Denver Continues Cracking Down on Unlicensed Marijuana Events | Westword

Denver Continues to Crack Down on Unlicensed Cannabis Events

A pot-friendly movie screening of Grandma's Boy would have violated public consumption rules, according to officials.
Denver has had a licensing structure for cannabis hospitality in place since 2017, but only one licensed venue and three new mobile lounges are currently operating.
Denver has had a licensing structure for cannabis hospitality in place since 2017, but only one licensed venue and three new mobile lounges are currently operating. Jacqueline Collins

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A recent cannabis-friendly movie screening broke Denver's laws on social pot consumption, according to city licensing officials, who continue to put pressure on unlicensed cannabis event organizers. However, the event's organizers and venue are adamant that no screening took place at the business that was cited.

According to the Department of Excise & Licenses, Stoner Cinema Pop-Up planned to hold a pot-friendly screening of the 2006 movie Grandma's Boy last weekend at Dreams Aren't This Good, an event venue and self-advertised salsa-making facility at 2076 South Huron Street. The screening, which was promoted online, would allow cannabis use among attendees and included a celebrity appearance from Peter Dante, one of the film's stars, who is also known for appearing in Adam Sandler movies.

A film series that debuted last year, Stoner Cinema Pop-Up isn't shy about the cannabis-heavy activity that takes place at its events, with free weed and large novelty joints routinely lit up at showings of everything from Half Baked to The Sandlot. Founders Nick Barreto and Josh Manary say they pay studio film screening fees and insist their ticketed events are limited to people age 21 or older, and are invite-only. These rules make their events private, they've told Westword in the past, thus allowing them to take place without a local cannabis hospitality license.

Excise & Licenses officials disagree, according to communications director Eric Escudero, who says that Dreams Aren't This Good and Stoner Cinema Pop-Up both received "the equivalent of a warning letter" for organizing unlicensed pot-friendly events involving commerce.

But Barreto insists that the Stoner Cinema event didn't take place at Dreams Aren't This Good; he won't say where it did happen, though, "because it was a private event."  Dreams Aren't This Good marketing and events coordinator Aquilino Sanchez also says the event did not take place at the cited venue. For his part, Escudero won't confirm whether an Excise & Licenses investigator actually attended a Stoner Cinema screening at Dreams Aren't This Good, but says the warning was still warranted for selling tickets to a pot-friendly event online.

The violation warnings were similar to what a handful of business owners received last month from Excise & Licenses and the Denver City Attorney's Office. "It is a last resort for the city to take enforcement action" after informing businesses of the licensing requirement, Escudero adds.

Denver has had a licensing structure for cannabis hospitality in place since 2017, but only one licensed venue and three new mobile lounges are currently operating. Denver City Council scrapped the first social consumption program in 2021 and opted for language that aligns more closely with a state pot hospitality law adopted in 2020, but kept many of the original ordinance's rules and location requirements, which pot industry owners and hospitality entrepreneurs have argued are too strict and limiting for a successful business model.

Since 2022, Denver has approved a hotel and three cannabis lounges for pot hospitality licenses, but all four establishment owners are still dealing with renovation, ventilation and community planning requirements before qualifying for official licenses. The Coffee Joint, Denver's lone operating pot lounge, was open under the city's former ordinance and only allows vaporizing and edibles.

There is no temporary permit for a pot-friendly event under the city's current rules, only for venues and mobile lounges, so Stoner Cinema Pop-Ups within the city must take place at the Coffee Joint or in a way that incorporates one of Denver's three recently licensed mobile lounges, according to Excise & Licenses.

"There are three active licensed mobile hospitality establishment businesses that could potentially provide service to events if they provide the city the required route log and follow the rules as far as the thirty-minute limit for parking and allowing consumption at one parking spot," Escudero suggests.

A handful of business owners and event promoters have argued in the past that their events are private, not public, if they have a pre-approved guest list and perform ID checks at the door to ensure that no one under 21 enters the venue. This argument rarely dissuades the city from enforcement when it deems such action appropriate, however. A cannabis club approved for a hospitality license was issued a criminal citation last month for hosting a pot-friendly event without a license. That club, Tetra Lounge, was approved for social consumption in March 2022 but must still meet local building and planning requirements before actually receiving a license, according to Excise & Licenses.

Tetra initially opened in 2018 as a private cannabis event space, but the meaning of the term "private event" has been debated by local governments and event holders since recreational pot was legalized in Colorado in late 2012. The International Church of Cannabis challenged the city's definition in court in 2019, but failed to create any legal precedent. Last year, the city sent a memo to business owners reaffirming the city's municipal-code ban on pot-friendly events held without a permit, and it began enforcing that notice this summer.

Although Tetra has been going back and forth with the city for the past five years, eight other venues and event organizers received warning notices for holding cannabis-friendly events this summer, according to Excise & Licenses, including Ant Life and the Marijuana Mansion. Outside of Tetra's, none of the notices carried pending punishment β€” Tetra owner Dewayne Benjamin is still awaiting a hearing to find out what's next for his club β€” but more discipline could come if the businesses hold more cannabis events, the department warns.

This article was updated on Thursday, August 24, to add comments from Nick Barreto and Aquilino Sanchez, who reached out to Westword after the article's publication, as well as a response from Eric Escudero.
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