Smoke Lounge Owners Battle Trinidad Over Signage, Pot Rules

Launched last fall, the Feed Your Head shop and smoke lounge closed in May amid disputes with Trinidad city officials.
Courtesy of Kate Mullen
Launched last fall, the Feed Your Head shop and smoke lounge closed in May amid disputes with Trinidad city officials.
Update below: The owners of a now-closed "luxury smoke lounge" on Trinidad's dispensary-clogged Main Street have filed suit against the city's mayor, police, city council and district attorney, claiming that shifting local policies about pot consumption and weed-related signage doomed their business.

But the lawsuit's most intriguing complaint is a novel one: that officials are engaging in entrapment by courting out-of-state tourists with Trinidad's burgeoning cannabis industry, yet providing them with no legal way to consume their purchases — and thus encouraging the illegal transport of marijuana into New Mexico or other states.

Kate Mullen says that she and longtime friend Laurette Lyon, both from Texas, invested $400,000 in retirement savings into launching the Feed Your Head Shop and 420 Smoke Lounge last year. The business wasn't involved in marijuana sales but offered a gift shop, local art, concerts, an espresso and snack bar, foosball and air hockey, and a lounge where customers could "enjoy their legal cannabis purchase" from other licensed businesses.

The legal status of such businesses has been under fire since Colorado first approved recreational marijuana sales. Several "social clubs" that charge for memberships have been raided, and a bill that would have authorized private pot clubs failed in the state legislature last spring. Denver passed its own social use ordinance last November and is still in the process of implementing it.

Although her operation struggled to make a profit in its first months, Mullen insists the business model was sound. Trinidad has a population of about 8,000 people, but its proximity to Colorado's southern border (New Mexico is thirteen miles away) has allowed it to support close to two dozen recreational and marijuana dispensaries, with more opening this summer. The city's retail marijuana sales more than doubled last year, from $8.6 million in 2015 to more than $20 million in 2016. That works out to a jaw-dropping $2,500 worth of pot for every man, woman and child in the town limits. Mullen knew that most of those sales went to tourists from other states, and she figured Feed Your Head was providing a public service by offering a place to fire up.

click to enlarge The smoke lounge offered a place where customers could "enjoy their legal cannabis purchases" from local dispensaries. - COURTESY OF KATE MULLEN
The smoke lounge offered a place where customers could "enjoy their legal cannabis purchases" from local dispensaries.
Courtesy of Kate Mullen
"We came here to be a service business to the cannabis industry," Mullen says. "Without us, there's no place to smoke pot."

The shop shared a parking lot with city offices, and Mullen says the relationship with local officials was quite cordial during the first eight months of operation, with some city council members attending music-oriented events at the shop. But the official attitude toward the smoke lounge seemed to tilt perceptibly this spring, she says, after city manager Gabe Engeland left to take a position in California. It didn't help that a couple other local businesses began offering "all you can consume" cannabis nights for a nominal cover charge. Trinidad police chief Charles Glorioso and Third Judicial District Attorney Henry Solano sent out a joint letter advising those businesses that "such gatherings are illegal under State law. They are essentially a pretext for what amounts to a sale of marijuana to a consumer without a license to lawfully do so...these events are [also] in violation of State law prohibiting public consumption in several capacities."

Feed Your Head was not hosting such events. But the lawsuit complaint alleges that the business soon came under heavy police scrutiny, with several visits by officers telling them to remove signage referring to "420" or "smoke lounge" — and eventually, Mullen adds, even signs letting customers know they were open.

click to enlarge Police asked the Feed Your head owners to remove signs such as this one. - COURTESY OF KATE MULLEN
Police asked the Feed Your head owners to remove signs such as this one.
Courtesy of Kate Mullen
"We were never officially notified of any violation," she says. "We were simply visited by the police ten times in a two-week period. Finally, Charles [Glorioso] came in and insisted we take down our signs. But if I take down my signs, nobody's going to know I'm here."

Chief Glorioso declined to comment on the controversy, referring questions to Audra Garrett, the city's assistant city manager. Garrett also declined to comment, but did acknowledge that were was "an ongoing issue with signage" at the shop. City attorney Les Downs could not be reached for comment.

Representing themselves in lawsuits filed in both state and federal court, Mullen and Lyon claim in their complaint that the closure of their business was the result of "conspiracy via covert EX POST FACTO legislation by certain city cause closure to the ONLY cannabis lounge in Southeastern Colorado, in a city with 22 dispensaries and no public or private location or venue for traveling adult cannabis buyers to enjoy their legal cannabis purchase."

Mullen says the co-owners are trying to figure out their next move. "We have a luxury smoke lounge and no business," she says. "We had to liquidate everything to stay here and figure out what we're doing."

Update July 27, 10:20 a.m.: Trinidad city attorney Les Downs contacted Westword by phone this morning to offer additional explanation of the city's position on the closure of Feed Your Head. He says that the business owners were "putting up signs in violation of the existing sign ordinance" and also fell afoul of the city's decision to impose a moratorium on smoking lounges after statewide legislation on the issue stalled out this spring.

"The city was considering the possibility of allowing smoke clubs, but people were having all kinds of events and bashes," he notes. "Many of them violated the law. If you're going to do it, you have to do it privately and not accept money for it, and licensed marijuana businesses can't give away their product for free. So the city imposed a moratorium."

Downs says the city "never gave our blessing" to any smoke lounge, including the one Mullen and Lyon openly operated for several months. He acknowledges, though, that there is a potential problem in the sizable marijuana sales in Trinidad to nonresidents, with little opportunity to consume the product locally: "If we are in any way perceived as catering to or encouraging interstate commerce in this, we could be the first municipality to be shut down. But the business has been a shot in the arm economically, after so many years of being a town that goes from boom to bust."