Only two cannabis lounges have opened since Denver started its social use pilot program in 2017, but the special-events half of the program hasn't seen a single success. That could change in May, though, if John McCaskill and his mobile hotboxes are approved.
The founder of HTBX International has been working for nearly three years to customize mobile shipping containers for social pot consumption. After spending around 300 hours on paperwork, meetings and research, McCaskill filed the first special cannabis consumption event application in Denver history, on January 31; he hopes to get it approved in time to be part of May's Final Friday Art Walk in RiNo. To learn more about the HTBX, Westword sat down with McCaskill.
Westword: How did this idea come to fruition?
John McCaskill: I kept running into familiar faces at all the public consumption meetings, and a friend of mine in the real estate industry kept badgering me to do something that was sort of cheesy — but it got my mind thinking creatively. When I ran into an associate who works in the shipping container space, we just had this moment when the idea was born.
We like the idea because it's truly inherent of the culture of cannabis. I'm from Boulder, and I get this: Cannabis is shared. It's about meeting new people and being inclusive, without having it forced upon you. Capitalizing on that has always been a difficult model, but we wanted to create something that was beneficial for cannabis users and those who choose not to. Creating an easily identifiable structure that was within the rules but could also pick up and go when it needed to was what we identified.
Why choose the "hotbox" concept?
This isn't just a novelty. We've spent two and a half years with the smartest engineers and designers. We have a true, shared social consumption opportunity here. We've seen people try to stuff cannabis users into certain boxes, so we wanted to come up with — forgive the pun — an out-of-the-box solution. It's also ironic, because it arrives in a box...but we have a patent-pending process that adheres to all the city's rules.
Denver's given us the opportunity to showcase this in a special-event format. Long-term, we're looking forward to the tasting-room bill that'll be coming up in May, and we're already talking with other municipalities all over the country for a permanent cannabis tasting option.
How do you navigate the social consumption program's location restrictions?
Those restrictions actually help define it for us. As the rules got further defined, it further proved my model. Making it agile and mobile in design and placement keeps the setback rules from limiting us. If you look at the city's maps, there are green zones all throughout, but it's important that these consumption spots aren't getting placed in areas that are further detrimental to those neighborhoods.
It's also important to showcase where it can be strong and economically viable. I'm talking with three or four city council members throughout Denver, and different areas want this opportunity for their community. Folks on West Colfax obviously have different challenges than folks on East Colfax in how they want this solution to be available. Some neighborhoods really want to bear down on timing; it makes it a challenge when you don't have something that can be easily removed. These permanent [cannabis lounges] still kind of have a boogeyman vibe around them.
State law makes you have a ventilation system. You can't actually hotbox these, right?
Yeah, we can't [laughs] — and we've got answers to the odor issue. We also have a patent-pending process in how the container opens and closes so it meets Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act guidelines. There's no playing on fears of getting in the fog like you're teenagers again. It's essentially a public consumption kiosk that's not visible to the public. We're actually working with folks who developed the first dual-consumption monitoring program for staffers, too.
These are built for speed. We've studied how long average cannabis smokers sit and blaze, and it's about fifteen minutes. We don't necessarily want people to rush in and out, but when you go to a concert, you see people step outside, smoke with their homies for a few minutes and then go back in. We want to give a safe, viable solution for that. After the ID check, you'd get buzzed into the main room with an Xbox and some other entertainment, light advertising, a small retail area for paraphernalia or Colorado-based drinks, and a featured wall spotlighting local artists. They're about 200 square feet — it's the best size for groups of three or four people.
What events are you looking at?
We're doing a launch in May at the Final Friday Art Walk [in RiNo], and then we'll do it again the first weekend of Denver Arts Week in November. We still have to get the first one through, but we really built this as a service offering to the consuming space. We wanted to help people utilize this when they don't have hundreds of thousands of dollars to change their spaces [for social consumption], but they might have $1,000 to hire us to come drop down a HTBX for a night.
Social consumption businesses and events cannot sell alcohol. Can the art galleries at these community events still serve booze?
They would be [able to], because they're technically separate from the event. The event would technically be a block party, so we'll only work within that facility. We'll also reach out to nearby dispensaries so they can send any consumers who need a place to go to us.
As an art gallery owner with experience in organizing events, how does applying for a cannabis special event compare to other permits you've applied for?
There's fifty pages of the [cannabis consumption] application you have to go through — background checks...it's all pretty intense. It was the largest book report I've ever done. No one wants to make the alcohol comparison, but if I want to apply for my art gallery to serve liquor, you only have to submit five days before the event, and it's free. [Social cannabis consumption event permits require you to apply 120 days in advance, and cost $2,000.]
Although Denver's policy is pretty strict, that's a good thing. When we go to other places, they'll see we've already had to go through this, so it won't be a big deal. We really just want to showcase this, because legalization started here, and we think it's the best proving ground.