Sessions-Shy Colorado Legislators Gut Bill Authorizing Cannabis Consumption Clubs

Fear of provoking a federal crackdown prompts a retreat.



If cannabis consumers in Colorado continue to have trouble finding places outside their homes where they can legally enjoy the marijuana they can legally buy, they can thank Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Yesterday Collorado legislators gutted a broadly supported bill that would have authorized cannabis consumption clubs, citing uncertainty about how a Justice Department run by an old-style pot prohibitionist might respond.

Amendment 64, the 2012 ballot initiative that made Colorado the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use, allows adults 21 and older to smoke, vape, eat, or drink cannabis products at home. But Amendment 64 does not apply to "consumption that is conducted openly and publicly," which remains a petty offense punishable by a $100 fine. Because the meaning of "openly and publicly" is a matter of dispute, consuming cannabis outside of private residences remains legally perilous in many jurisdictions. Denver, for example, has a bunch of businesses where you can legally buy marijuana but none where you can legally use it.

S.B. 184, introduced by Rep. Dan Pabon (D-Denver) and Sen. Bob Gardner (R-Colorado Springs), defined "openly and publicly" to exclude consumption on private property that is shielded from public view or to which access is restricted. The bill, which was approved by the state Senate last month and was on the verge of approval in the House, would have let people bring their own marijuana to use inside members-only clubs except where prohibited by local law. The clubs would have been forbidden to sell marijuana, alcohol, or food aside from light snacks.

Gov. John Hickenlooper had threatened to veto S.B. 184, partly because he views it as contrary to voters' intent in passing Amendment 64 and partly because he did not want to provoke Sessions, who has repeatedly criticized marijuana legalization and suggested he will crank up enforcement of the federal ban. "It was explicit in [Amendment 64] that it would not be for public consumption," Hickenlooper told The Denver Post last month. "So I'm just trying to defend the will of the voters." In an earlier interview with the Post, he also cited the risk of federal intervention. "Given the uncertainty in Washington, this is not the time to be…trying to carve off new turf and expand markets and make dramatic statements about marijuana," he said. "The federal government can [wield] a pretty heavy hand on this, and I think we should be doing everything we can to demonstrate…we are being responsible in how we implement the will of our voters."

Yesterday S.B. 184 was amended to eliminate the language authorizing "marijuana membership clubs" and to broaden the definiton of "openly and publicly," which now covers any "place to which the public or a substantial number of the public has access." But the revised bill authorizes local governments to allow "marijuana consumption locations" as long as "the locations are not accessible to the public or a substantial number of the public without restriction, including, but not limited to, restrictions on the age of the members of the public who are allowed access to such location." In other words, the bill would explicitly allow what some jurisdictions have already decided to do: permit cannabis consumption in restricted-access locations, as a local ballot initiative approved by Denver voters in November is supposed to do.

"I'd like to see [a bill] that goes much further, and that does a lot more," Rep. Jonathan Singer (D-Longmont) told the Associated Press. "But in a year with Jeff Sessions, a small first step is better than no step at all." Sen. Tim Neville (R-Boulder), who sponsored a competing bill that would have allowed on-site consumption in businesses that sell marijuana, disagreed with the retreat. "It only makes sense to allow people to have a place to where they can [use marijuana] where it's controlled and confined," he said. "We have legalized marijuana. Where do we want people to use it if not at home? On the street?"

As Neville's question suggests, the lack of legally approved locations for marijuana use tends to make it more conspicuous, not less. I am not sure I follow the logic of trying to placate a cannaphobe like Sessions by preventing people from discreetly consuming marijuana behind closed doors.