Rachel O'Bryan of Protect Denver's Atmosphere on Why 300 Is a Bad Idea

Denver Ordinance 300, which is on the ballot this November, would allow businesses to opt into allowing marijuana on their premises. After proponents put up a billboard pointing out that allowing restaurants to have private consumption areas would keep tokers off the sidewalk, Westword sat down with Rachel O'Bryan, the campaign manager for Protect Denver's Atmosphere, the group opposing the initiative. An attorney by trade, O'Bryan was part of a task force that addressed possible criminal-law issues after Amendment 64 passed, allowing recreational marijuana in Colorado. O'Bryan makes it clear that her group is not opposed to recreational marijuana or legalization per se, but opposes 300 specifically as a matter of public safety.

Westword: You've voiced safety concerns before. What are some of the issues you think will arise if this passes?

O'Bryan: The misconception that vapor from vape pens is safe. We're beginning to understand that vapor from any electronic smoking device, even the ones that just have flavor in them and no tobacco, actually contain some toxins....We're going to allow the indoor vaping of marijuana, and that may result in vapors that may have toxins in them. Vapor is heavy. It settles, so now we have an issue with surfaces having pollutants on them.

It's written so this ordinance would allow marijuana use in the back room of a restaurant...As long as there is a commonly used ventilation system, those byproducts and secondhand smoke or secondhand vapors will come through to the other side. If you think about a strip mall, those businesses my have a central ventilation system, too. And how do you ventilate outdoor marijuana smoke, anyway? That's why we think this claim that it'll take it off the street so that people won't smell it any longer is bogus. You're going to smell it because it's going to be behind the fence. You won't see it, but you'll smell it, and you'll see it upstairs, and there's no way to control that odor whatsoever.

The Colorado Department of Transportation has said the number of marijuana-related car accidents rise when the drug is used in conjunction with alcohol. As I understand it, that's another issue you have with this ordinance.

O'Bryan: Yes, this is edibles in bars, and edibles are their own creature.... When I talk to young people, they say, you know if you've been to college in the last five years, you know how f-ed up you get when you combine [edibles and alcohol]. We have blood THC levels and blood alcohol levels to establish driving impairment, but neither of those numbers means anything when you combine them. It's a real risk to health and to safety on the roads.... Again, this is one of those areas where we're making policy before we have the science to support it. 
The ordinance stipulates that each neighborhood has control over approving or disapproving businesses in their area from using marijuana on the premises — so even if this passes, it isn't like all businesses can suddenly allow cannabis use.

O'Bryan: Here's the deal. There are hoops to jump through with this ordinance once it goes into law....This ordinance takes away a lot of the protections that are presently in law and really ties the hands of city council. What we have now, if someone wants to serve alcohol or have a liquor store, the way the ordinance is written for that is they have to put a notice on the building, they have to literally present a map to the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses with a five-block radius, and every person in that radius is given notice of that request. The RNO, the residential neighborhood organization, gets notice of it, and there is a formal hearing, and all of those people are considered interested parties, and they get to meet in front of a judge and talk about whether the community wants to serve alcohol.

The ordinance takes all of that away and makes is sound like you get this new right because you get neighborhood approval or support — when in fact, they took away all those hurdles for getting permission. Now all they have to do is go to the business improvement district or the RNO and get one show of support. There's no mechanism in it for opposition. No way to even voice opposition.... Commercial interests are not in line with residents and neighborhoods. So what we have is Amendment 64, which said to regulate like alcohol. And under the liquor code, and under the Excise and Licensing rules in Denver, you have all these rights given to neighbors and neighborhoods — and they're all taken out of this.

Needs and desires are usually written into law, not into regulation, so even though the city has to put implementing regulations in place, that's not something that's usually drafted in regulation; it's at the higher level of the ordinance. You need a super-majority to amend this of nine city council members, and that rarely happens. Even on egregious laws that everyone thinks are bad, they can't get a super-majority. So we will be stuck with this ordinance, which essentially creates a double standard on how to get or allow marijuana use in businesses — and yet they claim they're fixing a double standard.

This is an ordinance written for an industry, not for consumers. Consumers are members of the public, and they need safety, too. Quite frankly, my organization sees edibles being included in this as a clear indication this is about sales, not about safety.

So for all the people who haven't actually read the measure, what are the top things that aren't in the description that you think people should know about it?

They need to understand that "concurrent consumption" means marijuana and alcohol, and that poses significant risks that we may not be prepared for. They need to know that "designated consumption area" means patios and rooftops, and they need to know that "neighborhood supported or neighborhood approved" means actually your rights have been taken away.
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Kate McKee Simmons interned at the National Catholic Reporter, was a reporter for the New York Post, and spent a brief stint in Israel learning international reporting before writing for Westword.