This past Election Day, while other towns in Colorado were considering greater restrictions on the presence of cannabis in their communities, the voters of Denver decided to expand its collective tolerance for the plant further than any town in the U.S. has before. In a close race that wasn’t declared by election officials until November 15th, 53.5 percent of Denver’s electorate endorsed Initiative 300 – a ballot referendum which proposed the establishment of a four-year pilot program to permit Denver’s non-marijuana vending businesses to allow cannabis consumption in specially designated areas on their premises. The measure was pitched to Denver’s citizens a means of resolving a long-standing conundrum for canna-curious visitors and some residents of the Mile-High City (where can one legally toke if hotel or rental policy won’t allow it?) by sanctioning certain businesses as safe spaces for public cannabis use as long as their neighborhood organizations consent. Backers from the business community also advocated for it as a way to keep one of Denver’s most high-profile industries, legal cannabis and the tourism it’s attracted, competitive in the wake of nearby states including California and Nevada recently adopting laws enabling adult cannabis use.
However only three days after the results were announced, the Colorado Department of Revenue released new regulations Friday that prevent any liquor license holder from tolerating cannabis use on their property effective January 1st. This will exclude bars and many restaurants from participating in Initiative 300’s program, but other non-alcoholic businesses as diverse as coffee shops, art galleries, yoga studios, music venues, movie theatres, and arcades will be eligible to seek permits from the city to host cannabis users once the city begins accepting applications, tentatively scheduled for late January.
While the new ruling reportedly came as a surprise to some supporters of Initiative 300, the Colorado Department of Revenue says it was originally discussed this summer in meetings with the Colorado Restaurant Association and the state chapter of Mothers against Drunk Driving (MADD), both of whom expressed concerns about the state cosigning “dual consumption” of alcohol and cannabis, with which the department ultimately concurred. Colorado MADD director Fran Lanzer argued that when alcohol and marijuana use are combined they “result in greater [driver] impairment than either one alone”, further reasoning that it would be more difficult for bar and restaurant staff to identify who to cut off for their own safety. The restaurant association also conveyed qualms about their legal eligibility for insurance if pot use is allowed, and liability for customers who mix substances too heavily.
But some boosters of the voter-endorsed initiative weren’t so convinced that the fears of the regulatory agency and its allies were so well-meaning. “It is astonishing that the Department of Revenue is so openly fighting a turf battle on behalf of the liquor industry,” said Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. However others, like Kayvan Khalatbari, a leading organizer of the pro-300 campaign, remarked to the City Council that the rule might help assuage public concerns about cannabis being linked with unsafe alcohol consumption. It remains to be seen how the new program will affect the social and economic fabric of Denver—voters will decide in 2020 whether the pilot program has borne enough fruit to make getting “Rocky Mountain High” in public a permanent policy.