Pot Bars in Denver?: Inside "Limited Social Marijuana Consumption Initiative"

Our coverage of 4/20 weekend raids at two Denver marijuana clubs highlights a continuing area of concern for cannabis activists: While locals and visitors can legally consume pot recreationally in Denver, they aren't allowed to do so in social settings outside private homes.

Now, Mason Tvert and attorney Brian Vicente, the two most prominent proponents of Amendment 64, the 2012 measure that made limited legal recreational marijuana sales legal in Colorado, are prepping a new Denver ordinance expected to be called "The Limited Social Marijuana Consumption Initiative."

The proposal isn't finalized, Tvert stresses. Yesterday, backers of the initiative took part in a review-and-comment hearing with city officials — a routine part of the process. Their goal is to have final language in shape by week's end, after which the document will be submitted to the City Clerk's office. A petition will then need to be approved and just over 4,700 signatures collected by early September in order for the initiative to earn a place on the November 2015 ballot

As for the gist of the plan, Tvert says, "It's very simple and very narrow — a narrow exemption to Denver's current ban for social marijuana consumption by adults. It simply gives private businesses the ability to allow adult marijuana consumption in areas that are only accessible to people 21 and older, as long as it's not viewable to the public. It would require signage in that area, for example.

"It's basically protecting adult consumers' rights by making it clear that if your'e an adult and you're consuming marijuana on private property, and the property owner is allowing marijuana consumption, then you will not be punished. And if you're a private property owner allowing adults to consume marijuana on your property, as long as you're following those rules, you will not be punished."

The measure would allow for the establishment of private clubs such as Grassroots Colorado and POTUS Club, two businesses shut down in April; representatives of the operations also say the city is pressuring landlords to evict them as alleged nuisances. However, Tvert says a club structure wouldn't be required under the initiative.

"Marijuana would not be sold at any of these establishments," he notes. "But the initiative would allow for a business to cater to adult marijuana consumers and provide that type of environment. If a business wanted to provide food and coffee and so on, in addition to allowing adults to consume marijuana, it could as long as it is being done in an area that's only accessible by people 21 and older. And it would conform to the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act. Adults would be able to use non-smokeable forms for marijuana inside — that would generally mean vaporizing — and they could smoke outside at a business as long as that area was not viewable by the public."

Tvert doesn't pull any punches when he talks about the reason the initiative is needed.

"This is the result of our city officials failing to address this issue," he maintains. "This is something that's been addressed in other localities; Pueblo is a great example. But our city council has failed to address it, and this is a step we felt was necessary to move things ahead."

In an allusion to the aforementioned raids, he suggests that "city officials have been looking for problems — and we're looking for solutions. They've been trying to make it difficult for adults to use marijuana socially in private establishments, and this is a way forward. We're simply trying to create a solution that allows for this type of activity, which we believe Denver voters think should be legal."

This last contention isn't universally held. Tvert's already heard push-back from some folks within Denver government, as well as anti-marijuana advocates, who argue that "this isn't what Amendment 64 was about," he acknowledges. "But Amendment 64 was clearly about trying to treat marijuana like alcohol, and allowing adults to use marijuana in private places, in private businesses, does just that."

Running a proposal like this one in an off-year election would seem risky, but Tvert isn't concerned. As he points out, Denver voters approved marijuana measures in both 2005 and 2007, also non-presidential-election years. And he thinks that waiting would be counterproductive, particularly given how many people are being drawn to Colorado due to the state's cannabis policies. Denver set a tourism record in 2014, and while city officials have been careful not to credit marijuana legalization for playing a role in the rise, Tvert is hardly reluctant to do so.

"We need to give tourists who are adult marijuana consumers a place where they can legally consume," he says. "We have a law that allows non-Colorado residents to purchase and consume marijuana, but it doesn't necessarily allow them places to consume it. If they're staying at a hotel that doesn't allow it, they're out of luck. And if people don't want to see it on the streets or in a park, we need to provide establishments in which it can be consumed responsibly, out of the sight of children and others who don't want to see it."
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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.
Contact: Michael Roberts