Denver Initiative Would Finally Allow Marijuana Use Outside the Home

A pilot program would let businesses establish "designated consumption areas," subject to approval by local busybodies.


A cannabis club in Colorado Springs
Speakeasy Vape Lounge

Four years after Colorado voters approved Amendment 64, which made that state the first jurisdiction in the world to legalize marijuana for recreational use, residents and visitors still struggle to find places where they are allowed to consume the cannabis they are now allowed to buy. Initiative 300, which will appear on the ballot in Denver next month, aims to alleviate that problem by allowing specially licensed businesses to designate areas where customers can consume cannabis they bring with them. It is a tellingly timid response to a frustrating situation that belies Amendment 64's aspiration that "marijuana should be regulated in a manner similar to alcohol."

Despite that goal, Amendment 64 prohibits consumption of marijuana products in businesses that sell them, so Colorado has nothing like Amsterdam's cannabis cafés (which have been tolerated for decades despite their illegality). The initiative eliminated penalties for private marijuana use by adults 21 or older, but it did not legalize "consumption that is conducted openly and publicly," which remains a petty offense punishable by a $100 fine. The meaning of "openly and publicly" is a matter of dispute, and some jurisdictions, including Denver, read it to prohibit any use outside of private residences, a policy that impairs social use by residents and makes almost any use by visitors legally problematic. As the Yes on 300 campaign notes, this cannabis consumption conundrum "has led to a 500% increase in public consumption tickets issued in Denver since the passing of Amendment 64 in Colorado, with African-Ameri­­cans being arrested at a rate 2.6 times higher than whites."

Denver's refusal to allow any marijuana use outside the home, ostensibly motivated by a desire to shield bystanders from offensive sights and smells, has perversely encouraged conspicuous consumption. When people are not allowed to use marijuana inside private businesses such as bars and restaurants, they tend to do it in locations that are more visible to the general public, such as parks and sidewalks. The result is more, rather than fewer, encounters with marijuana by people who prefer to avoid it.

An initiative that had enough signatures to qualify for the Denver ballot last year would have addressed this problem by allowing cannabis consumption in bars and other businesses open only to customers who are at least 21, which is the minimum purchase age for marijuana. But the initiative's backers withdrew it before it was certified, hoping to reach a compromise with local officials that would allow marijuana use within specified limits. No such deal was forthcoming, and the new initiative seems to be aimed at soothing the worries of people who thought the 2015 measure went too far.

Under the "pilot program" created by Initiative 300, which expires in 2020 unless the Denver City Council decides to extend it, a business could establish a "designated consumption area" with the consent of "an eligible neighborhood organization" and a permit from the city. Only noncombustible marijuana use (including vaping) would be allowed indoors, although pot smoking could be permitted in outdoor areas shielded from public view. Consumption areas would be banned within 1,000 feet of a school. Customers and employees in a consumption area would have to be at least 21, and consumption would be prohibited between 2 a.m. and 7 a.m. The neighborhood organization could impose additional restrictions as a condition of its approval.

In a recent editorial endorsing Initiative 300, The Denver Post notes "gripes from tourists who wish to try some legal Colorado weed" and from "taxpaying residents [who are] unable to use it at home because of pressures from family, condo associations, housing authorities and apartment rules." The paper says the measure would finally give "folks who want to enjoy getting high in the same way many imbibe alcohol together" a place to go. At the same time, "The pilot program would require businesses that wish to allow bring-your-own cannabis to gain significant community buy-in," and it would let neighborhood groups impose "restrictions governing how and where and what times of the day pot could be used."

All this is simultaneously encouraging and irritating. After all, why should neighborhood busybodies have veto power over private, consensual activities that have nothing to do with them? Why should a business owner have to beg for permission to let his customers do something that poses no threat to others? Why shouldn't cannabis consumers enjoy the same freedoms drinkers take for granted?

The marijuana legalization initiatives on the ballot this year generally do a better job of addressing consumption outside the home. Most would allow sales and consumption in the same business, albeit with a special license and/or local approval.