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For Mutiny Information Cafe on Denver’s South Broadway strip, the city’s recently passed social marijuana use voter initiative could allow for once-a-month Saturday night gatherings that mix vaping, edibles and dancing.

Other businesses are considering the possibilities opened up by the successful ballot measure, ranging from one-off events to allowing pot consumption areas on-site daily. The owner of a yoga and spinning studio on East Colfax is mulling the idea of occasional special events that might couple marijuana with meditation or Thai massage.

But before The Rhythm Revolution’s Jasmine Anderson decides whether to even seek a new marijuana consumption permit, she — like others whose interest is piqued — wants to see more details about how it will work.

That is the biggest question surrounding Initiative 300, which 53.6 percent of Denver voters approved Nov. 8. The city’s Department of Excise and Licenses has only begun sorting through a multitude of issues — from legal to regulatory to pragmatic — that will determine what the first-of-its-kind marijuana social use permit program looks like.

“I think it’s pretty innovative,” University of Denver law professor Sam Kamin said about Initiative 300. To him, that fits in with other ways Denver and the state have plowed new ground nationally. “Colorado has innovated in this area since the beginning, because we were the first that took both medical and recreational licensing seriously.”

The city plans to make permit applications available by Jan. 20. That would meet a Jan. 21 deadline required by the initiative, or 60 days after the election’s certification.

But the city faces no other firm deadlines. So it remains up in the air how soon a business might open the city’s first consumption area or host the first open-to-the-public event to make use of a new permit.

Licensing spokesman Dan Rowland said Friday that a “flexible” city timeline called for finalizing the rules and regulations and beginning to accept applications in summer 2017.

The voter-forced change was sold by its backers as a way to provide places to use marijuana for tourists and some residents who can’t smoke or vape at home, as well as people who want to do it socially.

In passing Initiative 300, voters approved a new city ordinance that creates a four-year pilot program. Businesses of most stripes could seek permits — lasting up to a year — for bring-your-own-marijuana “consumption areas,” indoor or outdoor, that are 21-and-over. (Smoking wouldn’t be allowed inside.)

But the catch is that applicants first must obtain backing from a local civic group, which could include a city-registered neighborhood organization or a business improvement district.

Those groups can set operating conditions in exchange for their support.

Already, state rules bar marijuana businesses from allowing consumption on site. And on Nov. 18, state licensing officials further narrowed the scope of eligible businesses by announcing a new rule that prohibits virtually all liquor licensees, including all bars and some restaurants, from allowing pot use on their premises.

Mutiny’s Jim Norris said he and co-owner Matt Megyesi have decided to go for a permit for their combination book store and cafe.

“We’re thinking about doing it once a month, maybe an art gallery kind of thing,” he said, perhaps incorporating a dance party. “It would probably be on a Saturday night,” adapting the invitation-only “Atomic Doobie Saturday Night” events he’s hosted in the past.

Anderson is less certain how she might use a permit, but she has thought about ways marijuana could deepen mediation or massages in special events, perhaps hosted off-site.

Sensitive to public stigmas surrounding marijuana, she said The Rhythm Revolution wouldn’t seek a permit to allow cannabis use during regular yoga or spinning classes because “our business model never included that. … At the core of it all, we’re always going to be about the music.”

Steps to implementation

At 3 p.m. Monday, city licensing officials and city attorneys will brief City Council members about the progress they’ve made on figuring out Initiative 300’s implementation.

Rowland said the city likely would form an advisory committee during winter that draws together Initiative 300’s backers and its opponents, community members and business representatives to help shape the permit program and regulations. That mirrors the city’s approach in previous efforts to regulate legal marijuana.

A spring public hearing on proposed regulations also is likely.

“This is the time for Denver residents to get to know their neighborhood organization and their council rep,” said Rachel O’Bryan, who managed the anti-Initiative 300 group Protect Denver’s Atmosphere. “Because you are relying on them to put an awful lot of safety measures in place through that letter of approval (for permits) and the conditions attached. It’s enormous, the power.”

Initiative 300’s lead backer, Denver marijuana consultant Kayvan Khalatbari, anticipates a slow rollout involving experimentation by businesses that lead the charge.

For good reason: No American city has done this before.

Amsterdam long has had its coffee shops, where customers are free to light a joint. But the preferred mode of social use in a handful of Colorado cities and towns, including Nederland and Englewood, has been private clubs, though not always without strife.

Other states that were among the first to legalize recreational marijuana, including Washington and Alaska, have made it explicitly illegal to operate a club or use social marijuana in such publicly accessible places. But California, where voters just legalized recreational marijuana last month, will allow some leeway for on-site consumption, at least at licensed marijuana businesses, if local governments decide to authorize it.

In Denver, officials are considering many questions about Initiative 300, including:

  • Should the licensing department set more specific rules than those in Initiative 300? It already says consumption areas can’t be within 1,000 feet of schools, and those outdoors can’t be visible from public rights of way and places where children congregate.
  • Should the city spell out standards for the measure’s requirement that applicants train employees to identify and respond to over-intoxicated customers?
  • How will enforcement work?
  • And legally, does the city need to set further restrictions on consumption areas to avoid any conflict with state law?

While Colorado’s Amendment 64, which voters passed in 2012 to legalize recreational marijuana, does not explicitly bar public use, the state criminal code still says marijuana can’t be used “openly and publicly.” The state legislature still has not defined what that means, however.

City officials are well aware that as they work on local regulations, the General Assembly will reconvene for its 2017 session in January, giving lawmakers a chance to place new constraints on Denver.

Mayor Michael Hancock has said little about what he thinks about the initiative, including whether he voted for it. His office said he was not available Friday to answer that question.

But his administration says it takes voters’ direction seriously.

“A majority of voters in Denver believe there should be a place for people to consume marijuana socially,” mayoral spokeswoman Jenna Espinoza wrote in an e-mail. “As we assess how we can implement this law now, our overall goals with implementation of Initiative 300 are the same as with previous measures like Amendment 64: enact this new law responsibly and thoughtfully; ensure the health, safety and well-being of our city; and meet the needs of residents, businesses, neighborhoods and visitors.”

Supporters are optimistic

Khalatbari and attorney Christian Sederberg, another supporter, view the measure as fully allowed under state law, though city attorneys have voiced concerns.

“What we’re proposing is even more discreet and set back (from public view) than alcohol, which is also something that’s supposed to not be used in public,” Khalatbari said.

The backers say they are optimistic Denver city officials will make a good-faith effort.

“I also think the voters made a very clear statement,” Sederberg said. “We’re going to be true to our word that we’re going to work hard to make sure this thing works.”

They still are considering a challenge early next year of the new Colorado Liquor Enforcement Division rule that will keep bars from participating, Khalatbari said.

Opponents of Initiative 300 also are eager to add their voices to the city’s review.

O’Bryan, who managed the opposition group, said city officials should wade beyond legal issues into liability insurance requirements and health concerns. Those include proper ventilation systems and protecting employees who don’t want exposure to potentially chemical-containing vapors emitted by vaping devices, she said.

City Council members plan to keep tabs on the rollout. Rules for voter initiatives allow the council to tweak any provision after six months, though that requires a public hearing and a two-thirds majority vote.

“I have a lot of concerns about it,” said Councilwoman Kendra Black, who chairs a marijuana special issue committee. “I do think we need to have some solutions around social consumption. I don’t know if this was the right way to do it … but it’s a problem that needed a solution, and this is an important first step.”

This story was first published on DenverPost.com