The drafters of Denver's social cannabis consumption initiative have been vocal about their dissatisfaction with the city's finalized rules and distance requirements for businesses applying to open a consumption area. Now they're taking it a step further, threatening to sue the City of Denver if less restrictive rules aren't put in place.
Passed by Denver voters in November, the Initiative 300 social consumption pilot program is expected to take effect sometime this fall, with the city set to begin accepting applications later this month. The rules were finalized in June, but proponents of Initiative 300 and their representatives on the city's Social Consumption Advisory Committee say those rules don't reflect the intent of the initiative that voters approved, and charge that location restrictions will kill the program's chance at succeeding.
Emmett Reistroffer and Kayvan Khaltabari, drafters of the initiative, contacted city officials on Friday, August 11, and Saturday, August 12, and informed them that a lawsuit was probable if the restrictions weren't relaxed. Their main objection is with the proposed 1,000-foot buffer requirement between a social consumption area and any school, child-care establishment, drug or treatment facility, city park, pool or recreation center.
"We were hoping for them to open their eyes before they finished these requirements," Khalatbari says. "There's a few unreasonable things in there, but this one really kills the ordinance."
Khalatbari explained his reasoning further in an email sent to Denver Excise and Licenses Department director Ashley Kilroy and other city officials.
..the unreasonableness of these distance requirements can be tied to what we went through last year as a cannabis industry in Denver. We were attacked for being concentrated in poor neighborhoods, even though it was city zoning that led us to thrive in these areas in the first place. Okay, we can get over that. Regardless of the reasoning behind this crackdown, I think we all agree that too much concentration can create problems, even if they are only aesthetic or perceived problems. We dealt with it. However, now your distance restrictions make it such that these social use businesses can only establish themselves in the very neighborhoods that city council deemed too concentrated with cannabis businesses last year. It truly is a lesson in insanity. I am currently collaborating with some of the same north Denver communities that complained about concentration last year, and working on a joint public statement and initiative to highlight this incredible hypocrisy. Expect to see more from that soon.
"Bottom line, as I said above, is that we can live with many of the burdens put on this rollout by your offices, but these distance requirements must loosen up. If they do not, I think it's fair to say that you will most certainly be seeing a lawsuit from our side of the table," Khalatbari's email concludes.
After I-300 passed, the city-appointed Social Consumption Advisory Committee met six times from January to April, with a public hearing in June for feedback before the application requirements were finalized. The committee included Reistroffer and representatives of local neighborhood organizations, businesses and other stakeholders.
"We feel good about the rules. They reflect what the community wanted, which included the proponents of I-300," says Dan Rowland, director of public affairs for Excise and Licenses. "It would be pretty disingenuous to change the rules after the very public process we put together to do this."
The city seems unfazed by the threat of lawsuit. Rowland says he doesn't think going back to the drawing board will be productive; he expects the application process to be ready in a couple weeks. "We don't have any applications yet," he notes. "We're going to start this process very soon, so it'd be strange to change this process before it even starts."
Margie Valdez, head of Denver Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation and a member of the committee, says she felt the rules weren't strict enough, and initially pushed for the thousand-foot buffer to include residential areas. After sitting across from Reistroffer during the meetings where they hammered out the rules, she adds, she's surprised to now see the threat of a lawsuit.
"I really think the process worked in Denver, but they just don't like the results. When rules are finalized, that's what we have to live with," she says. "I'm puzzled why they would consider filing a lawsuit. Those regulations were put in place only after they had a lot of public input." Members of neighborhood groups such as INC and the West Washington Park Neighborhood Association regularly attended public meetings and expressed their concerns with pot-consumption lounges and possible odors wafting too close to residential areas where children congregate.
Some local entrepreneurs, both inside and outside of the cannabis industry, say the restrictions don't seem fair given the number of liquor licenses distributed through the city, about 1,000. Daniel Landes, a social consumption committee member and owner of City, O' City restaurant and several other local businesses, thinks the rules aren't friendly enough to anyone who consumes cannabis legally.
"I think the 1,000-foot rule is too prohibitive to really encourage the growth – to supply the demand that's there. There's a huge demand for people to consume cannabis outside of their own homes, and a lot of people can't. I think thats where we failed," he says. " I think the will of the Denver voter wasn't really respected or represented."
Khalatbari and Landes agree that it will be hard for owners to add social consumption areas to their businesses and still be financially successful under the current rules. Any location with a liquor license is banned from applying for a social consumption permit, so few restaurants that serve alcohol will even consider it, Landes notes.
"There's no way to make money in it that I can see. You're basically creating an environment. You can conceivably sell other things, but basically, there's no real way to make money in a restaurant with this," he says. "Most of the people that I know who are interested are doing it because they want to be pioneers."
Rowland left the door open for change after this social consumption pilot program concludes in three years. He notes that it will be under review by Denver City Council, and that Excise and Licenses will be checking in constantly to see how all licensee programs are doing, including social cannabis consumption. But Khalatbari isn't prepared to wait for the pilot program to end before pushing for change.
"They need to change those distance requirements to be in line with alcohol. I'm pretty sure [the lawsuit] is going to happen," he says. "We're at a point where it's certified, and it's up to city council to change it. We're going to need some action from the mayor's office."