Finding a place to smoke weed outside of your home is a challenge in Denver, where businesses couldn't apply for a social pot use permit until the summer of 2017, almost five years after Colorado voters approved Amendment 64 and the year after Denverites voted for a social use initiative. But since then, only two businesses have been approved for social marijuana consumption, with unregulated private events, clubs and tour buses still responsible for the bulk of it.
Entrepreneurs interested in applying for a social pot use permit face a long list of obstacles, including a state law that bans alcohol and pot sales at such establishments. One fixable restriction was a 1,000-foot buffer between a social use business and any daycare centers, drug treatment centers and city-owned parks, pools and recreation centers — a rule added by the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses after the measure was approved by voters. According to drafters of the original social use initiative, this buffer severely limits opportunities in Capitol Hill, RiNo, downtown Denver and other walkable neighborhoods.
After leading a task force that evaluated the success of Denver's social pot use program for nearly a year, Denver City Councilwoman Kendra Black proposed keeping the 1,000-foot restriction for schools, but cutting the setbacks to 500 feet for all locations that were added during the rule-making process. That proposal went down at the April 22 Denver City Council meeting, however, much to the dismay of cannabis entrepreneurs and users around the city — and beyond. We caught up with Black shortly after the proposal was rejected to learn more about the social consumption struggle
Westword: Were you surprised by the results of the vote on setbacks?
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Kendra Black: I wasn't terribly surprised. I knew I had seven votes, and the proponents of the initial legislation were trying to get those other two votes. A bunch of people were. But they weren't successful.
What were the reasons cited by the councilmembers who voted against it?
Councilman [Kevin] Flynn and Councilman [Wayne] New don't like the business model. I don't think that's our role, to decide whether people have a good business model or not, but those were their reasons. The 500-foot setback was actually Councilman New's idea, initially; he liked it because it was more consistent with alcohol [regulations].
That was the idea I thought I could get the most support for, and it was such an incredibly modest proposal. The task force recommended either eliminating all but the 1,000-foot buffer from schools, which was in the original initiative, or creating some kind of variance process, which our attorneys said would be too hard to do. So that was what I had the support for — the 500-foot plan — and it was Councilman New's idea, but he changed his mind. And the reason he changed his mind was because he didn't think it was a viable business model.
I wonder if they're going to lead the charge when the state passes a hospitality bill with the other business models; I kind of think they're not going to. The city would have to opt in, and I'm guessing that the current administration wouldn't want to opt in, and neither would many councilmembers.
Given that the social use bill in the state legislature would allow local control if it passes, how would it affect Denver's current program?
There are two business models proposed with that: one is like the one we have, which is bring-your-own, so that wouldn't impact us at all. The other one allows consumption in stores, but the municipality would have to decide if they wanted to opt in first, and then they could go in and regulate it. It doesn't really do anything to our program — and don't call it I-300 anymore, because there are other I-300s now!
Denver didn't need that legislation to pass. We couldn't have done our own tasting rooms [with the city program], but it won't change anything about the bring-your-own model we have. It doesn't propose any more guidance on how we wanted to regulate that, so for those who want to wait for that bill to pass, we'd just be in the exact same position talking about the same exact things.
The tasting rooms are something we could opt into, but someone would have to lead the charge, and I don't think that's coming from the current administration. We're planning another marijuana committee meeting for May 13, and we're going to get updates from the state on these bills. But I don't see a lot of support coming from this council.
The proposed change would have altered language that was added after voters approved the initiative, but it needed two-thirds approval from the council instead of the regular majority because of a city law that mandates that all voter-approved initiatives receive two-thirds. That seems odd, since the language wasn't part of what voters considered.
What Excise and Licenses did was implement rules, and the city council can't make rules for Excise and Licenses. So the only way we could impact their rules is to change the actual law, because their rules weren't in the actual law. But because the law itself was approved by the voters, to change the law legally requires a two-thirds vote.
When did you find out that Mayor Michael Hancock didn't support the 500-foot cut to the location restrictions? Do you think that affected the proposal's chances?
He sent us a letter about it around a month before this, and I don't think it influenced people at all.
How clear and cooperative do you think Excise and Licenses has been throughout this?
They are sticking by their process, which led them to adding those distance requirements. I don't think they were open to the task force recommendations, and they're not open to changing the rules.
Do you think Excise and Licenses has been clear about the chances entrepreneurs have for a viable business license under this program?
No, and that's the biggest misunderstanding. When you talk about available locations or parcels of land that are in this "green area," there are thousands of them. But when we provided councilmembers with maps showing them the eligible land in their districts, it's not like these are vacant pieces of properties where someone could open up a yoga studio. For example, this piece of Hampden in my district is technically eligible, but right there we already have a McDonald's, a car wash and a tire store. The idea was that if you had an existing business, you might want to add a social use space, but no McDonald's or tire store wants to do that.
Yes, there are technically thousands of parcels in eligible areas, but they're not available for lease, and they may not be available in desirable parts of town. The idea behind this was that you'd be in a part of town where you would see a bar — a social part of town that's walkable — not an industrial area. Then you have to get neighborhood support, and that eliminates a bunch of them. Then you have to find a piece of property that is available and has a landlord that would be willing to lease to you.
A lot of them are in strip malls in District 8, and that's not where you're going to put one of these. You have to drive to the Coffee Joint, and that isn't very safe. I don't understand why people are opposing this when it's giving people a place to go that's safer to consume and is out of public view.
This has been a pretty long process, and you've admitted that these businesses will have a challenging time even without the harsh location restrictions. Why is this fight important to you?
I have four reasons: The first is the voters. Millennials are the largest demographic in our city, and they are overwhelmingly in support of this industry. Denver voters have approved multiple marijuana measures, locally and at the state level. Over two-thirds of Denver voters approved Amendment 64, and that's a landslide in elections. Voters approved this program, and the fact that we barely have two licenses...we must be doing something that's preventing them. Maybe it's not a great business model, but we have evidence showing that the distance requirements are a cause. Some people aren't willing to accept that. A lot of people aren't being realistic about what's out there.
The second reason is for kids. The purpose of this was to conceal consumption, and we're not. I don't understand: If people are trying to protect kids, then why wouldn't they support providing a place that's not visible to the public? I find that completely contrary.
The third reason is business fairness. The marijuana industry is more regulated, taxed and restricted than any other industry. Governments love the tax revenue. We love all this new money, and we love it when tourists come to buy it. It's putting money into our economy, but we're not providing anywhere to use it. Hotels don't know where to tell people to go, so people go and smoke in their cars or in the park.
The fourth is the process. Excise and Licenses had their process, and they came up with these rules. But the initiative the voters approved also called for a task force to review them, and if we didn't hold a task force, then we would have been in breach of that. So we held the task force, and it was a lot of work. Then we held six city council committee hearings on this, and we talked about different options. The 500-foot plan was the compromise that got the most support. But it didn't get enough.
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If you were the only person in charge, how would you improve this social-use program?
I would honor the will of the voters and just go back to the 1,000-foot buffer from schools only. There are so many other hurdles you'd have to go through, like neighborhood support, which is really hard to get. There aren't any neighborhoods in my district that would support one, so that's a huge hurdle. And then you have to have a public hearing for needs and desires, and then find a location, funding and a business model that works. Even if we eliminated all but the 1,000-foot from schools, I still don't think we'd have very many of these businesses.
Could the upcoming city elections bring enough new faces on the council to bring this issue back up again?
It's possible, especially if you look at District 1, where Scott Durrah is running.