Initiative 300: Is this the marijuana consumption ordinance we’ve been looking for?

7 min. read
Gir Scout Cookies strain of cannabis at Simply Pure. (Chloe Aiello/Denverite) dispensary; marijuana

For here or to go? (Chloe Aiello/Denverite)

Initiative 300 on the Denver city ballot would create a mechanism to allow use in public at businesses that obtain a license from the city, similar to a liquor license. This would give tourists, people who live in federally subsidized housing, people whose landlords or HOAs don't allow smoking and people who just want to consume somewhere other than the comfort of their living room for some reason a legal place to do so.

While it's the only public consumption measure on the ballot this year, it's not the only idea that's been proposed. Is this the right approach?

Here's the language you'll see on your ballot:

Shall the voters of the City and County of Denver adopt an ordinance that creates a cannabis consumption pilot program where: the City and County of Denver (the “City”) may permit a business or a person with evidence of support of an eligible neighborhood association or business improvement district to allow the consumption of marijuana (“cannabis”) in a designated consumption area; such associations or districts may set forth conditions on the operation of a designated consumption area, including permitting or restricting concurrent uses, consumptions, or services offered, if any; the designated consumption area is limited to those over the age of twenty-one, must comply with the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act, may overlap with any other type of business or licensed premise, and cannot be located within 1000 feet of a school; a designated consumption area that is located outside cannot be visible from a public right-of-way or a place where children congregate; the City shall create a task force to study the impacts of cannabis consumption permits on the city; the City may enact additional regulations and ordinances to further regulate designated consumption areas that are not in conflict with this ordinance; and the cannabis consumption pilot program expires on December 31, 2020 or earlier if the City passes comprehensive regulations governing cannabis consumption?

What does that mean?

There's an eight-page ordinance behind that ballot language. You can read the whole thing for yourself here.

Businesses that sell marijuana cannot, under state law, allow consumption on the premises. This ordinance would allow just about any other kind of business -- a bar, a coffee shop, a yoga studio -- to apply for a cannabis consumption permit so that people could use marijuana in a designated consumption area within that business.

The business would need the support of a neighborhood organization -- it could be a registered neighborhood organization or a business improvement district -- and those organizations could ask for good neighbor provisions with an operating plan.

The ordinance envisions that the city would make additional rules to administer the ordinance, provided those rules don't "frustrate the intent" of the initiative, which is to create places where it's legal to consume outside the home.

The law has a built-in sunset at the end of 2020. The pitch is that if this isn't working out, we're not stuck with it. That said, if people invest in this as a business opportunity, there will be a monied constituency advocating for their continued existence.

Isn't it against state law to smoke marijuana in public? And what about indoor air quality?

The businesses would need to comply with the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act. Tobacco shops are exempt from indoor smoking bans that apply to most other businesses, so they could create designated consumption areas that allow smoking inside. Other businesses could create areas for vaping or consumption of edibles.

Colorado law does not allow smoking within 15 feet of the main entrance to a building, and it also does not allow marijuana to be smoked in the public right-of-way or where children regularly hang out. This means most restaurant patios and sidewalk seating areas could not be designated consumption areas.

A back patio or a rooftop patio could potentially be a designated consumption area. If you're thinking that you haven't seen a lot of cigarette smoking in these areas, it's because many restaurant owners think that their patrons prefer a smoke-free environment. It's a norm, not a legal requirement.

Kayvan Khalatbari, a cannabis consultant who is a major force behind the initiative, doesn't think that many restaurants will take advantage of the opportunity, but they could.

The initiative also would allow entities to seek temporary permits for, say, special events and festivals. (Khalatbari is on the board of the Arts District at Santa Fe, and he'd like to see designated consumption areas at First Friday events.)

Why are these designated consumption areas a good idea?

Here's Khalatbari:

"We've given folks the opportunity to purchase and possess, but we haven't given them the ability to consume it," he said. "We really need to give people a place to consume that is discreet and not on the public right-of-way. I think it's the most conservative approach that anyone has talked about. This issue is not going away."

It's not like people aren't using marijuana in public already. They're just doing it illegally, on Denver streets and in Denver parks. Tickets for public consumption have skyrocketed since the passage of Amendment 64.

What about those pot clubs?

The Denver chapter of NORML -- the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws -- tried to get a different public consumption law on the ballot. Responsible Use Denver would have allowed for private, members-only clubs for the use of marijuana. Marijuana couldn't be sold there, and neither could almost anything else except snacks.

The measure didn't have enough signatures to make the ballot, so we're not voting on it this year. But some members of NORML think private clubs would still be the better way to go, rather than creating a new business interest in marijuana.

Khalatbari derided NORML's proposed pot clubs as "opium dens" and said the social use ordinance creates an opportunity for a new "cannabis culture" that is integrated with wellness and other social pursuits, not hidden away and stigmatized.

If Initiative 300 doesn't pass, it's very likely another public consumption ordinance will be proposed, either for the ballot or through the City Council.

What could possibly go wrong?

The American Lung Association doesn't want smoking in public legitimized. Some people are concerned about more impaired driving. (The ordinance envisions that one element of a good neighbor agreement might be a business providing pre-paid rides home for consumers.)

And some neighborhood organizations fear the ordinance is doing an end-run around community consent. Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation, the umbrella organization of Denver's registered neighborhood organizations voted 18-5 to oppose the measure. Some individual neighborhood organizations support it, and a lot of the member organizations didn't vote.

Margie Valdez, chair of the zoning and planning committee, said the big concern is that the initiative claims to give neighborhoods a veto -- a letter of support or at least non-opposition from an "eligible neighborhood opposition" is a requirement for a permit -- it actually undermines neighborhoods. That's because the eligible organization lending support could be a business improvement district, and the BID and the registered neighborhood organization might not see it the same way.

"It's taking us off by the knees, and this is after years and years and years of working with businesses to foster good relations," she said.

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