Governor Jared Polis Signs Bill Legalizing Social Marijuana Use Areas

Right now, social marijuana use in Colorado largely occurs at unregulated establishments or events.
Right now, social marijuana use in Colorado largely occurs at unregulated establishments or events. Jacqueline Collins
Marijuana cafes, lounges, dispensary tasting rooms and other social-use businesses will soon be legal in Colorado, now that Governor Jared Polis has signed a bill that regulates social pot consumption.

"Colorado has many tourists and residents who choose to participate [in legal cannabis use]. Up until this bill, there's been no way to have safe public consumption," Polis said before signing the bill on May 29. "I've smelled it walking my dog. For many of us with kids, we want to make sure we don't have that in our neighborhoods."

After failing to get bills through the Colorado Legislature every year since 2013, social pot consumption advocates saw House Bill 1230, their most expansive attempt yet, pass this session. Under the new law, Colorado dispensaries will be able to apply for a tasting-room license similar to the one used for breweries, while hotels, restaurants, music venues, art galleries, yoga studios and other businesses can apply for private consumption licenses and limited pot sales. Mobile marijuana lounges such as tour buses and limousines will also be licensed but cannot sell marijuana; temporary licenses for special events will be available, too.

Although recreational marijuana was legalized in late 2012 and the first retail dispensaries opened on January 1, 2014, the state hadn't come up with an official plan for social pot use until now. For over five years, tourists could purchase marijuana in Colorado, but they had very few options for legal consumption, as most hotels ban smoking or marijuana use on their property. Private clubs, tour buses and private cannabis events provided the only places where social consumption was technically allowed, but even those entities routinely faced legal battles with local law enforcement.

Under the new law, social consumption businesses will have to apply for a license through the state Marijuana Enforcement Division and will be exempt from the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act, a state law that bans public indoor smoking.

However, there are still some hurdles that the industry must jump over before you see marijuana cafes or hash bars popping up in your town.

Local governments will have to opt in to the new law and can ban social-use establishments just as they can ban dispensaries (more towns still ban dispensaries than allow them). And if a local government does approve social-use businesses, it can still tweak the regulations somewhat, such as disallowing certain forms of consumption, like smoking or vaping. For example, Denver's social pot consumption ordinance, which the city's voters approved in November 2016, bans indoor smoking, and that prohibition would remain unaffected unless Denver City Council decides to change it.

Marijuana lobbyist Cindy Sovine, who also does consulting for social pot use entrepreneurs, calls HB 1230 the "most expansive bill in the country" for social consumption, and says she believes it could help diversify the pot industry.

click to enlarge Jared Polis at the signing ceremony. - THOMAS MITCHELL
Jared Polis at the signing ceremony.
Thomas Mitchell
"It's exciting to see this come to fruition," Sovine says. "It's not just an automatic endorsement for an existing [dispensary], either, so it provides a lot of opportunity for new business owners and social equity. With licenses being able to be both mobile and temporary, it allows for more creativity and innovation. Imagine legal consumption on 4/20 being a thing?"

The new law will take effect at the beginning of 2020, but Sovine says local governments can vote on social consumption businesses before then, if they want a head start. Locally licensed consumption businesses in Colorado Springs and Denver will be grandfathered in under the new law, and Sovine says she's spoken with elected officials and candidates running for office in Crested Butte, Durango, Moffat County and Westminster about possible social consumption regulations. Meanwhile, Aurora's marijuana enforcement director confirms that city officials have discussed what social pot consumption could look like in that town.

Terrapin Care Station, a dispensary chain that helped draft and push the bill through the legislature, has locations in Aurora, Boulder and Denver, but communications director Peter Marcus says the company will wait for localities to opt in before thinking about applying for tasting room licenses for those stores. If their local governments give the okay to social use, though, he thinks the landscape of retail marijuana could change.

"Colorado is in a fight to maintain its dominance over the cannabis industry as a whole. More states are coming online, and there's just a lot of competition in the marketplace these days," he says. "For Colorado to maintain its leadership in the cannabis industry, we need to open up as many entry opportunities as possible. Aside from the education at dispensaries we give people on what to expect from consumption, we don't have the opportunity to let people try products to see how they make them feel and then let them make educated decisions from there. Now they can have an interactive experience where they can actually try it, see how it feels and then make informed decisions based on that."

Employees at businesses or events that obtain the new licenses will have to receive training in how to monitor marijuana intoxication, and the establishments will take responsibility for impaired drivers, as bars do. Restaurants with social-use spaces won't be able to cook up gourmet dishes infused with pot, either, as any commercial edible containing THC still has to be made by a licensed marijuana-infused-product manufacturer.

Colorado is now the second state to adopt laws for regulated social marijuana use, just over a month after Alaska became the first.

"We have to make sure we do it safely," Polis said right before signing the bill. "We have to make sure we do it in a way that inspires confidence." 
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Thomas Mitchell has written about all things cannabis for Westword since 2014, covering sports, real estate and general news along the way for publications such as the Arizona Republic, Inman and Fox Sports. He's currently the cannabis editor for
Contact: Thomas Mitchell