(Denver Post file)

Denver finalizes first-in-nation marijuana social use rules, dropping some restrictions

Denver’s plan to allow people to use marijuana at some businesses drew a step closer to reality Friday, when the city’s top licensing official unveiled final rules for the pilot program that is set to launch in coming months.

Big questions remain: Will the newly adopted regulations for the first-in-the-nation “social use” program provide measured protection for patrons and neighbors of businesses that take part, as city officials say? Or are the rules for consumption areas so restrictive that few businesses and event organizers will want to bother?

The exuberance that greeted the Nov. 8 passage of Initiative 300 — in which 54 percent of city voters directed officials to create a four-year pilot of the social marijuana consumption program — is now tempered among its chief supporters. Their protest of several draft rules released on May 11 resulted in only a couple changes by city officials, including the nixing of a proposed requirement that patrons sign waivers upon entry to a business’ consumption area.

“I still have questions that I need answered. We still have concerns about many of the rules,” said I-300 campaign leader Emmett Reistroffer, from Denver Relief Consulting. “However, I recognize some improvements and I’m hopeful that there still are opportunities for businesses and nonprofits to allow cannabis consumption.”

The city will begin accepting applications by the end of August to permit social consumption areas on an annual basis or for events.

As required by the ballot measure, applicants must obtain backing from a registered neighborhood organization, a business improvement district’s board or other area group. That gives those groups the power to set operating conditions for the set-off, 21-and-over areas indoors or outdoors where customers could consume their own cannabis; indoor areas would have to follow the state’s smoking ban.

Yoga studios, coffee shops could take part

Interested businesses so far have included yoga studios, coffee shops with back-door patios, and bars or restaurants — though liquor license-holders must be willing to meet strict alcohol exclusion rules for regular or one-off events, since state liquor licensing rules bar the mixture of alcohol and marijuana.

Businesses that grow or sell marijuana in Denver won’t be eligible to apply for consumption area permits. Fees for successful permit applications will total $2,000.

Officials say they need to update licensing systems to process the applications, so that likely will push back the acceptance of requests from an original late-July target. Reistroffer called that delay a big disappointment because backers were hoping for summer events to be among the first to take advantage of the program.

“We have had a very aggressive timeline, and we’re right on time” in finalizing the rules, said Ashley Kilroy, executive director of the Department of Excise and Licenses, adding: “Building any structure from the ground up takes time.”

Owner Jim Norris works behind the coffee counter at Mutiny Information Cafe on December 2, 2016, in Denver, Colorado. Along with co-owner Matt Megyesi, Norris intends to apply for a social marijuana use permit once the city's Department of Excise and Licenses works out the particulars of how to implement Initiative 300.
Owner Jim Norris works behind the coffee counter at Mutiny Information Cafe on December 2, 2016, in Denver, Colorado. Along with co-owner Matt Megyesi, Norris intends to apply for a social marijuana use permit once the city’s Department of Excise and Licenses works out the particulars of how to implement Initiative 300. (Denver Post file)

An advisory committee including both supporters and opponents of I-300 helped shape the regulations. The committee found broad consensus on some issues but disagreed on a handful of the most contentious.

“We are grateful that many of our concerns were heard,” said Rachel O’Bryan, who managed the anti-Initiative 300 campaign and took part in the committee, in a statement. “These final rules released by Denver Excise & Licenses fairly balance the desires of marijuana consumers and potential social consumption permit-seekers with the needs of all Denver citizens and visitors alike.”

But she cited worries about the message that would be sent to children who saw the consumption areas in businesses and about patrons’ use of edibles. “Denver citizens and visitors should be vigilant around the increased risks of marijuana-impaired driving,” O’Bryan said.

Initiative 300 provided some restrictions for businesses, and the city’s new regulations flesh those out while adding detailed rules, often drawing from the city’s prior regulations of the marijuana and liquor industries. They focus on operating restrictions and location restrictions — purely residential zoning districts, public property, and properties within 1,000 feet of places such as schools and child-care centers are off-limits — and provide numerous permit conditions, including public hearings for business applications.

What changed between the draft and final rules?

Kilroy did bow to the initiative backers’ concerns on some issues.

The licensing department won’t require patrons to sign waivers as they enter a consumption area. Instead, the businesses must post a visible notice advising patrons they are responsible for their own actions, must consume marijuana responsibly, should not drive impaired and cannot share marijuana in exchange for money.

The other major change drops a requirement for a business to create and follow a ventilation plan if it allows the use of vaping devices indoors. Kilroy said that ultimately was deemed unnecessary since city requirements currently provide adequate ventilation and applicants already need an odor-control plan.

I-300 supporters argued the change would cut down on public pot-smoking by providing places to use marijuana for tourists and for some residents who can’t smoke or vape at home, as well as people who want to do it socially.

Among I-300 backers’ most pressing concerns about the new rules, Reistroffer said, are proximity and location restrictions that might keep too many businesses from applying, advertising rules that bar promotion by permitted businesses and a prohibition of events that allow marijuana on public property.

“The city is largely overlooking what’s going on at Red Rocks,” he said, calling that a prime opportunity for occasional events with designated marijuana-consumption areas, since pot use frequently occurs unsanctioned among concert-goers. “I think they should work with us to create designated consumption areas. I think the people want that and think it makes sense.”

He said the city’s rules could persuade those interested in permits to revert to hosting private, invite-only events if that would be easier.

The new rules may not be the final word. State legislators could tweak laws on the public consumption issue — a similar effort failed in the recent session — and I-300 requires the Denver City Council to oversee an evaluation of the program before it expires at the end of 2020.

The council also could make changes to the voter-passed ordinance with a two-thirds majority. If the new regulations prove unworkable, Reistroffer said, I-300’s supporters could appeal to the council for help.

But in the meantime, he says, the campaign committee also recognizes what its members see as a big step forward.

By the fall, Reistroffer said, he hopes to pin down a venue, line up the required community support and host one of the first cannabis-friendly events under the program for I-300 campaign supporters.

This story was first published on DenverPost.com