With the January 1 kickoff for recreational marijuana sales in Colorado drawing ever nearer, we're hearing more and more people within the cannabis community complaining about the city's approach. A common perception is that Denver mayor Michael Hancock's personal opposition to pot legalization is filtering down to city agencies and negatively coloring messaging, as epitomized by the unenthusiastic tone of the city's official marijuana website. But a Hancock rep says nothing could be further from the truth and stresses the city's efforts to make the launch go smoothly.
"The mayor's personal opinion on the legalization of marijuana plays no part in how the licensing process city council approved is implemented," says Rowena Alegria, director of communications for Hancock's office. "The voters have spoken and we're implementing Amendment 64 to the best of our ability."
To put it mildly, Hancock didn't carry a flag for Amendment 64. He was among the most vocal opponents of the proposal, with the following comment from October 2012 laying out his views well.
"I do firmly believe it's a gateway drug," Hancock said at the time. "I also think it's the wrong message we want to send our children that it's okay for them to consume or use marijuana," he allowed, adding, "We don't want to be the first state in this nation that legalizes marijuana. I believe we will lose our attractiveness to companies, employers who want to come to our state. Tourism is the number-one industry for the City of Denver, number two in the state of Colorado, and I believe that sector will be disproportionately harmed with the perception that Denver is the marijuana capital."
Since A64's passage, Hancock has made fewer statements like this one, but his antipathy for marijuana legalization is never far from the surface. Take the following statement released in conjunction of the aforementioned website introduction earlier this week.
"We promised the people of Denver that we would implement Amendment 64 in a responsible manner, protecting our neighborhoods, our children and our quality of life," Hancock was quoted as saying. "We continue to work hard to balance the divergent needs and wants of many in the community.
"That means respecting the will of the voters, who last year approved Amendment 64, which allows people 21 and older to have and consume small amounts of marijuana, while also striving to keep our city enjoyable for those who do not and should not be impacted by this substance."
We've had multiple conversations with marijuana industry members who feel the mayor's focus is more on the latter group than the former, but many decline to say so publicly for fear they'll face licensing-process delays in retaliation for their views. However, as noted by our William Breathes in a post about the prospect of recreational shops running out of marijuana shortly after January 1 due to overwhelming demand, 3D Dispensary owner Toni Fox told the Huffington Post there's a growing sense among applicants that city officials are purposefully dragging their feet on a program they don't want to implement.
Hancock has "never been a supporter of the industry from day one," Fox told HuffPo. "I feel like we're fighting against a city government that doesn't want us even though the constituents have voted us in. It's very frustrating."
As for the website, the landing page greets residents and visitors with flash graphics telling them plenty of things they can't do related to marijuana, like this....
...and this.... ...while studiously avoiding any suggestion that the city is welcoming the industry despite the millions in revenue it's expected to generate.
In response, Alegria spells out the city's goal when it comes to the website and its efforts to help get as many shops as possible ready to open on January 1.
Continue for more of our interview with Denver mayor's office spokeswoman Rowena Alegria, including additional photos. When it comes to the website, "it was less about tone than it was about helping both residents and visitors to Denver to understand what the rules are," Alegria says. "All the time, we're hearing confusion about when it's going to be implemented, who it affects, who can do this -- even from the national media. They're thinking that at midnight on New Year's Eve, there's going to be a giant pot party in Denver, and that's just not true.
"The website's goal was really to set the record straight," she continues. "We had very little time and budget to put it together, and it's in flux. The things that are in there now are the constitutional ones that aren't going to change, and the ones most important for people to understand. But we'll be making changes" to reflect new information and regulation as time goes on.
When it comes to the process of getting permits and licenses, "we fully understand the frustrations that some of these businesses have been experiencing," she maintains. "But since city council approved the apparatus for retail stores on September 16, we have been working diligently in a very short time frame to implement an entirely new licensing process. The folks in Excise and Licensing have been working six and seven days a week to do this -- and we didn't have to."
"The state law allows consecutive licensing," she explains. "Once a state license is issued, a local government can then implement its own process. In other words, state law's clear that their process would take between 45 and ninety days, and MED [the Marijuana Enforcement Division] has consistently communicated that their first licenses wouldn't be issued until late December. So we could have said, 'Let the state do their process and then the city will do ours,' which would have ensured that no business would have been open on January 1."
Instead, she goes on, "we implemented simultaneous licensing to speed along the process, so we could ensure that businesses in Denver could be open by January 1."
Additionally, Alegria says, "once the city council approved the ordinance outlining the regulations around retail marijuana, the administration approved an efficiency team to Excise and Licensing to ensure prompt licensing, and to make sure stores would be open on January 1 -- to streamline the process."
Granted, certain short cuts weren't possible. "As new retail establishments, the license processing times for public hearings and inspections is the same as it is for other businesses in the city," Alegria acknowledges. "That means if you're getting a marijuana business license or a license to open a restaurant, there's no difference in the processing. It's not instantaneous for any business. Because of the demand, staffing and the review processes, it takes a little bit of time."
Continue for more of our interview with Rowena Alegria about the city's efforts leading up to the January 1 start of recreational marijuana sales. Another point of emphasis for Alegria is that "the city is just one part of the overall regulatory process. The state has its part: A business in Denver can't open until it's gone through the process with the state -- not only getting a business license, but also ensuring employees have gone through the process to make sure they can work in these establishments. And it's the responsibility of the businesses to make sure everything is in order. If the city is saying you have to get these things done in order to pass these inspections, and an inspector says, 'You have to do this,' it's up to the business owner to make sure these things are corrected. And if the business isn't doing that, we can't fix it."
According to Alegria, the city expects that "about a dozen" recreational marijuana shops will be able to open on January 1, "depending on the state getting all its ducks in a row, the businesses getting their ducks in a row, and the city making sure all the processes have been met."
As evidence the city is going to extra mile, Alegria points out that "January 1 is a holiday, and the city is officially closed -- but there are city employees who are planning and preparing to deal with whatever comes. A number of folks at Excise and Licensing are committing to be available, even though they're not going to get paid for that day, because they want to make sure this gets done, and gets done right."
Until then, Alegria says, "all hands are on deck, and we're doing everything we can to prepare for January 1 -- talking about what could happen, what might happen, and what the responsibilities are for the various agencies in the city, so we can make sure we're as prepared as we can be.
"It's been a challenge," she concedes, "but the city employees have really risen to the challenge. They're meeting constantly and working hard to make sure we implement this responsibly."
This last term is of particular importance to the mayor's office.
"Remember that this is a balance we have to maintain," Alegria says. "Even though there was a lot of support by voters to implement this, it's much more complicated than perhaps anyone understood initially. And there are people who aren't fans of this -- populations that we feel the need to think about before we act -- and larger implications of this that just aren't known at this point in time."
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"Such as, 'How will this change the city? And how will this change the next generation of children in this city?' The effects of marijuana on young kids or adolescents -- there hasn't been the amount of study on this that there's been with, say, tobacco. So we are doing what we can on a very short time frame to balance the interests of our constituents and do it responsibly, so that we can make sure we're protecting the integrity of our city and the good reputation of our city -- and moving forward thoughtfully."
Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.
More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana: Will recreational shops run out of weed shortly after January 1?"