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Why Social Consumption Is Still Problematic in Denver

Updated: Jul 23, 2019

It’s been over 2 years since Denver voters approved Initiative 300 in November 2016. The initiative was a pilot program granting businesses the ability to apply for a micro-license allowing for marijuana consumption for adults 21+ in designated areas determined by eligible neighborhood associations.

Yet, to date, only 2 establishments have been successful in applying for these license and opening a business of this model.

The first one was The Coffee Joint which opened in March of 2018. While patrons cannot smoke (anything) at The Coffee Joint since there is no outdoor space, they are welcome to bring their own products and pay a minimal door fee in lieu of purchasing from the retail counter or the dispensary next door. The business also hosts community cannabis-enhanced events such as yoga, movie nights, dab pong, and more, with events nearly every day of the month.

Vape and Play recently cleared the hurdles of funding, receiving neighborhood association input, finding a location, and getting city approval, only to have run into operational challenges once receiving approvals.

While The Coffee Joint was the first ever in Denver, Vape and Play was the first licensed lounge in a heavily trafficked area, with plenty of public transportation. But it wasn’t an easy road.

The owners spent two long years trying to obtain their license from the moment I300 passed, on their mission to turn a Denver location into a national model.

“We’ve been tenacious, and when a door shuts we look for another door or we climb in the window. You’ve got to work with legislators and regulators and local law enforcement.” — Megan Lumpkins, Vape and Play Chief Operating Officer

But many consider an average of a single business obtaining a license per year to be a poor record for I300 and general failing on Denver’s part. One of the biggest concerns is the extreme restrictions on location.

When passed in 2016, I300’s only restriction was that an establishment couldn’t be within a 1,000-foot distance from any school. The Department of Excise and Licenses, however, later added an additional 1,000-foot restriction between any social use location and, including, but not limited to daycare centers, drug treatment centers and city-owned parks, pools and recreation centers.

“Local entrepreneurs and I-300 proponents point to a lack of profitable business models and harsh location restrictions as the program's main drawbacks, and that's the majority of what the marijuana committee has been discussing.” — Thomas Mitchell, Westword

As you can imagine, this severely limited opportunities to find locations. In fact, only 13% of Denver’s land mass currently meets all of the location requirements of I300. Even if Denver City Council were to cut the restrictions in half (from 1,000 to 500 ft) only just over five square miles of new space would be added.

Denver City Council recognized the limitations of the pilot program and met regularly since October 2018 to discuss how to increase the number of applicants (which is currently at a measly total of 3). However, for all their efforts the Denver City Council subsequently shot down any changes to the distance requirements the Department of Excise and Licenses unilaterally placed on applications. For now, the extreme distance requirements remain. On the bright side, the program also remains, and is no longer a “pilot” program.

Since the passage of HB19-1230 which allows public consumption licenses to be issued statewide, Denver’s problematic social consumption program may not be worth it to potential business owners as neighboring localities may create more business-friendly regulations for social consumption establishments - we will keep our eyes on what localities do with this new license type.

In the meantime, coalitions like the Social Use Avengers have banded together to advocate for social consumption of cannabis in Colorado. Their grassroots approach includes cannabis consumption education, legislative action committee, and a team of industry professionals assisting entrepreneurs seeking to enter this emerging market.

Stay tuned!

Next month, I'll be sharing a two-part blog on the new state laws allowing for social consumption businesses.

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