Colorado's Cannabis Consumption Conundrum

For visitors to Denver, legally buying marijuana is easy, but legally smoking it is hard.


For cannabis consumers who are accustomed to the black market's meager selection and iffy quality, Colorado's dispensaries are a revelation: dozens of strains, each with a distinctive bouquet, fresh enough that you can actually smell the difference. Denver-area budtenders, who say tourists account for half or more of their business, are used to amazed reactions, reminiscent of the scene in Moscow on the Hudson where Robin Williams, playing a Soviet defector, encounters an American supermarket for the first time. But once a visitor  settles on a gram of Budderface or a quarter-ounce of Cinderella 99, he has a problem: Where can he smoke it? State and local restrictions have made answering that question a much bigger challenge than it needs to be.

Amendment 64, which legalized marijuana for recreational use, prohibits consumption of cannabis on the premises of the state-licensed stores that sell it. Furthermore, those stores are not allowed to sell anything but marijuana products and related merchandise, so the only food and beverages they stock are cannabis-infused edibles. Colorado therefore does not have anything like Amsterdam's famous "coffee shops," where you can buy and consume marijuana along with soft drinks and snacks.

Well, you might think, that would have been fun, but at least you can buy your pot at a dispensary and take it somewhere else to consume it. Not so fast.

The Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act, which has been amended to cover marijuana as well as tobacco, bans smoking inside bars and restaurants. Outdoor areas of those businesses are exempt from the smoking ban, but that does not necessarily mean tourists can enjoy their newly purchased pot there. The section of Amendment 64 that eliminated penalties for marijuana use does not apply to "consumption that is conducted openly and publicly." Last year Denver—which is the epicenter of marijuana retailing, with more pot shops than the rest of the state combined—passed an ordinance that defines "openly and publicly" broadly enough to foil the plans of visitors who thought they could legally smoke pot on the patio of a bar or restaurant.

Denver's ordinance defines openly as "occurring or existing in a manner that is unconcealed, undisguised, or obvious." It defines publicly as "occurring or existing in a public place" or "occurring or existing in any outdoor location where the consumption of marijuana is clearly observable from a public place." Finally, Denver defines public place to include not just city sidewalks and parks but any business open to the public, such as a bar or restaurant.

Fine, you might say. Let's go back to the hotel. But that is also a problem.

When I checked into the Warwick in downtown Denver last week, the registration form included the following notice: "The recent Colorado law permitting recreational marijuana use does not apply to this private business. City of Denver law prohibits marijuana consumption on hotel balconies." That first sentence asserts the hotel's right to ban marijuana consumption on its own property, a right that every property owner retains under Amendment 64. But the second sentence claims that consuming marijuana on a hotel balcony is illegal in Denver. Is that true?

A hotel balcony is not a public place by Denver's definition, since it is open only to registered guests and the people they invite, not just anybody walking in off the street. You could argue that a hotel balcony is an "outdoor location where the consumption of marijuana is clearly observable from a public place." But that depends on various factors, including the time of day, the amount of pedestrian traffic on the street, the floor where the room is located, and the discretion of the marijuana consumer. If all that can be seen from the street is smoke, who is to say what sort of dried vegetable matter is being burned? And if you are smoking pot at 2 a.m. on the balcony of a 12th-floor room above a deserted street, your actions may not be "clearly observable" by anyone. The Warwick nevertheless reads Denver's ordinance as a blanket ban on balcony bud burning.

In practice, the hotel may be more cannabis-friendly than its warning suggests. "It's hilarious," says Nick Brown, co-owner of Spiro Tours, which arranges marijuana-themed itineraries. "Cannabis is a 'don't ask, don't tell' type of thing. The Warwick is what every operator uses for their cannabis-friendly hotels because they have balconies. The balconies help us comply with the Clean Indoor Air Act."

But does that mean the hotel does not really care what you are lighting up on the balcony? "In my conversations with the hotel, it's kind of vague," Brown says. "Cannabis is Denver, Colorado. People come and smoke pot here all the time. It happens. So I'm like, 'OK, am I allowed to have the tourists in there smoke pot without getting in trouble?' And she says the trouble would be a smoking fine just for filling up the room with smoke. But that applies if they smoke cigarettes in there too."

Peter Johnson, founder and CEO of Colorado Green Tours, thinks it will be a while before hotels officially welcome cannabis consumers. "They've got an odd interpretation of the law," he says. "They have smoking policies. They make you sign [a form] saying it's illegal to consume cannabis, when technically it's not. You have to keep in mind that they're not Colorado-only businesses. Their rules are being written over in Prohibitionville; that's where there's a big disconnect. A lot of these hotels come across as very cannaphobic, and I think it's going to be a while before they have an 'a-ha' moment and say, 'Oh, they're really not bad people. They've been staying here all along anyway, so we might as well openly allow them to do what they're doing.'"

Some Colorado-based businesses do explicitly offer cannabis-friendly lodging, and renting apartments is another option. If you happen to have friends in Colorado (or make some during your trip), consuming marijuana in their homes is clearly legal. According to Brown and Johnson, so is consuming marijuana in a private vehicle such as a limo, a van, or a bus (as long as you're not the driver). Tour companies therefore can let customers sample their dispensary purchases en route to the next destination.

But if you want to legally consume marijuana in a social setting similar to a tavern or a cocktail party, rather than sneaking puffs here and there, the options are limited. The Colorado Symphony Orchestra (CSO) explored that territory when it announced a "Classically Cannabis" concert series last spring. The original plan was to let anyone who bought a $75 ticket bring his own marijuana and consume it on the enclosed patio ofSpace Gallery, a private event venue in Denver that the CSO rented especially for the concerts. But that was not sufficiently private for city officials. In a May 8 letter to CSO President Jerry Kern, Stacie Loucks, director of Denver's Department of Excise and Licenses, warned that "the event, as advertised, could violate both City and State law."

Loucks noted that Amendment 64 allows penalties for "consumption that is conducted openly and publicly." She also cited a city ordinance saying "it shall be unlawful for any person to engage in any form of business or commerce involving the cultivation, processing, manufacturing, storage, sale, distribution or consumption of marijuana" unless he is licensed to do so. The implication was that the CSO, by letting concertgoers consume their own cannabis at Space Gallery, could be deemed to be running an unlicensed marijuana business. Loucks urged the CSO to cancel the concerts, saying the city would "exercise any and all options" to stop them from happening and warning that "failure to follow the law may result in civil and criminal penalties."

Less than a week later, the CSO announced that it had reached a compromise with the city: Everyone who had bought a "Classically Cannabis" ticket would receive a refund, and the concerts would proceed as invitation-only fundraisers. That solution represented real progress, says Christian Sederberg, a Denver lawyer who helped run the Amendment 64 campaign and represented the CSO in discussions with the city. "Before they never would have let anyone have marijuana," Sederberg says. "They didn't change their opinion under pressure. They looked at the law more carefully and basically realized that there is a distinction to be drawn here. We had an event that was blessed, and we were like, 'OK, we can do this.' It's totally legitimate."

Unadvertised, invitation-only events, of course, will not be much use to people visiting Colorado for a few days or a week. But Rob Corry, a Denver attorney and longtime cannabis activist, thinks the CSO compromise means the city should be OK with private, members-only clubs where people can consume their own marijuana. "The symphony has shown us the way," he says. "It probably took a wealthy, yuppie, white institution to break that barrier, but so be it. The rest of us are going to follow that model."

One example is iBake, a pipe shop and cannabis club that has been operating in an unincorporated part of Adams County, just outside Denver, since February 2013. Littletree Oppy, iBake's co-owner, says the business qualifies as a tobacconist and is therefore exempt from the state's smoking ban. Smoking and hanging-out privileges are reserved for members who pay a $10 monthly fee. Oppy says iBake, which sells soft drinks and snacks as well as marijuana paraphernalia, has not had any trouble with local officials. By contrast, Maryjane's Social Club, a hangout for cannabis consumers in Denver, was raided and shut down on June 27. 

Surprisingly, Colorado Springs, a conservative city that has banned the sale of recreational marijuana within its borders, seems to be more tolerant of cannabis clubs than Denver, a more liberal city that is home to about 60 recreational pot stores. After several attempts at closing down Studio A64, a "cannabis social club" with the motto "inhale responsibly," the Colorado Springs City Council decided the operation was legal. Colorado Springs has at least one other cannabis club: the Speak Easy Vape Lounge.

Invitation-only events and cannabis clubs are aimed at preventing consumption from being "public." Another approach is to make consumption so discreet that it does not count as "open." Although Louks' letter to the CSO mentioned consumption of "edible marijuana" as potentially illegal, a cannabis-infused truffle or gummy candy looks just like the unspiked versions of those products. How can marijuana consumption be open if no one knows you're doing it? Similarly, the vape pens used to consume marijuana concentrates look like e-cigarettes. Except for a quickly dissipating cannabis scent that people might not notice unless they are standing right next to you, these devices are indistinguishable from the ones that deliver nicotine.

"If you're smoking a vape pen that looks exactly like an e-cigarette, or if you're eating a brownie," Sederberg argues, "you are not consuming marijuana openly." He also thinks Denver's definition of public is too broad. "'Open and public' was meant to be someone standing out here smoking pot," Sederberg says, pointing at the sidewalk along a restaurant patio on Denver's 16th Street Mall. "It was not intended to stop people here [on the patio], with permission from the owner, from smoking marijuana."

Since Amendment 64 is now part of Colorado's constitution, Denver's definition of "openly and publicly" can be legally challenged. Although Sederberg thinks "there is a decent legal argument that 'open and public,' the way they're interpreting it, is overreach," for now he'd rather work with the city than take it to court. "They're struggling with the idea of Denver becoming like Amsterdam," he says. "They don't want a coffee shop model."

Still, Sederberg says, "if they set the floor in a place that we don't agree with, you've got to look at the part of the amendment that says private landowners have the ability to prohibit or otherwise regulate marijuana consumption." That ability, he says, implicitly includes the power to allow marijuana consumption as well as ban it. "We will continue to dialogue about it," he says. "But if people are going to come here from other places to use marijuana, they need a place to do that.

This article originally appeared at Forbes.

[This article has been corrected and updated with information about Denver-area cannabis clubs.]