Bill Allowing Social Pot Use and Dispensary Tasting Rooms Moves Forward

Jacqueline Collins
A bill that would allow social cannabis consumption in Colorado dispensaries, hotels, cafes and other businesses passed its first test on Wednesday, March 27, when it moved out of a House committee on a 7-4 vote.

Recreational cannabis use has been legal in Colorado since late 2012, but it's only allowed in private dwellings and establishments, with "open and public" pot consumption banned by the state constitution, despite Amendment 64 being billed as a measure to "treat marijuana like alcohol." Past legislative efforts to create a licensing system for social consumption businesses have failed, but sponsors of House Bill 1230 are confident of their chances this year.

"The problem we're trying to solve is twofold. We have an issue with the public consumption due to a poor definition of 'open and public' in Amendment 64, that being that there is no definition of 'open and public,' so it puts us in no man's land," Representative Jonathan Singer told members of the House Business Affairs & Labor Committee at Wednesday's hearing.

Singer, the bill's sponsor, said he introduced the proposal in order to provide legal consumption spaces for tourists and other cannabis users who would otherwise smoke or vape in public places. "That's problem number one," he explained. "Problem number two is we have medical marijuana patients and also recreational marijuana users who would like to use it in their own residences, but the problem is that their landlords can ban the use of a federally illegal substance."

Another Singer bill that would have allowed tasting rooms in dispensaries passed through the legislature last year but was eventually vetoed by Governor John Hickenlooper, who said he felt that allowing social consumption was premature. With a new (and more cannabis-friendly) governor, Jared Polis, now in office, pot advocates pushed for a more comprehensive bill this year.

Instead of just allowing dispensary tasting rooms, HB 1230 would create marijuana hospitality licenses for consumption areas, such as cannabis-friendly lounges, hotels, cafes, arcades, music venues and so on. These businesses could apply for a license to allow limited cannabis sales for on-site consumption, or a non-sales license to allow pot use in their establishments. Any locations with active liquor licenses would be prohibited from applying for either license, and local municipalities could choose to permit or ban such businesses, just as they can dispensaries.

If approved, the bill would also allow cities with their own social consumption rules, such as Denver or Colorado Springs, to tweak the program to fit their own local rules.

This proposal does have opponents, too. Representatives from the American Lung Association, Cancer Free Society and other smoke- and tobacco-free groups voiced their strong displeasure with the bill's proposed exemption from the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act, which bans smoking in public places.

According to American Lung Association Colorado director Ellen Penrod, the bill would allow restaurants and other businesses to apply for cannabis smoking areas that would be similar to the tobacco-smoking sections of years past.

"Secondhand marijuana smoke contains some of the same carcinogens and toxins in secondhand tobacco use. Exposure to secondhand marijuana smoke can exacerbate health problems, especially for people with bronchitis and emphysema," she said during the hearing. "This would be a loophole big enough to drive a truck through the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act."

Still, many cannabis users and business owners testified in support of spaces where people could safely consume outside of their homes. Patterson Inn owner Chris Chiari currently allows his guests to smoke cannabis on their private outdoor patios or vape it in their rooms at his nine-room bed-and-breakfast in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood. Because his guests sign short-term leases, they're allowed to legally consume in their rooms, but he'd prefer offering a space where his guests could consume socially.

"I would love to be able to carve out a space for the guests in the hotel — I already have a specific room in my mind," he told committee members. "I love the idea of knowing that in a hospitality environment, if an adult had 10 more milligrams [of cannabis] than they needed, they could turn to my staffers for help. In Amsterdam, they give you a Snickers bar and a Coke, and 95 percent of the people walk out ten minutes later."

The measure would require the state Marijuana Enforcement Division to implement much of the social consumption program's details, including how much cannabis could be served to patrons and how employees of licensed establishments would monitor intoxication and potential stoned drivers.

The bill now moves to the House Finance Committee; that hearing date has not yet been determined.

Social marijuana use wasn't the only controversial cannabis measure heard by the committee yesterday. A measure that would legalize medical and recreational pot delivery in Colorado was discussed at length by lawmakers and stakeholders but was eventually laid over because of confusion created by the number of amendments introduced.