The City of Denver's recent battles with cannabis tourism companies have been well documented, with both sides clashing over the definition of public pot consumption. Much of this fight can be traced back to one night: New Year's Eve 2017.
Almost a year ago, Colorado Cannabis Tours hosted a special edition of its general tour, taking riders on a visit to commercial grows, a dispensary shopping experience and some pot-infused art classes. To ride the bus and take part in the tour, which allowed pot smoking, customers had to be at least 21 and register beforehand.
One of those bus riders was CNN correspondent Randi Kaye, who broadcast live to Anderson Cooper and the rest of the CNN New Year's staff from the bus... as her fellow riders got a good clam-bake going right behind her.
Although companies like Colorado Cannabis Tours and My 420 Tours had been operating much this way since 2014, when recreational pot sales began, apparently the CNN spot was the first time the Denver Police Department heard about consumption tours. This past June, both companies saw their tours interrupted by Denver police officers, who cited over thirty bus riders for social pot consumption and arrested drivers and tour guides for charges ranging from DUI to violating the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act.
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"So the industry began, and honestly, we didn't pay a whole hell of a lot, heck of a lot of attention to it until New Year’s Eve of this year," DPD Commander James Henning said during a Denver City Council task force meeting on social consumption in July. "At one point, they cut to a reporter, and she was on one of these buses in Denver. And, you know, she’s talking about how wonderful it is that people are consuming marijuana, and you can see in the background people consuming marijuana in a vehicle."
Most of the riders who were cited for public consumption pleaded to lesser misdemeanors in court, while Colorado Cannabis Tours and My 420 Tours have pushed their employees to go to trial. Meanwhile, both companies have continued to operate — although now they avoid stopping in Denver proper. And this New Year's Eve, Colorado Cannabis Tours is bringing back the very same tour that CNN documented.
"Were not going to say exactly the areas the tour is going through; we no longer consume in Denver County, and we won't until we get this settled," explains founder Michael Eymer, who says his company's attorneys have filed a motion to dismiss his bus driver's DUI charges based on "unconstitutional and vague charges."
Colorado Cannabis Tours and My 420 Tours believe they're operating under a state law that allows pot use in the back of private, registered limousines or buses. They operated relatively free of law enforcement hassles until June, when the Denver's City Attorney's Office began arguing that those buses are public, not private.
"It doesn't leave a good taste in my mouth, as an entrepreneur and citizen of Denver," Eymer says. "To see how thin the line is of what the government will and won't accept is [frustrating]. It was as if we tried to hide what we were doing, but we weren't cloak-and-dagger on this."
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Eymer says he has no issue with Kaye or CNN for the segment, labeled "Rocky Mountain High," but feels the city should have created a dialogue before flexing its long arms of law enforcement. "We had done plenty of media before," he notes, "but this was a large network — and now, a network that people connect to 'fake news.' It's just assumed that freedom of speech is limited in such an obvious matter, that some people have to fear the press and hide what they're doing."
The Denver Department of Excise and Licenses currently regulates social pot consumption business within the city, allowing businesses to apply for a permit for private pot use areas that comply with the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act, a law that bans indoor smoking in public places (visitors to these businesses must vape or consume edibles). The program, which has issued only two permits since it started in August 2017, doesn't address mobile cannabis lounges.
The city attorney's office could not be reached for comment on the return of the New Year's Eve tours. Asked for the city's current stance on cannabis bus tours, Excise and Licenses communications director Eric Escudero sent the following:
“Nothing has changed. We have previously sent warning letters to marijuana tour bus companies that they could be subject to enforcement action if they are found in violation of state law prohibiting marijuana public consumption or the Colorado Clean Indoor Act. Our hope is that they follow the law. Denver offers the only marijuana social consumption business licenses in Colorado, and we will continue to work with businesses so they can understand their lawful social consumption business options.”