As Colorado Jumps Into New Marijuana Businesses, Boulder Stays Still

A private marijuana-friendly event takes place at Phil Lewis Art Studio & Gallery in Boulder.
Jacqueline Collins
A private marijuana-friendly event takes place at Phil Lewis Art Studio & Gallery in Boulder.
Despite Boulder’s crunchy reputation, the town is sitting on the sidelines as municipalities across Colorado unveil plans for new forms of marijuana businesses going into 2021.

The University of Colorado Boulder's connection to the 4/20 holiday fizzled out long ago, but the town voted heavily in favor of recreational pot legalization in 2012, and 152 business licenses have since been issued for marijuana cultivation, dispensaries, extraction labs and other operations in the town, according to the state Marijuana Enforcement Division. Boulder also had a head start in medical marijuana delivery, thanks to a decade-old ordinance allowing medical marijuana delivery long before the practice was legal at the state level in 2020.

Even so, there are concerns within the marijuana industry that Boulder's progress has come to a halt as new marijuana opportunities appear across the state.

Before dispensaries, grows, home-delivery services, social-consumption lounges and other marijuana businesses can pop up in Colorado towns or counties, their respective local governments must opt into them first. Boulder City Council, like Denver's, calls on a committee of local stakeholders for advice on all cannabis policy changes, including which state-level options the city will adopt. But compared to Denver's cannabis advisory board and other governments around the state, the Boulder Cannabis Licensing Advisory Board has moved slowly.

“I mean, who voted for cannabis legalization and wouldn’t be excited to use cannabis in a high-end dining setting and explore options beyond alcohol?" asks Alana Malone, co-owner of Boulder-based cannabis concentrate company Green Dot Labs, and one of six current members of the CLAB.

In early December, Aurora City Council approved recreational cannabis delivery that could start as early as next month, and Denver’s advisory board released an extensive list of recommendations for marijuana delivery, hospitality and other license types this month, too. City councils in Dillion and Glendale have both opted into marijuana hospitality, as did the board of county commissioners in unincorporated Adams County. Boulder neighbors Longmont and Superior recently legalized medical marijuana delivery, and their respective town councils hinted at exploring recreational delivery in 2021 as well.

Boulder, on the other hand, isn't close to a council vote on marijuana delivery or hospitality, as the CLAB has yet to draft any recommendations on the issues. On December 7 — the same day Aurora City Council voted on recreational pot delivery — the Boulder advisory board was split 3-3 on whether to recommend the creation of local recreational marijuana delivery permits.

Since its inception in May, the CLAB has made recommendations for only two policy changes: an update allowing dispensaries to carry hemp-derived CBD products, and a technical change regarding marijuana concentrate production; meetings have focused on nine guest speakers covering a total of seven topics.

“We have a lot of community stakeholders on the line who have been wanting to know where [new policy changes] are going to go for years," Malone says.

The marijuana business owner was president of the advisory board, but stepped down in November after public criticism from residents during board meetings that questioned Malone's potential conflicts of interest. “Unfortunately, we are just not making progress in our conversations, because we’re having to continuously manage and respond to strongly worded mischaracterizations of who we [the marijuana industry] are,” she explains.

But some of Boulder's marijuana advisors would rather extend the conversations surrounding marijuana delivery and hospitality, and believe the town would benefit from a more patient approach. Robin Noble, a community-at-large boardmember who joined to represent Boulder residents with negative marijuana experiences, says having tighter rules is worth the extra time.

According to Noble, her teenage son developed cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS), a condition triggered by regular pot use that causes extreme nausea and vomiting that often lands patients in the emergency room. After learning more about the potency of some legal marijuana products, Noble says she felt a responsibility to take part in local rulemaking so that Boulder didn't further normalize marijuana.

“My son just didn’t believe his diagnosis. He kept pointing at the green crosses and saying, ‘Mom, look, this is medicine. This is what people use when they’re feeling sick,'" Noble remembers. “On the one hand, we treat marijuana in ways that normalize and even glamorize it — and then on the other hand blame parents for not overcoming the messages.”

CU-Boulder researcher and information sciences assistant professor Brian Keegan, one of the two education and health seats on the board, agrees that taking the longer approach has been useful, penning an op-ed in the Colorado Sun that criticized Colorado's marijuana delivery law, and warned businesses against embracing it. Keegan’s research at CU-Boulder has centered on how culture and data inform public policy; on the CLAB board, he sees himself as a bridge between data and policy.

“I think I hold the education seat, and maybe the council had a different view that this would be held by a schoolteacher or something like that, although I do serve as a university professor, as well," Keegan says.

Boulder's first rendition of a marijuana advisory board was more specific regarding what roles the members would fill, calling for a CU-Boulder representative, a Boulder Public Schools representative, three marijuana-industry representatives, a public health and safety representative, and a local Chamber of Commerce representative. The less prescriptive nature of CLAB requires seven total members: two industry members, two members with “a connection to the health or education field,” and three members from the community at large.

Also on the board are Ashley Rheingold, a representative of Boulder-based dispensary chain Terrapin Care Station; former CU-Boulder health services director Dr. Tom Kunstman; and Michael Christy, a Boulder attorney and former Judge Advocate General Officer in the United States Air Force. Rick Muñoz, a local medical marijuana patient, stepped down from the board in November and moved away from Boulder, citing his opposition to a temporary ban on gatherings for 18-to-22-year-olds to quell the spread of COVID-19.

Having an even number of CLAB members puts the board in peril of more gridlock, according to members.

Between the November and December meetings, Boulder City Council asked all six to answer the same three questions: What about the board has made the board happy this year? What has made the board sad this year? And what does the board look forward to in 2021? The majority of members mentioned Muñoz's departure as a disappointment, and several others lamented the lack of progress and direction the board has made.

The CLAB will meet on January 4 to revisit the vote on delivery recommendations, but since the board will continue to have an even number of members, there may be little movement. Filling Muñoz's vacant seat — which the board hopes to do in the near future — could be the first step in changing that.