Cannabis and music have always gone hand in hand, but even since Colorado legalized recreational pot use in 2012 with Amendment 64, it is still illegal to consume cannabis in public and in private businesses that are accessed by the public – including concert venues.
This November, voters in Denver will have the opportunity to address the issue with Ballot Initiative 300, which, if passed, will create a pilot program that allows limited social cannabis consumption in permitted private establishments.
Consumption would still have to follow the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act – meaning that cannabis could only be consumed indoors in non-smokable forms like edibles or vaporizers, or alternatively smoked outside in designated areas that aren’t visible from the public right of way.
The initiative also has a social-justice angle to it, recognizing that many citizens can’t smoke cannabis inside their homes because of restrictive living arrangements or landlords, and that citations for public consumption have gone up significantly since 2012 – especially for people of color.
The pilot program is aimed at a broad spectrum of businesses, from art galleries to cafes.
But here at Westword, we were particularly interested in how likely it is that concert venues in Denver would jump on board the opportunity to allow patrons to partake at shows if voters say yes to 300 this November.
The short answer: It’s complicated.
Kayvan Khalatbari, one of the initiative’s principal organizers, explained that it’s not just a matter of a venue deciding to allow cannabis consumption on its premises; the business must first get approval from a registered neighborhood organization (RNO) or business improvement district (BID).
So even though there are already venues like the Aztlan Theatre, Cervantes’ Masterpiece Ballroom, the Church, City Hall, Club Vinyl, Milk, the Oriental Theater and Voodoo Comedy Playhouse that have put their support behind the initiative, those businesses still must convince their local RNO or BID to grant them a permit.
Khalatbari adds that the conditions of the permits are set by the community organizations – so, for example, if a neighborhood wants to limit the days or hours that cannabis can be consumed at a local business, it can do that.
"This allows them to make regulations that are considerate of the neighborhood," explains Khalatbari. "Without having any municipality in the world regulate social use of cannabis yet, this is something we really want to ease into, and it’s a way for best practices to get developed."
And unlike a liquor license, which gives a business the ability to sell alcohol for a year each time it is renewed, the cannabis use permits could be revised and updated frequently as community organizations learn what they are comfortable permitting at their local businesses.
Kayvan Khalatbari, second from right, and other proponents of the Neighborhood Supported Cannabis Consumption Pilot Program at the Denver Elections Division.
One problem with this, however, is that not all RNOs and BIDs are supportive of 300, so in the case that it passes, it really depends where a business is located when it comes to a venue’s ability to obtain a cannabis-use permit.
Khalatbari points to supportive organizations around Denver like the West Colfax BID, the Colfax on the Hill BID, the Bluebird BID, Capitol Hill United Neighbors and the Santa Fe District. But other coalitions, including the Mile High chapter of the Restaurant Association, the mayor’s administration and some RNOs – particularly those located downtown – haven’t been as amenable to the idea.
"The city keeps using the Restaurant Association to say that Denver businesses don't want this…," he continues. "No, fuck you…. [It’s] downtown Denver businesses [that] don't want this. But downtown Denver businesses aren't representative of the whole Denver community."
At the moment, it’s also not clear how large corporations like Live Nation and AEG Live that operate popular venues like the Ogden Theatre and the Paramount would approach the issue should the initiative pass. Neither company gave Westword a stance on 300 or an answer as to whether they’d apply for cannabis-use permits.
Still, Khalatbari says, “I fully believe that once a few organizations take this on, then more people are going to see the competitive advantage of doing this and pursue it…. Most people I've talked to have been supportive of it." He says this includes upwards of 200 businesses and counting.
It also includes the prominent backing of the Democratic Party of Denver, Senator Irene Aguilar and state representative Jonathan Singer.
Khalatbari is hopeful the initiative will pass.
Besides, he says, the stakes are high if it doesn't; Khalatbari cautions that Denver could undermine its success with cannabis tourism if California and Nevada legalize recreational pot use this November. He says both states have language in their proposals that allows for the possibility of developing social-use policies similar to what is being suggested in Denver's Initiative 300.
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So, in short, if Denver voters say yes to Initiative 300 this November, will you be able to partake at your favorite concerts next year?
And that’s a big, fat Maybe.