Denver may be a leader in regulating recreational cannabis sales, but it's hard to say the same about recreational cannabis consumption. Despite allowing medical marijuana dispensaries in town for over a decade and retail pot shops for nearly five years, Denver's attempts to address social pot use have fallen just a few degrees above flat.
To be fair to Denver, the rest of Colorado isn't exactly diving in, either, and neither are most of the other states legalizing the plant. Denver was the country's first city to approve a program for issuing consumption licenses to qualified businesses, and one pot lounge is up and running, with another approved business on the way — but the program has its limitations. Approved by voters in 2016, the social consumption initiative was tweaked during its lengthy implementation process, with disputed location qualifications and restricted revenue streams added, to the dismay of the initiative's proponents.
But times are changing, and legalization continues to spread. After California began retail sales at the beginning of 2018, many of our eyes shifted to the Golden State's (and possibly the country's) most liberal city, San Francisco — and she hasn't disappointed.
A recent trip I took to the Bay Area was mostly filled with stepping over human shit on the sidewalk and chugging overpriced beer, but the highlight was undoubtedly the cannabis lounges. California is the only state allowing dispensaries with attached tasting rooms (Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper vetoed a bill that would have allowed similar establishments in June), but San Francisco has taken it to another level.
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California also allows cities to ban the tasting room model, with the vast majority of them doing just that. However, San Francisco was the first city to allow coffee-shop style tasting rooms akin to those in Amsterdam, with Oakland, South Lake Tahoe and other Bay Area communities following suit. Unlike Denver's licensed pot lounges, you can actually smoke in California's, and customers can rent bongs, dab rigs and joint-rollers.
It was hard not to feel like I was getting schooled by a big brother at Barbary Coast Dispensary, a San Francisco pot shop with a consumption lounge attached. The dispensary's smoking parlor felt more like an upscale cigar lounge or old hotel cafe, with fat leather booths, flat screen TVs hanging around the room and servers walking up and down the aisle emptying ashtrays and offering joint papers — a far cry from the vape-only consumption businesses Denver allows.
Visiting California doesn't just highlight the state's maturity in cannabis consumption regulation; we as consumers could learn a thing or two, as well. The customers of Barbary Coast were quiet and well mannered, there wasn't any long, uncomfortable coughing from newbies taking too many dabs, and the conversations filling the room were about sports, politics and food, with little talk of the dankest buds or tales of avoiding the police. A man in his sixties casually smoked a pinner joint before grabbing his briefcase and heading out, while a few twenty-somethings decked out in Golden State Warriors gear took low-temp dabs and watched highlights from Thursday's NFL game.
This was a level of normalization that Denver is nowhere near.
Colorado's choice to legalize cannabis and Denver's relatively welcoming attitude toward issuing cannabis cultivation, processing and dispensary licenses thrust the city and state as a whole into a position of leadership in cannabis policy that it wasn't ready to accept, and social consumption may be the starkest example of that.
The Colorado General Assembly approved a bill — albeit much more restrictive than California's laws — that would have allowed dispensaries to apply for tasting rooms, but Hickenlooper vetoed the bill, hiding behind language in Amendment 64 that bans pot consumption "openly and publicly." The interpretation of that language has long been an excuse to crack down on social consumption businesses and events, but cities don't necessarily have to listen.
Denver had a chance to lead the charge with its voter-approved social consumption program in November 2016, but the initiative's language was altered through a committee, with qualifications added that require any pot use area to be 1,000 feet away from rehabilitation centers, schools, city-owned rec centers and day cares. A City Council-led task force has been meeting since June to discuss recommendations on how to change or improve the program, but the full council must approve those recommendations first.
Another blockade is the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act, which bans smoking in any public place in Colorado (there are a few grandfathered exceptions, like cigar lounges). The state legislature hasn't addressed exemptions for cannabis use, with all public consumption policy in Colorado allowing only electronic vaping and edibles consumption so far.
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San Francisco is still figuring out regulations designed to protect workers from secondhand smoke and neighborhoods from unwelcome odors (even though anyone who's visited knows there are plenty of less-welcome odors on those streets), but Denver already has many of those regulations in place thanks to its first public consumption initiative. San Francisco's density and more robust public transportation likely quashes the worries of impaired driving that Denver faces, but Denver's location requirements for pot use areas makes finding locations in popular neighborhoods like lower downtown, Capitol Hill and RiNo a wild-goose chase, according to entrepreneurs on Denver's social consumption task force.
As the state keeps pushing new and novice cannabis users indoors and away from each other, using the plant socially will continue to carry stigma and lead to uncomfortable interactions. Say you're off work and have an hour to kill before meeting a friend, but are too far away from home to go all the way back. You don't like alcohol, but enjoy cannabis. Currently, that means you'd either have to drive to the Coffee Joint, the city's only licensed pot lounge, located in an industrial section of Lincoln Park, and vape your cannabis or wax with your own vaporizers. Or you could join one of several private clubs in the city that allow cannabis consumption, but their hours vary and have seen consistent issues with undercover police officers.
None of these situations create a normalized and welcoming environment. So instead, many cannabis users light a joint at the park, hit a vape pen on the street, or even smoke bowls in their cars.
Give us a place to go, Colorado. A real place to go.