Going to Pot

The University of Colorado Alumni Association was finally fed up with the beating its alma mater had taken in the press. "CU is still about 25,000 great students: taking midterms, enduring chemistry labs, sweating through math homework, memorizing art history, examining business law and agonizing over how they can best find their place in the world," Kent Zimmerman, the association's president, pronounced in a recent rallying cry to the troops. "It is our job to do all we can to help them out."

Starting by installing a ten-foot-tall Styrofoam toilet on the Boulder campus, where students, staff and faculty members alike could deposit all their concerns about CU -- and then flush them away.

But washing away CU's woes won't be that easy. "It's quite obvious that with all the school is going through -- the Ward Churchill thing, providing alcohol to high school kids to get them on the football team, of all things -- they're trying to divert attention away from those by talking about marijuana," says Mason Tvert, executive director of Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation. "But what's the bad image?" On Monday, SAFER hosted a rally in front of the University Memorial Center by the Dalton Trumbo Fountain -- a monument honoring a CU alum willing to risk jail and career suicide in order to support free speech -- to push a referendum that asks students whether the "university's penalties should be no greater for student marijuana use and possession than those for student alcohol use and possession."

"Five kids in Colorado alone died last semester from alcohol-related incidents, and marijuana hasn't killed anyone," Tvert points out. "We need to look at the culture of drinking that has permeated these schools. Marijuana is illegal, but alcohol is also illegal if you're a minor, and it has far more harmful consequences -- date rape, vandalism, fighting. They're problems that marijuana has never been linked to."

Still, SAFER is starting its crusade with a baby step: trying to change not the law, but school sanctions. "If you get caught -- whether on or off campus -- you're going to get whatever the law stipulates," Tvert says. "Then you're going to have to get what the school says. We want to balance that." Right now, for example, if an underage student is caught on a first-strike violation with alcohol, CU gives him five hours of community service -- but he gets ten if the first-strike violation is for marijuana. "There's a very, very obvious difference," Tvert notes. "It sends the message that alcohol is more acceptable here."

The message comes across in other ways. At CU, for example, an events facility is named after a major brewer. And at an appearance at Colorado State University, where SAFER pushed a similar referendum last week, the spot designated for Tvert's group was right beside a booth promoting Bacardi. No one who dropped by the booze table was worried that the administration might go after them for doing so, unlike some of the students who stopped by the SAFER booth. Even so, CSU students passed the referendum -- and now administrators have to decide what to do with it.

CU students, who have until Friday evening to vote, told Tvert they were worried about the school cracking down, too. About 75 percent of the kids who came to Monday's rally wanted to ask about the annual 4/20 festivities at Farrand Field, an informal celebration of pot that's still on -- pending some last-minute CU maneuver to avoid any more bad publicity in a season filled with it. "Most people are just out there to be out there, not even smoking pot," Tvert says. "The school is so worried about its image. But a kid choking on his own vomit and dying is a far worse image than someone smoking a joint and falling asleep."

The group that gathered outside Old Main an hour after the SAFER rally was also concerned about CU's image. A little over a year ago, when the school's worst problem -- public problem, at least -- was its reputation as the country's number-one party school, several students decided to create the Colorado Creed. "As a member of the Boulder community and the University of Colorado," it says, "I agree to: Act with honor, integrity and accountability in my interactions with students, faculty, staff and neighbors. Respect the rights of others and accept their differences. Contribute to the greater good of this community." It goes on, but you get the idea -- as will people who spot the full Creed inscribed on brass plaques placed around the campus, with certain critical Creed nouns also embedded in stones studding the sidewalks.

"We all know this is an excellent institution of higher learning and personal growth," the Colorado Creed Committee vowed as the first stone was unveiled, "and we are not defined by negative media images."

Such as giant toilets?

Since its porta-potty plan was announced, the CU Alumni Association has reconsidered. Instead of placing a giant toilet on campus on April 21, it will now set up a jumbo scale of justice.

That should set things straight.

What a Grind

Springtime in the Rockies.

Twelve inches of snow Monday morning, and by Tuesday, it's warm enough to sit outside on a patio, enjoying the sun and a cup of coffee sweetened by some neighborhood camaraderie.

But not at the Perk & Pub. Not yet.

On April 11, supporters of the little West Washington Park coffeehouse descended on the Denver City Council, eager to speak on behalf of a measure that would allow non-conforming uses like an outdoor patio not just at this neighborhood spot, but at other neighborhood spots -- as long as the neighbors approve.

Soon after Kimmie Cominsky and Dave Blanchard opened their Perk & Pub last April, they set up seating on the wide sidewalk outside of the tiny storefront. They had the city's blessing -- or so they thought -- and the clear support of neighbors, who quickly made the modest, fifteen-seat patio a popular gathering place. Until the West Washington Park Neighborhood Association complained, and the city decided that it had allowed the patio in error, and city council voted last June to prohibit patios in such residential areas, even if the business that the patio fronted -- the Perk & Pub, say -- was in a hundred-year-old commercial building that pre-dated the residences and already held such a property-enhancing amenity as a coin laundromat.

The city gave the Perk & Pub until last November to shut down its patio, roll up the sidewalks and cut off a major source of cash. "We could have thrown our hands up, but we didn't want to do that," says Cominsky. Instead, they tabled a second, much larger Perk & Pub slated for the Highland neighborhood, where they'd planned to serve the alcohol they'd already promised they'd never offer in Wash Park. And they put a third spot just east of downtown on hold, too. "We kind of put the cart before the horse," Cominsky admits now.

They put everything they had into saving what they'd started.

By that time, they had an ally stronger than the most potent cup of Perk & Pub coffee, Councilman Charlie Brown, who pushed the "boomerang bill" to undo what many councilmembers hadn't realized they'd done last June. And Monday night, after an hour-long public hearing at which the WWPNA was conspicuous by its absence, the proposed changes to the ordinance passed, twelve to nothing. "It was a 100 percent turnaround," says Brown.

"We made a huge stride," says Cominsky. "We're on cloud nine right now. We just want to be on cloud ten -- but that won't be until May 17."

That's when the Perk & Pub is scheduled to go before the Board of Adjustment, which will consider the coffee shop's request for a variance that would officially permit a patio. Cominsky would have liked an earlier date, but the only possibility was a slot on the day the board will be considering a contentious McDonald's drive-thru on Colfax Avenue -- and right now, she'd like to keep things a little quieter.

A lot more neighborly, too. "The Perk & Pub is more than just getting a cup of coffee and having revenue," she points out. "We want to create community." And, with any luck, a patio where that community can gather to grab a cup of coffee, catch the latest news, connect.

"I hope this makes the council realize that you can't just throw a bill out there and pass it without getting all parties involved," Cominsky says. At least a few do. Both Brown and fellow councilman Michael Hancock apologized to the Perk & Pub for the problems last summer's vote caused. Brown went on to thank me for the column that had brought the snafu to his attention ("Brew!" October 26, 2004); Hancock talked about how, in this era of BlackBerries and cell phones, it's important for people to truly come together. (The councilmember who was on her BlackBerry most of the meeting may have missed that message.)

So on this sunny spring morning, Cominsky counts the days until the Perk & Pub can reopen its patio. She may even stack the chairs and tables outside early in May, as a reminder that as past unpleasantness melts away, good times are just ahead.

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