War on Drugs

Should Denver Allow Private Pot Clubs?

Weed is legal in Colorado. But it's illegal to consume it in most public locations.


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On January 1, 2014, Colorado became one of the first states to allow recreational marijuana sales. But the law contains one little twist. 

"People can buy it. They can use it. But in a lot of cases, they don't have anywhere they can use it legally," says Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project. 

Yes, weed is legal in Colorado. But it's illegal to consume it in most public locations. 

It's become a big issue for a state that's attracting record numbers of tourists who are curious to try cannabis, but have no safe legal place to do so. In fact, since Colorado legalized marijuana, public consumption citations have increased 471 percent.  

Denver business owner Ryan Connolly, who operates Grassroots Clothing and the 710 Cannabis Cup, says he began to notice the problem when people from out of town came to his store for help. "Once customers started buying legal weed, they would come to our store and shop for clothes and always ask us the question, 'Where can I smoke this?' And this question started to happen more and more where we actually just couldn't ignore it anymore."

So with the help of his attorney, Ryan created a private membership marijuana club that operated in an unused space in his clothing store. 

"There is an exception in the Colorado Indoor Air Act for private member clubs. So the VFW, the Odd Fellows, the Elks Club—things of that nature—are all allowed to smoke within their businesses provided that they are organized for private membership," states Jeff Gard, a Boulder-based attorney who represents Connolly and has successfully established private marijuana clubs in several Colorado counties. 

Under this private membership model, Ryan's Breakroom tallied 4,000 members in just over a year. Even stars like Cheech Marin stopped by when visiting Denver. The private pot club operated without incident until police raided the location on the eve of Denver's 4/20 festivities. 

"I think they were a little surprised to find that this is a private membership club that they had to sign up as members to become part of—that there wasn't anything going on from the perspective of the Breakroom that was arguably illegal," says Gard. 

Though the Denver police department did not charge any of the members with a crime, they cited Connolly for operating a marijuana business without a license and for violating the Clean Indoor Air Act. But the ordeal didn't end there. After citing him for licensing violations, the city went one step further and threatened Connolly's landlord with a public nuisance abatement if they did not evict him from the premises. 

"The eviction is what hurts the most," says Connolly. "We have over 20 staff that I want to make sure we keep jobs for all of them. They rely on me for a paycheck and so that's what's most important."

Connolly appeared in court in July to pay his fines and is moving to a new location in Denver. Though he was forced out of his space, Connolly hopes the experience will inspire change in the current law. 

"I think its the peoples' choice now to step up and look at these instances where they are still wasting our taxpayer money and going after something you would think would be a respectable thing to do—which is offer someone from out of state a safe place to smoke," Connolly says. 

As Ryan moves forward, a debate is unfolding between marijuana policy advocates and city leaders on how to address the public consumption issue. Denver's office of marijuana policy says Amendment 64 clearly states that marijuana is only to be used for private and personal use and that the initiative was not designed to accommodate tourists. But that hasn't stopped visitors or local residents from consuming pot in public. 

Though marijuana advocates had collected signatures to place an ordinance allowing private pot clubs like Connolly's on the November ballot, they pulled the measure in September with the hopes of working on a compromise with city officials. 

"A majority of people are not scofflaws," says Gard. "We understand that rules are necessary for order of society, so just tell us where to do this and we will go do that. If you want to quit writing public consumption tickets…then creating a private environment for that makes perfect sense." 

Approximately 6 minutes. 

Produced by Alexis Garcia. Camera by Alex Manning. Music by Riot and Chris Zabriskie

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