Grassroots Colorado's Pot Club Fights Prosecution, Eviction

Last month, we told you about Denver police raids at two pot clubs over 4/20 weekend.

Among the places hit was Grassroots Colorado, located at 2209 Larimer Street.

The business, which includes a clothing and hat shop and a private club area known as The Break Room, may not be there much longer, however. 

Attorney Jeff Gard strongly believes that the allegations against Grassroots Colorado owner Ryan Connolly are unfounded and he plans to fight them vigorously. But before he could get a chance to do so, he says the City of Denver used nuisance abatement accusations to pressure the business' landlord to serve Connolly an eviction notice. Grassroots Colorado has been ordered to pull up stakes no later than July 1.

Connolly isn't going quietly. He's launched a GoFundMe page to raise money for a legal defense against city action that Gard feels should alarm plenty of folks beyond the marijuana community.

Grassroots Colorado isn't the first marijuana club for which Gard has worked. "I legally incorporated and got approved Club Ned up in Nederland," he says. "It was the first sort of above-board marijuana club in the state, and in order to open it, we had two problems to solve: public consumption and the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act.

"Marijuana clubs weren't given an exemption from the Clean Indoor Air Act like cigar bars when recreational rules were passed, and since that time, we've had a proliferation of public-consumption tickets," Gard continues. "Ryan wanted to do something about that, but he wanted to do it safely and legally. He had a good relationship with his landlord, so he approached me about a year ago to see how I was able to open Club Ned. And I advised him that he needed to organize as a private membership club — something like an Oddfellows or a VFW — because there is a private club exemption to the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act. As long as you're organized as a private club, the act doesn't prohibit you from smoking indoors. And because you're a private club, that solves the problem about private consumption, too. You can't just walk into an Oddfellows or a VFW and shoot pool if you're not a member, and you can't smoke at The Break Room unless you're a member."

Using these guidelines, Gard continues, "The Break Room came up with a membership agreement with a best-practices policy. Nobody was to sell anything, because that would be illegal, and nobody was supposed to smoke and drive — people were encouraged to use Ubers or taxis. They made sure everybody was doing what they were supposed to be doing correctly."

The Break Room wasn't designed to generate what Gard refers to as "a significant profit. It wasn't organized to make a lot of money. It was really for cannabis enthusiasts to enjoy the company of other cannabis enthusiasts in the privacy of a club."

For the better part of a year, The Break Room "operated without incident," Gard says. "There were no problems with patrons, neighbors or the police."

That changed on April 19, when "there was a citywide crackdown on cannabis activities, beginning with Civic Center Park and rolling through the city," Gard maintains. "Clearly, they were on a mission, much like CU a couple of years ago, to really throw a blanket over 4/20 activities."

On that day, Gard says, "Ryan was having a private membership club party at The Break Room. The police were alerted to it through their own channels, and a couple of undercover police officers went there. They were ID'd at the door and ID'd again internal to the entrance to The Break Room," which is physically separated from the clothing store part of the business. "Both officers became members, paying their $15 membership dues, and went inside, looking for what they probably assumed was illegal distribution or some such shenanigans."

Instead, "they only found Break Room members over 21 who were using cannabis. But the police didn't want to leave with their tail between their legs — and they ended up getting a free dab from one of the attendees not associated with The Break Room. They charged that young man with distribution, even though someone who's 21 giving marijuana to someone else who's 21 isn't distribution." Ryan, for his part, has been accused of violating the Colorado Clean Indoor Act and illegal operation of a marijuana consumption business.

These offenses are violations of municipal ordinances, not misdemeanors or felonies, Gard stresses. But while the first hearing on the allegations hasn't happened yet — it's slated for May 26 — Gard says Denver rushed to attack Grassroots Colorado on another front.

"The next day, they heard another division of the city — the nuisance abatement section," he allows. "That's the section that handles things like people who aren't cleaning up after their dog or storing an oil barrel in their alley. It's quasi-civil: Police investigate, but issues are handled as a civil action through the City Attorney's office."

In this instance, Gard says, "the detectives in the case wanted to speak to the landlord. I advised them that I didn't think it was appropriate to threaten the landlord with nuisance abatement when my client had done nothing wrong. The legality or illegality was highly disputed."

Nonetheless, the city "sent the landlord a letter threatening him with nuisance abatement for permitting what they call a class 1 nuisance," Gard notes. "That's something designed to prevent people from housing drug dealers, unlawful cultivation operations and things of that nature — none of which was going on."

Connolly wanted to see if the city would allow him to shut down The Break Room but run his clothing store while the matter was working its way through the system, "but the City Attorney was unwilling to do that," Gard says. "They insisted that anything having to do with Ryan be evicted now."

In response, Gard sent a letter of his own "explaining why I feel the operation of The Break Room is lawful and that they might not want to proceed against a landlord when the underlying activity isn't really a class 1 nuisance. But the landlord wants nothing to do with fighting city hall, doesn't want to make waves, wants to run a quiet real-estate concern without any hassle. That was part of Ryan's agreement with the landlord — that if there was any trouble, it wouldn't be the landlord's problem. So the landlord followed the city attorney's suggestion and has moved to evict Ryan, The Break Room and the Grassroots clothing company." He adds that the eviction date is open-ended, "but the city attorney wants him turned out by July 1.

"The city was correct in accessing that Ryan would be vulnerable if they went after the landlord — and regardless of the strength of his claim, he'll be out of the property. And that doesn't only affect his business. It affects the other private membership clubs that are operating in Nederland, Pueblo and Colorado Springs. And when the government attacks one private membership group, it's really going after all of them. This really comes down to a fundamental issue. Do we have the right to freely associate and act lawfully?"

From Gard's perspective, "Ryan is at the point of the spear on this. I've been convinced since we formed Club Ned that this is the right way to go about things until the state legislature acts to let tourists and people use private membership clubs. And unfortunately, we're going to have to take these issues to a court of law."

Is a lawsuit against the city a possibility? Gard is cautious when answering this question.

"For the client's sake, I try not to think about lawsuits when you're still staring down the barrel of prosecution," he says. "First thing's first: We've got to successfully persuad the city, the judge or a jury that the activities were lawful. And if that's proven to be so, and the city knowing all these things the way they did — being informed about the legality of the issues and still requiring that he be evicted — certainly gives us a possible case. The fact that Ryan will be required to pay for all of the costs of finding a new shop, plus the loss of sales from the clothing merchandise and the impairment of members to be able to congregate: All of those things are actionable, and they do have value.

"But to Ryan, this isn't about finding a golden ticket. It's about doing something he believed in, and doing it legally — and if the outcome of this is that we've proven the private association of cannabis enthusiasts is, in fact, legal and not something the government can use their power to scare you out of doing, that may be enough. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

Here's the introduction from the GoFundMe page, which can be accessed by clicking here.
My name is Ryan Connolly and I founded Grassroots Clothing and The Break Room private member club.

As recreational weed became legal, our customers began coming into our storefront asking where they could consume their legal weed. It was happening so often that we decided to convert another space in the back of my shop to a private smoking club so that like-minded members could come together to enjoy weed in private. Each of our members is over 21 yrs. old and agree to abide by the terms and conditions of private membership before being admitted as a member. We also made sure that the members were fully aware that they must BYOB (bring your own bud) and were prohibited from selling any of their weed to another member. It has been our mission to keep weed private and in a safe environment away from kids and the public.

On 4/19/2015 the Denver Police Department came into our shop and shut us down in what seems to be part of a large law enforcement crackdown over the 4/20 holiday. For some reason I received tickets for operating a marijuana business without the proper paperwork and for not complying to the clean indoor air act . Our building is zoned for mixed-use and we have two units in it. One for retail and one for the private smoking club. We do not believe that a private membership club is either a business or subject to the clean indoor air act.

Public vs private consumption of marijuana is still undefined in Denver and law enforcement is resistant to recognizing the legality of private consumption by private club members. We want to re-open the Break Room, but we want to do it legally. We have decided to close down the break room until we get further clarification from their city about their public vs private labels.

We are asking for your help in order to assist funding our defense against the state. We also need assistance paying for the Break Room staff members' employment while it is not in operation. Money collected past our goal will be used to lobby the state legislature to change our current legal system in order to formally allow private smoking clubs and to expand our current Break Room to other cities and hopefully other states one day!

For us, we happen to believe that in the state of Colorado we should be given a private safe place to smoke and keep weed off the streets. No we are not tripping over money from all the water sales and 3 Day Memberships we were selling and yes we put our necks on the line and are now asking for those who believe in our fight to support us so we can keep this fight going..


Ryan Connolly

Note: The text above has been adjusted to accurately reflect the accusations against Ryan Connolly. Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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