Denver Considering Permanent Dispensary Drive-Thru, Walk-up Windows

Customers wait to pick up a purchase at a walk-up window at Higher Grade, a Denver dispensary.
Thomas Mitchell
Customers wait to pick up a purchase at a walk-up window at Higher Grade, a Denver dispensary.
Drive-thru weed could become a permanent fixture here if Denver City Council moves forward with an amendment to a local marijuana ordinance.

Created as a response to COVID-19 guidelines issued through Governor Jared Polis's executive orders at the start of the pandemic, takeout marijuana sales — through curbside transactions, as well as drive-thru and walk-up windows — are currently allowed in Denver. What started as temporary rules were permanently added to the state marijuana code on January 1 by the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division, but local jurisdictions must opt into the MED's rules in order to continue takeout pot services after the pandemic.

At a March 2 council subcommittee meeting, the discussion of two proposals that would create marijuana delivery and hospitality programs and also overhaul several other aspects of the local pot landscape went on so long that there was little time for other business. But Councilman Chris Hinds managed to squeeze in the subject of to-go sales, which would be banned by a proposed ordinance crafted by the city's Department of Excise and Licenses.

"I have some concerns about that," said Hinds, who was left unable to walk by a 2008 spinal cord injury; he asked for the reasoning behind the proposed prohibition.

Denver Police Department Sergeant Aaron Kafer, the DPD representative at the meeting, explained that police preferred returning to in-store sales after the pandemic ends, citing better surveillance opportunities and protection against crime, underage sales and customers purchasing more than their 1-ounce-per-day limit. He provided no statistics, however. During the first half of 2020, 97 percent of dispensaries passed tests conducted by the MED using customers with underage or fraudulent IDs, but that data doesn't specify whether any of those attempts were made at to-go windows or during curbside transactions.

Excise and Licenses Deputy Director Molly Duplechian told councilmembers that her department hadn't heard of any crime issues connected to walk-up windows or to-go services, but explained that the city hasn't tracked issues with those business modifications, either.

Some Colorado dispensary owners estimate that online and to-go sales now account for nearly half of their customer transactions, and have expressed a desire to keep several of the new systems after the pandemic ends. The MED agreed with dispensary owners allowing to-go sales, but noted that a legislative change would be required to continue allowing online ordering at dispensaries, which is currently banned by state law; a bill proposed in the Colorado Legislature proposes such a change.

Councilmembers Kendra Black and Robin Kniech both said they'd interested in a potential amendment from Hinds that would allow drive-thru windows in Denver going forward, but Councilmember Debbie Ortega said she was hesitant to encourage more idling cars in the city out of concerns over environmental impact and noise pollution.

“Not every place available is going to have space to do that. I just think this requires more of a conversation,” she said.

The council subcommittee should have that conversation before March ends; Black, who's the chair, said she'll schedule another meeting "next week or the week after," when councilmembers can continue to talk about the bills proposing delivery, hospitality and social-equity measures.

Although the council is expected to approve the proposals, their language could change before they go to a final vote, with discussion still looming regarding such issues as delivery hours of operation, the small number of new marijuana sales licenses available under the city's current dispensary limit, and the allocation of social equity licenses and technical assistance.