Marijuana

Will This Be Our Last 4/20 Without Real Social Consumption?

Smoking weed in public on April 20 is still illegal, but that doesn't stop thousands from doing it.
Smoking weed in public on April 20 is still illegal, but that doesn't stop thousands from doing it. Jacqueline Collins
Despite the big cloud of smoke hanging over Civic Center Park every year at 4:20 p.m. on April 20, Coloradans are relatively smart about 4/20. Those who want to celebrate the cannabis holiday know where to go, and those who don't know where to avoid.

So when medical marijuana patients and business owners call for regulated social consumption areas in Colorado, their cries often fall on deaf ears. Cannabis users have discreetly toked up in their cars, next to dumpsters and in the middle of concert crowds for years — and thanks to lax enforcement at venues like Red Rocks and popular spots around town, most pot consumers are good with that. Getting the plant legalized was the big fight. Everything else is just gravy, right?

Not really. During last year's 4/20 festival at Civic Center Park, over seventy marijuana-related citations were issued to attendees; most of them were public-consumption misdemeanors. Although that accounts for just a small slice of the thousands in attendance who were smoking pot, it's still seventy citations too many.

Event organizers, tourism companies and unlicensed clubs have tried to provide spaces for social consumption under the protection of the "private" event label, but they still run the risk of hassle from law enforcement or city agencies, which sometimes disagree with their methods. True, some of the events and businesses cut corners, but most are trying to provide safe, welcoming areas for cannabis consumers to gather — and pulling them from their cars, community parks and sidewalks at the same time.


Denver and Colorado Springs have a handful of licensed cannabis lounges between them, but their programs are largely uninspiring and their future uncertain. The Springs has four or five licensed cannabis clubs; all of them were granted temporary licenses that expire in 2024. Denver's licensing program for social pot use businesses has only approved two applications since it started in 2017, with members of Denver City Council and Mayor Michael Hancock disagreeing over how to remove barriers to entering the program.

So as 4/20 again rolls around, the majority of users who aren't at home this weekend will be at one of the many private events around town or simply celebrating illegally. But that could finally change by April 20, 2020.

A bill that would legalize social pot consumption businesses in the state passed through the Colorado House on Thursday, April 18, and has moved on to the Senate, where the bill's advocates are even more confident of its chances. Governor Jared Polis has indicated in the past that he'd support such a measure, in stark contrast to former Governor John Hickenlooper, who vetoed a bill that would've legalized dispensary tasting rooms in 2018.

This new bill could be an even larger win for cannabis users, though, permitting hotels, music venues, yoga studios and any 21-and-up business to allow pot consumption, and that includes smoking. It could even give these businesses the chance to sell small amounts of cannabis, doing away with the bring-your-own models under which private events and lounges currently operate.

Celebrities have joined the call for change: When rapper Bun B interviewed Mayor Hancock earlier this week about Denver's highs and lows with legal pot, he wasn't shy about his desire for a place to burn one outside of his non-smoking hotel. "Nobody wants to come a city where weed is legal and leave with a weed case," he told the mayor.

Other states with legal cannabis are finally pushing ahead with social consumption, too. Alaska recently approved licensing for on-site pot consumption at dispensaries, and California communities such as San Francisco and West Hollywood have moved forward with social use businesses while the state legislature there still debates the issue.

So whether you're celebrating at home, at Civic Center or at a private party this weekend, light one up for next year. It could look very different from what we have now.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Thomas Mitchell has written about all things cannabis for Westword since 2014, covering sports, real estate and general news along the way for publications such as the Arizona Republic, Inman and Fox Sports. He's currently the cannabis editor for westword.com.
Contact: Thomas Mitchell