COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado -- It’s a busy afternoon at The Lazy Lion, a members-only marijuana club in this notoriously conservative city. Inside the windowless one-story building in an industrial part of town, attendees who’ve paid the club’s $5 daily membership fee line up at a glass bar to acquire bags of marijuana or take hits from one of the establishment’s water pipes, for which they hand over a cash “reimbursement” (under Colorado law, people aren’t allowed to consume cannabis at locations licensed to sell marijuana).
Colorado Springs has banned recreational-marijuana shops in the city, but its zoning laws allow for private clubs, which is where establishments such as The Lazy Lion fit in. These sorts of gathering places are desperately needed, says the club’s general manager, Aaron Stone. “A lot of time on the retail side, people leave the stores with misinformation, and don’t know how to use what they buy,” he says, noting that in its two-and-a-half year run, The Lazy Lion has played host to job interviews, homework sessions and even post-wedding celebrations.
But would Colorado tourists or marijuana novices really feel at ease inside a place such as The Lazy Lion? And if not, where should people go to consume cannabis with their peers? Marijuana, with its pass-the-joint cultural heritage, has always been a social drug. But so far, recreational-marijuana laws have steadfastly avoided dealing with the social parameters of cannabis use. Colorado and other states that have legalized marijuana have outlawed public cannabis consumption, but what about consumption behind closed doors and among consenting adults? It’s a conundrum that has major financial and social implications for the developing legal marijuana industry.
A proposed Denver initiative aims to solve the problem by allowing establishments like bars to permit limited marijuana consumption on the premises, but people are torn as to whether marijuana use should be segregated in separate-but-equal cannabis establishments or integrated with other vices such as alcohol.
The proposal would allow people to bring their own cannabis to businesses like bars, clubs and theaters that have dedicated indoor spaces for vaporized cannabis and outdoor patios for marijuana smoking, provided those spaces are limited to those 21 and older and aren’t visible from or within 25 feet of public spaces. The measure is notable not just because of its far-reaching approach to marijuana consumption in social settings, but also because of those behind it: Brian Vicente and Mason Tvert, the prominent attorney-and-advocate duo who spearheaded the development and passage of Colorado’s Amendment 64 in 2012, legalizing adult marijuana use in the state.
Denver and Colorado have led the nation in reforming marijuana laws, and with the team behind Amendment 64 backing the recently proposed initiative, cannabis in bars could be a part of the nation’s new marijuana normal.
From Bars To Bagel Shops
“We feel that adults should be able to use marijuana while socializing with other adults who are using alcohol,” says Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, which needs to gather 4,726 signatures by early August to get the initiative on the city’s November ballot. “[Amendment 64] clearly allows for this type of activity. We should know, because we wrote it that way intentionally.”
While many Denverites appear to agree (a poll commissioned by the initiative’s backers found 56 percent of likely city voters support the limited social-use initiative), proprietors of some of the establishments that could allow marijuana use in the event the measure passes aren’t so thrilled by the proposal. “The Colorado Restaurant Association is against the measure,” says Carolyn Livingston, communication director of the association, which represents about one-half of the state’s eating establishments. “Encouraging the combination of marijuana and alcohol poses huge liability questions for restaurants.”
In addition, Livingston says, “Current state law does not allow for marijuana consumption that is conducted openly and publicly, and restaurants are public places.” Colorado law defines a public space as “a place to which the public or a substantial number of the public has access.” While restaurants and theaters open to all ages would certainly fall into this category, the question is, would 21-and-over spaces in bars, clubs and other establishments be considered sufficiently private to skirt the law? Even if this is the case, other questions remain over how these new marijuana-consumption rules would work with existing operating procedures. Would establishments have to obtain additional licenses to have marijuana-consumption spaces, similar to the way bars and restaurants require liquor licenses? And could bagel shops and bookstores create adult-only spaces for cannabis use? (And if they could, would that be a bad thing?)
Members-only cannabis clubs such as The Lazy Lion have faced their own share of legal snafus. Two Colorado jurisdictions, the mountain town of Nederland and Pueblo County in southern Colorado, have passed statutes allowing for 21-and-over marijuana clubs (and the former now boasts the first civically sanctioned social establishment, ClubNed), most communities haven’t weighed in on the legitimacy of such enterprises, which means those who attempt to open clubs in these locales are operating in a legal gray area. In some communities, such as Colorado Springs, these operations have managed to stay open, but in others, club owners haven’t been so lucky. In March, Alaska police raided a marijuana club that had opened in Anchorage, and a month later Denver authorities shut down two clubs operating in the city. Washington state, which has also legalized recreational marijuana, just passed a law prohibiting members-only marijuana clubs, to avoid the issue altogether.
While officials quibble over what constitutes marijuana use in public spaces and discourage private cannabis establishments, they’re avoiding an overarching issue: A growing number of people have declared with their votes that they’re OK with adult marijuana consumption, and so now they need places to do it. “Once people have the right to acquire cannabis, the next logical step forward is figuring out what do they do with it,” says Hilary Bricken, lead attorney at the Canna Law Group in Seattle. “People are saying, ‘So I can have it, but where can I use it and not feel like a criminal?’”
One of the most obvious challenges of not providing social spaces for cannabis use is the headaches it presents for marijuana tourism. Denver is enjoying a booming tourism industry -- in 2014, the city broke records for visitors and tourist spending -- and while the local tourism board is loath to give any credit to the city’s 125 retail marijuana stores (“We have not seen any bump in tourism that we can attribute solely to legalized marijuana,” says Visit Denver CEO Richard Scharf), those in the cannabis industry believe otherwise. And marijuana boosters think that the lack of legit, welcoming locations for those coming to sample the state’s newest tourism draw is doing the cannatourism industry a disservice, especially since hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns that allow marijuana consumption are few and far between.
“It’s kind of forcing tourists to break the law,” says Jeremy Bamford, founder of PotGuide.com, a marijuana-friendly online visitors guide. “Some people won’t care and will smoke in their hotel room and take the hit on the room-cleaning charge. Others want to stay on the right side of the law and try to stay at marijuana-friendly hotels, if they can find them. It’s kind of silly, because they are out here to consume it.”
The lack of guidance around social consumption has also proven burdensome for businesses and event promoters hoping to host marijuana-infused cultural events.
That includes Jane West, founder of Edible Events Co., who for nearly two years has been hosting cannabis-friendly parties in Colorado and has faced pushback every step of the way. When she helped plan a series of Denver parties to celebrate Colorado launching its retail marijuana market Jan. 1, 2014, every bar and restaurant she worked with received a cease-and-desist letter from the city threatening to take its liquor license. When she held a 4/20 brunch at a bakery last year, a SWAT team barged in and charged her with serving alcohol without a license, something she says she didn’t need because it was a private event. Then, when West partnered last year with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra on a series of bring-your-own-marijuana fundraising concerts at a local art gallery, lawyers for the city of Denver warned her the events risked violating public marijuana-use laws, forcing the symphony to refund all ticket sales and make the events invitation-only. “The symphony came to me because they wanted to bring in a new demographic,” West says. “And that is exactly what we did. Over 90 percent of the first rounds of tickets sold were to people who had never been to the Colorado Symphony Orchestra before. We had people purchasing tickets from 10 different states, and the city said we had to refund every last one.”
The lack of cannabis-friendly social spaces is more than just an inconvenience for tourists and event organizers. There’s a bigger issue related to not having a place to consume marijuana socially: Thanks to decades of public drinking at bars, restaurants and other establishments, people have developed a robust social understanding of alcohol consumption -- we know the difference between having a glass of wine with dinner and throwing down six shots of whiskey at a bar. But because cannabis has been illegal, all marijuana use has long remained taboo, whether it’s a single puff of a joint or an afternoon of heavy bong hits. “There is not as much of an inherent cultural understanding around marijuana,” Tvert said in an interview last year. “For far too long, marijuana education has entailed an abstinence-only approach that does nothing to educate a person about the actual effects of marijuana.”
One of the benefits of going to social spaces designed for marijuana consumption instead of experimenting in private residences or hotel rooms is that it would allow people to develop a social lexicon about cannabis use. That’s why some people believe allowing members-only marijuana clubs isn’t enough. “If you have cannabis clubs, you’re just going to cater to the existing cannabis culture,” says Kayvan Khalatbari, co-owner of the Denver Relief dispensary and a cannabis consultant who’s helping to bankroll the social-use initiative in Denver. “If you allow it in establishments with liquor licenses, cabaret licenses and performance licenses, all of a sudden you have it in the mainstream. It is going to be a lot more normal, and it’s going to change perceptions a lot quicker.”
A Bad Mix?
In some ways, it’s fitting that the people originally behind Amendment 64 are pushing to allow cannabis use in the sort of establishments that normally sell beer and liquor. After all, their 2012 statewide legalization initiative called for the regulation of marijuana like alcohol. But there’s also some political dissonance in these activists’ latest move. For years, Colorado legalization supporters hammered home the idea that cannabis was safer than booze. So then does it really make sense to associate marijuana use with what they’ve long insisted is a far more dangerous substance?
That conflict has led some of the most prominent marijuana advocates to oppose the Denver social-use initiative. In a recent blog post, Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, argued against allowing cannabis in bars and clubs, noting: “The two drugs, when used together, are synergistic, and the effect of combining the two causes far greater short-term impairment than either drug by itself, raising legitimate questions of public safety if alcohol bars and clubs were also marijuana-friendly. It would require the bartender to be far more careful about ‘cutting-off’ anyone who appeared to be getting drunk, and their track record in that regard is not reassuring.”
Mixing marijuana and alcohol at drinking establishments might do more than just leave patrons with a bad night: It could spell trouble for the marijuana legalization movement as a whole. The biggest lingering public-health question about recreational-marijuana use is whether it will replace or complement alcohol use in the states that have legalized it. If it turns out that cannabis replaces alcohol, leading to less alcohol consumption around the country, the net public benefit would be so great that nationwide legalization would likely be a slam dunk. But if it’s the opposite -- that legalized marijuana complements or even exacerbates alcohol use and leads to greater incidences of accidents or fatalities -- legalization advocates could have a big problem on their hands.
Mark Kleiman, professor of public policy at the Marron Institute of Urban Management at New York University, believes that locating marijuana use in the same places that serve beer and liquor could risk tipping the scales toward the latter scenario. “If marijuana is really a substitute for alcohol, bars wouldn’t allow it,” he says. “Especially since, so far, nobody is talking about allowing them to sell it.”