The chances of a licensed cannabis spa setting up shop at 1244 Grant Street are looking more unlikely after the city sided against the spa's owner, Cindy Sovine, during a hearing on July 31. Sovine is hoping for an appeal after the city denied her application in May, but in order to officially appeal the denial, Sovine first has to get her request approved by the city. But if the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses follows the hearing officer's lead, she won't even get that far.
Sovine attempted the appeal after Excise and Licenses denied her application for Utopia All Natural Wellness Spa to become the city's second licensed business for social cannabis use. The application was denied over a location restriction that prohibits cannabis-use areas from being within 1,000 feet of places where children gather.
The proposed spa would have been a little over 980 feet from teen-care facility the Third Way Center, but Sovine received a letter of support from Third Way leadership and five neighborhood organizations, four more than what Denver requires.
A cannabis lobbyist at the State Capitol, Sovine believes that Excise and Licenses director Ashley Kilroy could have waived the restriction if Utopia's business plans lined up with the intent of the original social-use initiative. After all, Sovine notes, the location restrictions weren't part of the initiative Denver voters approved in 2016 but were added later by a city implementation task force and approved by Kilroy.
"If she could add them despite the will of the voters, then why can't she grant an exemption?," Sovine asks.
Kilroy disagreed in May, however, denying Utopia's application.
"It is not unusual for us to deny an application if it is incomplete or deficient," Kilroy explained at the time, adding that she actually didn't have the power to issue the exemption the spa needed for approval.
But Sovine and a number of social use proponents argue that Kilroy not only has the power to grant exemptions to the licensing qualifications, but that the Excise and Licenses director has a duty to use that power if the location restrictions "frustrate the intent of the ordinance."
Kilroy gets the final say in whether the city officially rejects Sovine's request for an appeal and will issue a decision soon. Excise and Licenses declined to comment until Kilroy's final decision.
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During the hearing in July, Utopia proponents pointed to exemptions being granted for Denver liquor-license holders in the past, but a city attorney argued during the July 31 hearing that none of their examples involved location issues near schools or child-care centers. By falling within the 1,000-foot buffer, Utopia could've presented a danger to the children at Third Way, according to the attorney. But Sovine says her business plan and ventilation system would have avoided any possible issues.
"People are hurting and in need of these services," which would have included cannabis-infused massage, meditation, alternative medical treatments and recreational use, Sovine says. "I want to open my doors at the mansion. That's where the community wants me."
Denver's licensing program for social pot use has been in place for nearly a year, with only one business, the Coffee Joint, receiving approval so far. The third business to apply for a permit, Denver Vape and Play, is in a hearing with the city today, August 6, and is expected to receive approval by the fall to become the second legal social-use business.
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Sovine is now weighing her other options, including whether or not she will open another location in the Capitol Hill neighborhood — or if she will fight the city in court down the road.
"I'm just going to keep doing everything I can to keep shining a light on this situation," she says. "It's in the hands of the City Council now to make reasonable recommendations."
A Denver City Council task force has met twice this summer to evaluate the success of the social use program and will meet twice more before issuing its findings and recommendations to Kilroy in November. Sovine plans to plead her case to the task force, headed by City Councilwoman Kendra Black, in hopes of making changes that would allow Utopia to open.
And if not? Says Sovine: "They really have no idea with who they're dealing with."