Colorado has yet to figure out this whole public pot consumption thing, with only one licensed establishment designated for social cannabis use in the entire state. One way for visitors and Coloradans alike to enjoy a day on the town while legally toking up was a tourism business that operated private buses — or so they thought.
The City of Denver and the Denver Police Department conducted multiple sting operations on cannabis bus tour companies in June. As a result, My 420 Tours saw two employees arrested and numerous customers cited for public pot consumption, even though the company had been operating for years without DPD interference. The business isn't tucking its tail and running away, though; instead, it's vowing to fight the charges in court. To learn more, we caught up with My 420 CEO Danny Schaefer.
Westword: What happened in June between My 420 Tours and the City of Denver?
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Danny Schaefer: On June 15, members of the Denver Police Department's Narcotics, Vice and District 2 units conducted a sting operation against My 420 Tours and Colorado Cannabis Tours. During this sting, multiple plainclothes officers posed as guests of these tours and joined the tour experience. At the end of the tour, the on-board officers sent the "sting signal" to officers following the bus, who proceeded to stop the vehicle, board the bus and arrest the driver under suspicion of DUI. They immediately separated our staff from our customers, confiscated their cell phones and proceeded to issue citations for unlawful acts, overlapping licensing, and violations of the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act. They then continued to issue criminal citations to all seventeen guests on board, most of which were guests from out of town, before one of the officers drove the bus with our staff and guests back to headquarters.
What's the current status of the trials? Are you still operating in Denver?
We provided legal resources for all parties impacted by this unfortunate event and all customers entered into a plea bargain with the city, and the majority of guests accepted a non-cannabis-related civil penalty of smoking on the 16th Street Mall, which imposed a $100 fine. The companies involved paid, and continue to pay, all legal fees and fines for our guests, staff and tour guides.
Unfortunately, the city is attempting to make an example out of our employees and has refused to come to a reasonable resolution. So our staff has decided to move forward with a trial. We anticipate four separate trials in Denver’s municipal court. We have provided the best legal team money can buy to fight these wrongful prosecutions. We feel confident that a jury of Denverites will understand that it is common sense to provide travelers a safe place to consume, and will embrace the service we provide through our educational and life changing experiences.
I saw that the company was providing visitors with rides during the City's Marijuana Management Symposium. How'd it feel to be a partner with the same jurisdiction that's prosecuting you?
My 420 Tours has partnered with the City of Denver and the state Marijuana Enforcement Division since 2015 to provide transport, professional guides and industry-insider access at the annual Marijuana Symposium hosted by the City of Denver. While we might be at odds currently, it was important to me that we continue providing this service to the city in an effort to set a positive tone for cannabis legalization. Cannabis education is essential to the success of cannabis and our business model, so we are honored to participate. Most participants of the symposium are regulators and enforcement agencies from across the globe, and we think it’s important that they see and learn from the best operators in the industry. During the symposium, I was fortunate enough to attend a session on the topic of regulating social consumption, and while it was frustrating to hear how hard of a time Colorado, Portland and Alaska have had regulating social consumption, it became apparent that the negative stigma of cannabis is still very prevalent in our political system.
To me, it seems states are fine with the economic stimulus the cannabis industry creates by way of new jobs, steep taxes, enhanced commercial real estate and more — but, man, when it comes to providing a way for people to consume, DON'T DO IT. The sky will fall, and stoners will take over the city.
Instead of taking responsibility for the issue of social consumption, I noticed most of the parties present just deferred the problem and blamed the feds and/or the states for not providing guidance versus being progressive enough to represent the will of the voters, come up with a solution and do what's right. It was also entertaining to hear the concerns about enforcement of intoxicated cannabis consumers, as if they pose even the slightest risk to law enforcement when compared to people intoxicated by alcohol.
I actually had a conversation with one of the Vice officers whom I have established a rapport with over the years, and he said, "Do you think there's any solution to the number of people that get over-intoxicated by alcohol?" He mentioned a local nightclub that has been known to over-serve its patrons, and he basically alluded to the fact that police have just thrown up their hands on enforcement, and instead will assign officers to close down streets and pick up the drunks at the end of the night. Never mind the serious drugs that have infiltrated the local nightlife scene; that's not worth a sting operation. They'd rather go after employees and guests of a cannabis tour who were peacefully learning about cannabis and taking a private bus tour at 2 o'clock in the afternoon. At the conference, I did see a few of our opposers, and we said our cordial "hello"s. There is no single party to blame, and it’s best to keep the arguing in a courtroom. The responsibility falls on both My 420 Tours and the city to come to an agreement that the community supports.
What does a pot tourism company provide to cannabis consumers in Colorado?
My 420 Tours was founded because there was a serious lack of education around most aspects of cannabis after recreational legalization, and there were virtually no places for visitors to consume responsibly. We started curating educational experiences to showcase the mature, regulated cannabis industry and offer greenhouse tours, wellness tours, walking tours, Buds and Beer tours, sushi- and joint-rolling classes, CBD massages and more. For consumption options, we utilize the limo exception in the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act, and we believe our private experiences should allow cannabis consumption in the rear of a private, for-hire limo, just as you can consume alcohol.
I believe our guests' consumption is legal and the furthest thing from "open and public," but that is just the beginning of our legal battle. We are now also tasked with fighting a criminal charge of "unlawful acts," which apparently had been recently modified to state ANY PERSON who engages in any form of business or commerce involving the consumption of cannabis without a license as contemplated in Article XVIII of the Colorado Constitution, the Colorado Retail Marijuana Code, the Colorado Medical Marijuana Code or the Revised Municipal Code. By license, I assume they are referring to the failed Designated Consumption Area license program in Denver, which would be unobtainable or cover the large majority of cannabis experience providers like us.
Apparently when the city envisions a consumption lounge, they just picture stoners sitting around getting stoned. But after being in this business for over five years and working with hundreds of thousands of cannabis consumers, I can tell you the large majority of them do not fit this stereotype and wouldn't be caught dead in a opium-den-type "cannabis lounge." Additionally, as any intelligent entrepreneur would tell you, the DCA program and license is more of a risk than a reward at this point. The DCA is currently a pilot program, which is set to sunset in 2020 (good luck raising money for a business model that expires in two years). Also, you need to find a unicorn of a commercial property that is owned outright and not financed by a bank (banks have been known to call in their notes on property owners operating cannabis businesses). Finally, companies like this would also have a hard time banking and or finding basic general liability insurance.
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How do you feel the city should regulate social consumption?
They should regulate cannabis consumption like alcohol, as it states in our constitution. As a father of two, I understand the concerns around consuming in public and, personally, I don’t want to see people lighting up joints on the corner. Education around cannabis and proper consumption is necessary. There are many ways to consume, but most consumers defer to what they know: flower. Just look at the statistics: 63 percent of cannabis sales last year was flower. There needs to be a safe place to consume the flower people are able to purchase at any one of our 500-plus dispensaries. Denver needs tour companies and other businesses to provide a safe and responsible place for people to light up while showing off our amazing city. At this point, cannabis is Denver's Disneyland for most out-of-towners, and the experiential aspect of cannabis needs to be embraced. Denver is the pioneer of the cannabis industry, but the city has yet to accept that it should be fostering entrepreneurship rather than squashing it, or regulating it away.
What about tour buses and tourism companies?
I believe the limo exception is enough until the powers-that-be work with the actual operators providing these services to come up with a viable model. The creativity of the operators in my space have also far outpaced the creativity of the regulators. Basically, use the same tactics we used to create our mature regulatory model for all other cannabis businesses. To this point, we have been denied a seat at the table, and only receive responses to our inquiries via enforcement. I hope and trust our pending cases will put pressure on our regulators to come up with sensible regulations that actually meet the needs of the market, ideally to the point that they are proud to embrace cannabis tourism versus maintaining their position that our segment of the industry is a “ho hum” issue, as Colorado Tourism Office director Cathy Ritter calls it.