Denver Cracks Down on Unlicensed Events Allowing Marijuana Consumption | Westword

Denver Cracking Down on Marijuana Events and Venues

Nine venues and event organizers were contacted by city enforcement officials for holding pot-friendly parties in Denver.
Private marijuana events have been an area of conflict between local governments and event holders since recreational marijuana was legalized in Colorado.
Private marijuana events have been an area of conflict between local governments and event holders since recreational marijuana was legalized in Colorado. Jacqueline Collins
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Denver marijuana enforcement officials just issued violation citations to nine different venues and event holders, including the city's longest-standing marijuana lounge, for allowing unlicensed public pot consumption.

Tetra Lounge had received tentative approval to operate as an indoor marijuana venue in 2022, but still hasn't received a permit to open from the city over unmet building and planning requirements. The RiNo venue has held occasional private events allowing marijuana use as it works toward city licensing approval, but that violates public consumption laws, according to the Denver Department of Excise & Licenses, which served Tetra and owner Dewayne Benjamin a general violation ticket on Saturday, July 29, for the necessity of a license to operate.

Excise & Licenses officials and the Denver Police Department have issued similar notices regarding the necessity for marijuana hospitality licenses to eight other venues and event holders over the last month, according to Excise & Licenses communications director Eric Escudero.

Ant Life, a psychedelic art gallery and private event space at 2150 Market Street, as well as popular Capitol Hill photo venue the Marijuana Mansion, were both served violation notices for holding marijuana-friendly events in June. Rooted Heart Yoga Studio, at 1409 Ogden Street; the Vape Loft, at 116 South Broadway; and Clubhouse Collective, at 937 Santa Fe Drive were all given violations for allegedly holding pot-friendly events in June or July, while Meta Talent Group, the Colorado chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and the Psychedelic Club of Denver were all sent violations for organizing marijuana-friendly events.

"Citations, fines and enforcement activity by the City and County of Denver are always a last resort after every effort has been made to educate businesses about licensing rules and regulations. As part of that effort, the city has issued licensing bulletins detailing the rules for marijuana hospitality. This included information about if a marijuana business is conducting commerce, there is a requirement for licensing," Escudero says. "We hope businesses that are operating marijuana hospitality without the city and/or state required license will take steps to get licensed."

Tetra first opened in 2018 as a private marijuana event space, but the term "private marijuana event" has been up for debate between local governments and event holders since recreational pot was legalized in Colorado in 2012. The International Church of Cannabis previously challenged that assertion in court in 2019, but failed to change 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.

Benjamin eventually applied for a hospitality permit in 2022 and was approved within months by Excise & Licenses. Governor Jared Polis and Mayor Michael Hancock attended a ribbon-cutting event at Tetra in March 2022 to celebrate the historic venue that they thought was on the verge of opening. When Benjamin said that building-plan approval and HVAC instillation were preventing Tetra from opening later in the year, however, Excise & Licenses clarified that businesses can be tentatively approved for a license without ever getting one if certain inspections aren't met.

Benjamin says he leased Tetra to an event holder for the marijuana-friendly event in question and that the venue "wasn't operational as Tetra." He declines to comment further, citing an ongoing case. According to the violation ticket, Benjamin may have to appear in front of a judge before any punishment is proposed, but he says he hasn't yet been given a hearing date.

Last month, Benjamin told the Denver Post he hoped to have Tetra open as soon as July. Excise & Licenses declines to comment on Tetra's licensing status going forward, but the department typically weighs past disciplinary instances in the permitting process.

Marijuana hospitality in Denver

Denver voters first adopted a marijuana hospitality licensing program for businesses, Initiative 300, in 2017. Excise & Licenses' implementation added a handful of new restrictions onto the measure, and in the first four years of the program, only two cannabis lounges opened. After passing a new ordinance creating licensing structures for marijuana hospitality, Denver City Council scrapped the I-300 program in 2021 and opted for language that aligns more closely with a state pot hospitality law.

All versions of Denver's marijuana hospitality rules have included location requirements banning any licensed marijuana hospitality venues from being within 1,000 feet of any daycare center, drug treatment center and city-owned park, pool or recreation center or any other hospitality licensees. Besides the Coffee Joint and Tetra, three other establishments have been approved for marijuana hospitality in Denver: Cirrus Social Club on East Colfax Avenue, the south Denver headquarters of Colorado Cannabis Tours, and Cap Hill hotel the Patterson Inn.

A handful of business owners and event promoters have argued 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.

The Coffee Joint, which opened in 2018 under the city's old program and only allows electronic vaping, is the only licensed venue currently operating. According to Benjamin and Colorado Cannabis Tours owner Michael Eymer, the extensive ventilation, building and planning requirements are made even more difficult to meet by the limited number of buildings that satisfy the location buffers.

Mobile marijuana hospitality has been slightly more successful in Denver, with three different businesses licensed and operating pot-friendly buses and vans. Despite the permitting victories, however, mobile pot hospitality services have struggled to get off the ground.
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