Dewayne Benjamin was on top of the world March 30. The owner of Tetra Lounge, Denver's longest-running private marijuana club, had finally been approved for a public pot hospitality license. News cameras, Mayor Michael Hancock and Governor Jared Polis were at Benjamin's RiNo venue
for a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
"I'm very excited to be at the opening of Colorado's newest business," Polis said to the crowd at 3039 Walnut Street, boasting that Denver had "the nation's first" venue licensed for indoor pot smoking at the state and local level. Hancock added to the praise, saying he was "proud" of Tetra's growth since it had opened as a private pot lounge in 2018.
"That's a big deal. We're glad you can come out of the shadows and [can] operate right," Hancock added.
As a Black-owned pot hospitality business approved for a social equity business license, Tetra seemingly stood for success in two areas where Colorado has struggled since recreational pot sales began in 2014: diverse business ownership and social marijuana use. But the unofficial marijuana holiday of 4/20 came and went three weeks later, and Tetra hadn't opened to the public yet.
It still isn't open, almost five months after the big ribbon-cutting celebration. Currently, only one licensed marijuana lounge (the Coffee Joint, a vape-only lounge in Lincoln Park) is open in Denver.
According to Benjamin, he's been "set up for failure" by the city.
Tetra debuted in 2018 as a private marijuana lounge, allowing people 21 and over to sign up as members before entering. Operating in this legal gray area, which was occasionally disputed by the city, allowed Tetra to remain open for the better part of four years as long as members brought their own marijuana and no pot sales took place. But in January, the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses issued a memo
stating that private marijuana businesses were viewed as illegal operators in Denver.
Benjamin had pursued acquiring a license to operate as a public-facing business from the start, however, and says he closed Tetra's doors in January at the request of the city, when such licenses finally became available. While it's been closed, he's lost business partnerships with marijuana brands at the same time he's racked up construction bills.
"I've been open four years, and had my first pre-licensing hearing in 2018. We went over building, zoning and distance requirements," he says. "But they waited until the week of the ribbon-cutting to let me know we didn't have site plans, or that all of these renovations needed to be done.This place is going to need a major renovation. I'm still waiting to see what they approve."
According to Benjamin, he wasn't told about required building site plans and renovations needed to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act until after his pot-hospitality license had been approved by Denver. Benjamin has since submitted multiple proposals for his renovations, but is still waiting on city approval.
He estimates that he'll have to spend around $100,000 to make Tetra ADA-compliant without blocking the public right-of-way in front of and behind the building. Construction will start soon after the city approves his plans, Benjamin says, but in the meantime, he's losing money without having a business to operate.
Tetra Lounge is still closed at 3039 Walnut Street, according to owner Dewayne Benjamin.
"I haven't been fully operational for eight months now. They've put me in a weird situation where I still have to pay rent for all these months, but they've forced me to close," Benjamin says. "Back when the licenses weren't available yet and I was open [as a private club], they said the building looked good, and the building was zoned for arts and entertainment."
According to the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses
, Tetra still hasn't actually received its pot hospitality permit, but instead has "tentative approval" pending the successful completion of all required inspections. Excise and Licenses also disputes Benjamin's claim that he wasn't made of aware of potential building modifications.
"In these meetings, potential applicants are always informed about the requirement for a certificate of occupancy and zone use permit and all associated inspections to protect public safety," says Excise and Licenses communications director Eric Escudero. "We hope that Tetra finds a way to make the necessary changes to their building so we can issue their license soon. However, their struggles to get their building upgraded so it is accessible to all the public and meet all safety standards is a good lesson for any applicant of this type to verify [that] the address they apply at does not have these challenges. That’s why we alert out applicants at the pre-application meeting of the requirements for their building."
Still, Benjamin maintains that he wasn't notified about the required renovations until March, and feels like he was "kind of back-doored at the very last minute."
Since then, Escudero says it has been "all hands on deck for months as multiple agencies attend regular meetings to identify anything we can do remove obstacles" for Tetra. He notes that Denver businesses have a responsibility to include the disabled community, and points out that Tetra was one of sixteen marijuana businesses to recently receive a five-figure grant
from Colorado's new Cannabis Business Office to help with operational expenses.
Despite the miscommunication and finger-pointing, both Benjamin and Excise and Licenses say that they're committed to working together to get Tetra open.
If his latest building plans are approved by the Denver Community Planning and Development department, Benjamin is hopeful that Tetra will finally open to the public within the next thirty days. But at this point, he's not making guarantees.
"Who knows what will happen?"