A bill that would allow cannabis dispensaries to apply for consumption-room licenses passed its first obstacle on Monday, March 19, when a Colorado General Assembly House committee's approval moved it closer to the floor of the House — but not without some changes.
Sponsored by state representatives Jonathan Singer and Jovan Melton, HB 1258 would open the door for tasting rooms attached to recreational dispensaries that would allow consumption similar to what's allowed at a brewery or winery. The model would have more purchasing and consumption limits than its liquor counterparts, however, and the tasting areas would only be allowed next to recreational stores, not medical dispensaries.
"One of the biggest problems we've seen since the decision to legalize marijuana is the issue of public consumption," Singer said as he introduced the bill. "We don't want to do a bait-and-switch on the tourists or Colorado citizens who choose to use this legal product." Singer believes allowing consumption areas by dispensaries would decrease the number of people consuming pot in parks, on streets or in their hotels, a reason that the Colorado Hotel and Lodging Association supports the bill.
"It helps solves a problem that we've wrestled around with," Melton explained to his House colleagues. "I think that this bill strikes a great balance in that it allows cities and counties to opt in. This allows us to finally build a framework and not have a patchwork."
While the bill would allow any county or municipality to set up its own licensing system for the tasting rooms, it would also allow localities to completely prohibit them or set up their own rules. For example, the measure would recognize Denver's Cannabis Consumption Establishment program that allows non-cannabis businesses to apply for private consumption spaces, as well as the plan previously agreed upon by Colorado Springs City Council that allows current private pot lounges to stay open for the next eight years, after which they must close.
The bill passed 8-5 in the House Finance Committee, but not without its fair share of opposition from certain interest groups and state representatives. Official opposition to the bill was vocalized by the Colorado State Patrol, the Cancer Action Network and cannabis prohibitionist group Smart Colorado over the dangers of impaired driving and secondhand cannabis vapor. "By allowing the consumption of marijuana on site, it creates an environment of an intoxicated consumer who has to find a way to get out of this establishment," CSP Major Steve Garcia told committee members. "We are seriously concerned about impaired drivers on the roadways."
There would be more impaired drivers as a result of allowing public consumption, Garcia added, explaining that his department would oppose legislation that could potentially increase stoned drivers on the road. "We are not anti-marijuana. As a member of law enforcement, I am very proud of current partnership with the marijuana industry," he said. "But the risk is too great."
Some lawmakers pushed back against Garcia. Representative Adrienne Benavidez asked Garcia if he was prepared to advocate against the alcohol and bar industry for alcohol-related traffic accidents, which far outnumber cases of stoned driving. "We allow that to go on, and that's causing a lot more deaths than marijuana," she said. "I'm not sure I buy the argument."
The bill has been pushed by dispensary chain Terrapin Care Station and has the support of LivWell Enlightened Health, one of the state's largest dispensary groups. Still, not everyone in the industry is totally on board. Southern Colorado Cannabis Council executive director Jason Warf, who represents cannabis business owners around the state, told the committee that he was neutral on the bill and concerned that it would push out other social-consumption models, like private lounges, while creating a financial disadvantage for mom-and-pop dispensary owners.
If the bill passes, application fees for a tasting room would be around $15,000, the bill's sponsors noted. "We're handing a monopoly to just the biggest guys," Warf said. "The majority of the industry still struggles financially. To have this idea of grandeur that these folks are just going to open clubs is incredibly shortsighted. They don't have the money, they don't have the time [and] they don't have the staffing."
The bill was initially slated to allow medical dispensaries to apply for a tasting-room license, but an amendment now prohibits that because of concerns that patients younger than 21 might consume in public.
Another significant point of contention could be purchasing amounts: The current language of the bill allows customers in the tasting room to purchase and consume no more than 3.5 grams of flower, 1 gram of concentrate or a 10-milligram edible. However, it also allows the state Marijuana Enforcement Division to change those limits, and the MED is already trying to do so. Speaking on behalf of the MED during the meeting, deputy directors Dominique Mendiola and Kyle Lambert recommended that the purchasing limit start at 1 gram of flower, 0.25 grams of concentrate and a 10-milligram edible.
The bill will now move on to the House Appropriations Committee for consideration.