Marijuana zoning loophole: Denver wants to stop dispensaries from opening in residential areas

Denver officials are scrambling to fix zoning-code loopholes that could let dispensaries open up shop in previously closed-off parts of town. The city has spent years crafting a new-and-improved version of the zoning code, the blueprint that will guide Denver's future growth and development after it heads to Denver City Council for a final vote on Monday, June 21, and everything seemed in place - until planners realized that they'd forgotten to factor in medical marijuana.

Under the medical-marijuana ordinance that council adopted in January, dispensaries technically aren't allowed in residential zones - but when the new code goes into effect, some small retail/business pockets in residential areas will be relabeled mixed-use zoning, opening them up to medical-marijuana least until the new, statewide moratorium takes effect on July 1.

"That leaves this little pocket of time where dispensaries could apply for a legitimate location in those areas that used to be residential," says councilman Doug Linkhart, who discussed the issue at a recent Safety Committee meeting. "And I think there are a lot of residents who have concerns about having dispensaries in residential areas, which is why we do ban them in residential zoning."

While nine days doesn't seem like a lot of time, the fact that some of these pockets of land are in prime locations has would-be dispensaries looking closely at this loophole.

To nip the problem in the bud, as it were, the city has come up with a solution: When councilmembers vote on the new zoning code next week, they will likely pass a stopgap measure temporarily prohibiting dispensaries from opening in areas previously labeled as residential. In other words, says Linkhart, "We're punting on the issue." But the city will then have another twelve months to figure out a longterm solution for these tricky pot pockets before the state moratorium is lifted on July 1, 2011.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner