Can Bars Become Cannabis Clubs? What You Should Know About Social Use in Denver

bars can become cannabis clubs
Bars can become cannabis clubs under strict guidelines.

can bars become cannabis clubs logoColorado voters have once more chosen to vote for cannabinoid-infused personal freedoms. In 2016, Denver became the first City in the US to successfully pass a ballot measure explicitly allowing limited social consumption of cannabis in newly formed cannabis clubs. As exciting as it may be, the measure went into effect immediate the vote, leaving many people wondering: what kind of businesses can obtain a permit? Is it limited to special events or can bars become cannabis clubs as well? While the next steps remain unclear, the city of Denver has a deadline of two months time to have a workable permit application available.

Baron de Montesquieu, a 17th century French philosopher, once stated that “useless laws weaken the necessary laws”. While hemp and other cannabis products were legal in his day, one of the tragedies nations and states have yet to shake from law making is the ability to bind or otherwise impinge upon the speed of change. In many ways, regulations are aimed to protect us. They are often developed after the fact; however, to the consternation of cannabis advocates, the regulations binding marijuana on the federal level via the Controlled Substances Act and the subsequent scheduling of Cannabis in the same category as heroin — where not even methamphetamine is scheduled — is tantamount to insulting.

This was all meant to bring us to a point: the cautious approach Colorado has maintained in handling recreational marijuana is setting an example as legalization efforts loom upon greater populations every year. Significant pressures to both get it right AND adjust accordingly are paramount to the success of such voter backed initiatives. When it comes to the language of Ordinance 300, including how it is to be implemented, the supporters of the Ordinance were specific far beyond the requirements for establishing a restaurant.

Bars can become cannabis clubs

By the language of the ordinance, most businesses may carry a permit to allow cannabis consumption, if they so choose. Bars and lounges can become cannabis clubs, so may event centers, studios, galleries, and, well, Denver is a diverse place — it could get pretty creative in the experiences businesses are trying to curate. Compounded with the benefit of giving travelers and those with restrictive landlords a place to consume that is not the park or in public, it seems like a logical extension in the development of regulations surrounding adult cannabis use.

But bars cannot serve alcohol if cannabis is permitted

bars can become cannabis clubs
Bars can become cannabis clubs under strict guidelines.
Call Mulder and Scully, because I feel like I am not getting the truth here. One of the Colorado Department of Revenue’s many public services is overseeing alcohol enforcement as well as marijuana and on 18 November 2016, the regulators of alcohol in Colorado published the final adopted rules pertaining to licensing of establishments currently with or applying for liquor licenses. A funny little bit pops in at the top of page 22, check it out:

“…The purpose of this regulation is to exercise proper regulation and control over the sale of alcohol beverages, promoting the social welfare, the health, peace and morals of the people of the State, and to establish uniform standards of decency, orderliness, and service within the licensed industry. Additionally, Sections 14 and 16 of Article XVIII of the Constitution of Colorado do not permit open and public consumption of marijuana and the State Licensing Authority deems liquor licensed premises to be public places.

  1. Marijuana consumption. No person or entity licensed under Article 46, 47, or 48 of Title 12, C.R.S. shall permit the consumption of marijuana and/or marijuana products as defined in sections 14 and 16 of Article XVIII of the Constitution of Colorado on any licensed premises.

  2. Local ordinances. This regulation shall not be deemed to authorize or permit any conduct, behavior or attire on licensed premises which is otherwise prohibited by any city or county ordinances.”

This ruling conveys two things:

  • Businesses may not carry a liquor license and a permit for cannabis consumption simultaneously
  • State regulators have defined a bar as public space, as Amendment 64, the piece of legislation permitting adult cannabis use in Colorado, specifically denies open or public use

Where the case for cannabis clubs gets hazy

Beyond seeming conspicuously timed, the ruling by legislators placing a regulatory barrier on whether Denver bars can become cannabis clubs flies directly in the face of the ordinance voters passed in November. Check out how Ordinance 300 was written in regards to overlapping licenses and permits:

“…(b) A designated consumption area of a cannabis consumption permit may overlap with the premises of any other license or permit issued pursuant to the Revised Municipal Code.

(c) The terms of a cannabis consumption permit or the exercise of the privileges of a cannabis consumption permit will not invalidate or make unlawful any other activity permitted under the terms of an overlapping license or permit validly issued pursuant to the Revised Municipal Code. (d) Cannabis consumption permitted under this article shall not be grounds for suspension, revocation, non-renewal or any other disciplinary action against any overlapping license or permit validly issued pursuant to the Revised Municipal Code.”

What it means: The DOR are using their power as a government body to exceed the control Ordinance 300 has on Denver businesses, specifically if bars can become clubs for cannabis users. The powers that are the Colorado Department of Revenue and the city lawyers, licensing officials, and city council members tasked with organizing the voter-backed measure are often working towards the same goal, they just have different ideas of how to get there. While the actions of the alcohol licensing committee does, as of 1st January 2017, limit businesses to pilot cannabis consumption to those who don’t currently have or are planning to seek a liquor license, so many businesses can become cannabis clubs.

Technically, by the language of Ordinance 300, bars can become cannabis clubs in Denver, yet the state is intent on their maneuvering. Again, they can become cannabis clubs, but just not while selling or permitting alcohol. Some even see this as a potential public relations point, providing a degree of assurance that people are not mixing alcohol and cannabis. Additionally, lawmakers and regulators have to side-step the current “openly or publicly” policy of current Colorado law. While city law officials see this as an opportunity to define what is open and what is public, the Colorado DOR ruling against the city Ordinance 300 may not have done much to impact how the four-year pilot program plays out. As Montesquieu has pointed out: the more superfluous the law, the greater clout around the necessary ones. So are we impeding or progressing? The council charged with getting applications out by late January intend on keeping that deadline. They have communicated they will not begin accepting applications until the summer of 2017.

By Joey Wells