On Monday, Denver City Council members held a straw poll to determine if they wanted to continue toward regulations for the recreational marijuana industry made possible by the passage of Amendment 64 -- and a 10-1 vote showed the majority did. Also shared was a draft of a proposed local licensing ordinance (see it below) that would prevent people who don't already have a licensed medical marijuana business from applying until January 1, 2016. Why? To keep out the "idiots," says councilman Chris Nevitt.
"Nobody knows how this is going to turn out," Nevitt says about the retail system in the offing. "In the next couple of years, we'll see. But we want to make sure that we have the best businesses on board -- that we don't have a lot of knuckleheads with the potential of making the city and the industry look bad."
The margin of the straw poll vote didn't surprise Nevitt, in part because "nobody was making a commitment to vote in favor of whatever regulatory scheme we arrive at."
He also feels the officials were mindful of the enormous support Amendment 64 enjoyed among Denverites last November. "We live in a republic," he says. "It's not a plebiscitary democracy, but the public did vote for Amendment 64, and that sends a clear message. I think it's our responsibility as elected leaders of the city to take that to heart and move forward with making what we believe are decisions that are in the best interests of the citizens of the city."
Still, Nevitt acknowledges that even as some council members "took the opportunity to say, 'We shouldn't opt out,' they also said, 'If we're going to opt in, there are certain things I want to see in the regulations.'"
Which brings us to the draft ordinance. A council sub-group made up of Charlie Brown, Mary Beth Sussman, Christopher Herndon and Nevitt joined with Denver Assistant City Attorney David Broadwell to present some ideas their colleagues "could react to," he notes. "Now, we'll see how they respond. But in our drafting, we reflected our personal beliefs of what we see as good policy."
Among other things, the draft extends the state's six-month phase-in period for existing medical marijuana businesses to transition to adult-use retail. "We think it should be longer than that," Nevitt says, "until January 1, 2016."
Doesn't this approach discriminate against individuals wanting to enter the business in favor of those who've already planted an MMJ foothold?
Not in Nevitt's view.
"The idea that it closes off the marketplace to any new entrants is simply a misnomer," Nevitt maintains. "What we carefully wrote into our draft is that you can have a change of ownership and a change of location. New owners still have to go through the same screening process any new owner would, and locations would have to comply with location restrictions. But this means that if you want to get into the marijuana business, buy in.
"Lord knows there's a serious dearth of capital in the marijuana industry, because they can't bank," he continues. "So if anyone wants to make a major investment in the industry, I don't think they'll have a hard time finding people who want to do business with them. Some people might view it as a restraint of trade or controlling the marketplace, but we think there's plenty of ways for people to come in."
Besides, he believes the delay brings with it a stability that's rare when it comes to nascent industries.
"When the gold rush happened, every moron and his brother went to California thinking they'd strike it rich, and most of them went home flat broke because they were idiots," he says. "And the same thing happened with medical marijuana. We had a kind of gold rush, and a lot of people rushed into it, and a lot of people failed because they didn't know how to do business, or they were crooked.
"But now, a lot of those people have been weeded out. The people who are left are efficient and professional, and they've weathered the storm professionally after three radical changes in the regulatory system under which they live, not to mention being illegal federally. So we feel pretty good about the businesses we have now."
That's a positive, Nevitt feels, because "we're sailing into uncharted waters, and we don't want any bad apples on board."
The 2016 date is also an advantage from another perspective, in Nevitt's view. "Citizens voted for Amendment 64 two-to-one. But nonetheless, I think it's clear that after voting for it, some are still nervous about what this world is going to look like. There's a concern that, 'Oh my God, now that it's completely legal in Colorado, marijuana will just overwhelm our economy and our streetscape.'
"So by having this phase-in period, we're basically saying to our citizens, 'The marijuana stores that you see now, the marijuana businesses that are currently operating -- well, that's all you're going to see for the next couple of years. They're not going to take over our streets or our economy.'"
Not that he expects the industry to stagnate. "It'll probably grow, no question," he concedes. "But the visibility of it will not really increase, because the number of businesses will stay the same for the next couple of years."
Here's the complete draft.
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More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana: Governor John Hickenlooper signs six pot bills that 'are charting new territory.'"