On June 16, Adams County became one of Colorado's first counties to consider marijuana-friendly businesses, but the conversation was quickly put on hold as county commissioners review a new state law intended to advance marijuana industry ownership among people in communities harmed by the drug war.
A bill creating an applicant definition for the state's marijuana business accelerator licenses and future social equity programs — as well as allowing Governor Jared Polis to mass-pardon former marijuana possession charges of two ounces or less — was passed by the Colorado Legislature at the very end of the session on June 15, just a day before a marijuana hospitality ordinance was scheduled for a hearing with the Adams County Commissioners. As a result, consideration of the ordinance, which proposes a licensing structure for marijuana-friendly businesses, mobile lounges and dispensary tasting rooms in unincorporated Adams County (not locally governed towns such as Aurora or Thornton), was postponed to an as-yet-undetermined date.
Although the new social equity definition applies to licensing in Colorado, local governments typically use state rules as examples while updating their own pot policies. With a definition in place for the state Marijuana Enforcement Division's upcoming accelerator business licenses (a form of micro-license intended to boost pot-industry ownership among communities affected by the War on Drugs) and any future social equity programs that might be implemented down the road, Adams County Commissioner Emma Pinter proposed sidelining the discussion so that the commissioners can learn more about the bill, which Polis is expected to sign.
"If we could have some time to discuss that...because I wasn't aware of the final draft of the legislation," Pinter suggested, quickly receiving approval from her colleagues.
According to Adams County Attorney Heidi Miller, the hospitality ordinance as currently written "would require a change from the board and direction from the board to allow [social equity] licenses." She notes that the social equity bill "went very quickly" in the legislature, taking county officials by surprise.
Denver's new Marijuana Licensing Work Group has been meeting since May to draft recommendations for future city policy concerning marijuana hospitality and delivery businesses, both of which were legalized in 2020. MIG Executive Director Truman Bradley, also a MLWG boardmember, says that social equity has been a focal point of those meetings, and wonders why Adams County didn't start its hospitality conversations with a similar approach.
"Given the things going on right now in Colorado, and even nationally, Adams County is missing an opportunity to help right a wrong here. Even just a conversation on a local level, to begin with," Bradley says. He suggests that county and other local governments consider options such as setting aside licenses for social equity applicants or using marijuana tax revenue to fund minority business loans.
The proposed Adams County ordinance would restrict marijuana-friendly businesses from locating within five miles of each other, as well as prevent any hospitality business from being within 1,000 feet of any public or private school, licensed daycare, playground or public-housing facility. Social pot consumption spaces must also be at least 100 feet away from any church, youth center, public pool, arcade, correctional facility, halfway house or any facility for rehabilitation or the developmentally disabled, and 50 feet from any residential property.
"Whenever these ordinances are considered, my hope is that municipalities think through the consequences of each setback," Bradley says. "Something that jumped out at me was that there is a five-mile buffer zone between businesses. That seems excessive. If it's meant to ensure equal [geographical] distribution, I think there are better ways to do it."
Issues such as the distribution of micro-sales licenses, potential caps on marijuana-friendly businesses and whether or not smoking will be allowed indoors are likely to be addressed in future hearings, after county commissioners review the new social equity definition.
Under that definition, a social equity applicant must be a Colorado resident who has been arrested for or convicted of a marijuana offense, was subject to civil asset forfeiture related to a marijuana investigation, or has lived in a designated zone of low economic opportunity or high crime; anyone with a family member who has been subject to marijuana-related offenses would also be eligible, as would applicants living under a to-be-determined level of household income.