensing officials announced a new rule that prohibits virtually all liquor licensees, including all bars and some restaurants, from allowing pot use on their premises.

But Kilroy told a City Council committee during a briefing on the coming rules last week that state officials do allow a liquor licensee to “de-license” their business temporarily by paying a $150 fee. That has been done by bars and restaurants when they host weddings whose organizers supply their own alcohol, for instance.

Initiative 300’s backers and other marijuana advocates have filed a lawsuit to reverse the new state liquor license rule. They argue that simultaneous drinking of alcohol and use of marijuana already occur safely, if unsanctioned, at concerts and in bars.

Reistroffer had lobbied licensing officials to propose no restrictions on dual consumption, in case the state liquor rule gets overturned.

But other committee members, including O’Bryan and Denver NORML, the local chapter of a national organization that favors legalization, differed on that point.

“I think almost the entire task force disagreed with that,” Kilroy said, citing a lack of definitive research on the effects of mixing alcohol and pot. “We think it’s only responsible that, right now — when we’re getting started under a pilot program — we disallow dual consumption.”

Reistroffer and fellow I-300 proponent Kayvan Khalatbari, who has filed paperwork to run for mayor in 2019, also object to requiring waivers, seeing little purpose in it.

Kilroy said waivers would be a way to make consumption areas less public to comply with state law; she also recalled Reistroffer suggesting that option at an advisory committee meeting.

But he said Thursday that he had put it on the table only as a way to address recent legislation in the General Assembly that would have better defined the existing restriction on open and public consumption of marijuana — a bill that ended up fizzling out this week.

O’Bryan, the I-300 opponent, said her complaints about some of the proposed rules underline a distrust that businesses will act responsibly. She would prefer more concrete restrictions, including requiring that businesses that apply for permits make their entire premises 21-and-older.

“We saw rampant (pot) use at the 4/20 event from people of all ages,” she said. “I have not seen evidence that the marijuana culture is trying to discourage underage use.”

This story was first published on DenverPost.com