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Next steps for implementing Denver’s social pot use law

Initiative 300 requires a pilot program for businesses, but city attorney says new permits must comply with laws

December 6, 2016

Denver licensing and legal officials told City Council members Monday that they still had plenty of work to do to implement the first-of-its-kind social marijuana use law approved by city voters last month.

“Our plan is to implement the will of the voters within the confines of the law,” said Ashley Kilroy, executive director of the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses. She’s also the longtime director of the Office of Marijuana Policy.

But figuring out the “confines of the law” may be the trickiest part in coming months as officials develop regulations for Initiative 300. The ballot measure, which passed with 53.6 percent support Nov. 8, mandates that the city make permits available for businesses to create bring-your-own-marijuana consumption areas, either for events or regular use, lasting up to a year. Those businesses first would need to obtain support from a local neighborhood or business organization.

City Attorney Kristin Bronson said state law, which bars consumption of marijuana “openly and publicly,” doesn’t define those terms clearly, leaving plenty for her office to interpret.

She said it would consult other laws defining “public places” to create further restrictions for the consumption areas as well as other safeguards to comply with Colorado’s Amendment 64.

The areas also would need to operate in keeping with objectives outlined by the U.S. Department of Justice to states with legalized marijuana, including preventing marijuana from getting into children’s hands, although she noted that federal guidance could change under President-elect Donald Trump’s administration.

Monday afternoon’s meeting of the council’s marijuana special issue committee marked the first post-election briefing of council members by Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration.

The Denver Post reported Sunday that city licensing officials are aiming to invite supporters, opponents, community members, experts and business representatives to join an advisory committee soon. The Social Consumption Advisory Committee will help shape the regulations the city proposes, with an airing of those rules expected at a public hearing in April or May.

While Initiative 300 requires the city to make permit applications available by Jan. 21 — and officials plan to meet that deadline — applications likely won’t be accepted until next summer.

A draft timeline detailed by Kilroy said that may happen between June and August. The city then would begin issuing permits.

“We won’t begin accepting (applications) until we’ve gotten through the process and know what the rules will be,” she told nine council members who attended Monday’s briefing.

Initiative 300 set a four-year pilot period for the permit program and requires that the council establish a task force to analyze its impact. There are some big limitations from the start: Under state laws and regulations, the permits will be off-limits for marijuana businesses, including dispensaries, and for businesses with liquor licenses, including bars.

Councilman Paul Lopez suggested to Kilroy that policymakers strongly consider requiring public hearings for each permit, in addition to the required support from a local neighborhood group. “I think that’s going to be critical, because imagine there being bars without any kind of public hearing or anything like that,” he said.

“It will definitely be on our agenda,” Kilroy said.

Robin Kniech, an at-large council member, suggested that licensing officials make sure to choose members of the advisory committee who, even if they didn’t support Initiative 300, are geared toward implementing it in a practical way, and quickly. She expressed worry that some skeptics could try to take a wider view by focusing too much on health impacts or the effects of marijuana on children.

“I think we’re setting expectations for frustration if the community thinks they’re going to come in and have a debate about whether this is good or bad,” Kniech said. “That debate happened during that election.”