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The Battle to Smoke in a Public Space

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As Smoke Signals noted a few weeks ago, Denver took a big leap forward last month by becoming the first major city to legalize "social" use of cannabis. After Colorado legalized cannabis in 2014, Denverites began exploring the limits of the new law. Like other nearby towns, entrepreneurs in Colorado's largest city sought to open private clubs where people could gather to enjoy cannabis in a social setting, but the mayor and other local prohibitionists banned those opportunities.

Then the Denver-based Colorado Symphony Orchestra (CSO) announced its "Classically Cannabis" concert series, inviting patrons to bring their own cannabis and listen to classical music in venues such as the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheater. The city government did not like that either, warning the CSO that it may be violating the law prohibiting cannabis consumption "openly and publicly in a manner that endangers others."

So Denverites got together and passed a law creating a four-year pilot program allowing for certain businesses to open "cannabis consumption areas." But there will be no Amsterdam-style hash bars in Denver. The law bans retail cannabis businesses from obtaining a social use permit, eliminating any place where people can both buy and consume cannabis.

The law does (or did) allow for cannabis consumption areas at businesses serving alcohol, ironically requiring any such establishment to offer free rides home to patrons who have been smoking cannabis and drinking alcohol—something the thousands of existing bars in Colorado are not required to do. But prohibitionist state officials at the Liquor Enforcement Division did not like that idea either and preemptively enacted regulations to prohibit any cannabis consumption where alcohol is also served.

The Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act eliminates another huge set of possible social use venues, banning smoking in the vast majority of indoor areas. The only hope for social use indoors would be a cigar bar, which is grandfathered in under the anti-smoking law.

Outdoor smoking is allowed, but only if the consumption is not visible to anyone in public and only if the business makes "reasonable accommodations" to prevent the odor from reaching other public areas. Denver has many rooftop venues that may one day offer social cannabis use with fantastic views of the Rockies.

All the restrictions have left many interested business owners confused about whether they will be able to obtain a permit. To make matters worse, the city government is dragging its feet on implementing the law. Required by the initiative to begin accepting permit applications 60 days after the law passed, the city government now says that it will not be ready to accept permits until sometime in the summer of 2017, with no timeline for issuing the permits.

Still, entrepreneurs are not giving up hope. The owners of Mutiny Information Cafe, a combination bookstore, record store, event space and cafe in Denver's artsy South Broadway neighborhood, reportedly will apply for a permit, hoping to adapt their currently invitation-only "Atomic Doobie Saturday Night" events, which encourage vaping and consuming edibles in a dance party setting.

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