Denver legalizes public weed use, but you still can't use it in public. Wait, what?

Denver legalizes public weed use, but you still can't use it in public. Wait, what?

VicesNovember 15, 2016 By Isabelle Kohn

For years, this publication has held the unique and cherished position of being able to ridicule Colorado's often backwards marijuana laws.

And of course, our most beloved mockery has always been the ban on public consumption.

You might be familiar with this one. It's the ordinance that says it's perfectly legal to smoke weed, but entirely illegal for anyone to see you doing it. In fact, the only place it's been ever been even kind of legal to use marijuana around other people is in the privacy of your home, away from the windows, preferably underground beneath a secret trap door that leads to a specialized smell-proof room. If anyone saw or smelled you enjoying your right to weed, you could be fined. And you still can be in most places.

But now, with the passage of Denver's pioneering Initiative 300, we can no longer roast Denver for this hilarious legal inconsistency.

It is with pride and nostalgia that we announce that in Denver, (some) people will now be able to smoke in public (sometimes).

Initiative 300, which passed with more than 53 percent of the vote as of Tuesday morning, legalizes the public consumption of marijuana in certain spaces. It allows any non-dispensary business the privilege of hosting people over 21 to smoke, eat, vape (cool, brah) and otherwise imbibe their precious legal pot, all in the good company of their peers. Additionally, it will give tourists, people who live in federally subsidized housing, people whose landlords or HOAs don’t allow smoking and people who just want to smoke somewhere other than their underground smell-room a safe and legal place to do so.

... Hooray

Well, sort of.

We wouldn't get too excited if we were you.

See, the initiative only allows this sort of public consumption inside businesses who obtain a particular permit — a permit that must be neighborhood-approved. This permit will require that any public consumption take place indoors in designated areas if it's not smoke-related, and outdoors in specialized patios away from main entrances if it is. There will be no marijuana-ing within 100 feet of a school, and none where it's visible from a public right of way (terrible news if your favorite smoke spot is the concrete median where the third graders get dropped off for bible study).

More simply put: public consumption is ... still not public.

And these permits ... they're not easy to obtain. In fact, the city doesn’t even have a mechanism in place for getting that type of neighborhood approval right now (don't look at us like that, we don't get it either). 

Even if they did though, good luck. Remember two seconds ago when we mentioned neighborhoods have to approve them? Well, neighborhoods are full of people like Rachel O'Bryan, campaign manager for the Protect Denver's Atmosphere: Vote No on 300 Committee.

“We were told four years ago in the amendment that marijuana consumption would not be conducted openly and publicly,” O’Bryan said. “Now we’re going to have marijuana on rooftops and patios, that’s open and public, there’s no two ways about it."

She also knows that the narrow margin with which Initiative 300 passed indicates that there are still many Denver residents like her who don't want public consumption in their city.

Hilariously, neither do 300's supporters.

“We don’t want this in public,” Emmet Reistroffer, campaign director for Yes on 300 said. "We want this in private places where it’s permitted, where it’s only for adults 21 and over and where the staff are trained to be in charge of these environments.”

The biggest reason for this irony? Health concerns.

Opponents and proponents of public consumption alike appear to remain unconvinced of marijuana's supposed harmlessness. Even if they're in support of public usage, they still don't want to be sucking in weed-air from people lighting up on the street until their suspicions are quelled. People are also concerned this change will open the floodgates for mass consumption, while simultaneously making public spaces less desirable for people who don't smoke, and ... don't even get them started on the prospect of public consumption encouraging an epidemic of stoned driving, or how the potentially dangerous combination of weed and alcohol in bars and restaurants could lead to disorder.

"What is the intent of people smoking pot? To get high?" Jean Grattet, a Denver resident who voted against 300 told us in an earlier article on the initiative. "When people go to bars, they don't necessarily intend to get drunk. The sole intention of smoking cannabis is to get high. What protection could be in place to prevent high persons from walking directly to their car in such a condition?"

However, while Grattet's concerns are sort of incorrect (plently of people use cannabis for medical purposes), those who support the measure have a different — and sort of ironic — idea about what public consumption in Denver will mean.

“Honestly, I don’t see many restaurants and bars actually taking this on,” said Kayvan Khalatbari, co-author of the public use initiative and founding partner of Denver Relief Consulting in the same article we featured Grattet in.

He believes most neighborhood organizations are too conservative to grant the permits that 300 necessitates. He does, however, see certain more urban areas — like the Santa Fe Arts District (of which he's a board member of) and the Bluebird Business Improvement District — as having a better chance of obtaining the necessary paperwork to allow patrons to do pot.

“The Art District on Sante Fe, for example, is working in competition with RiNo and Cherry Creek and 32nd and all these other districts that get a little but more attention from the city and developers from just the money interest,” Khalatbari explained. “So the Art District on Sante Fe is looking at this as an opportunity to really set themselves apart.”

Well, that'll be the first place we go when we want to show our friends our new weiner dog-shaped mega-bong.

Still, while proponents are happy with the passage of 300, they're still arguing it didn't go far enough to advance public consumption in Denver.

The way it was written, it basically requires groups of people using weed to be locked in a basement, with no incentives for business owners to even get the permit. And there's currently no provision for public consumption at events, which means you won't be seeing any legal weed tents at music or pot festivals anytime soon (including the Cannabis Cup, which infamously abandoned Denver this year after it had trouble securing its own pot permits).

Well ... shit. At least it's something.

And while it's not perfect, the initiative is modifiable.

"Per charter, the City Council has the authority to impose additional restrictions or make other substantive changes to the ordinance starting in May,” said Dan Rowland, city spokesman, to The Denverite.

That could either mean the passage of further regulations to keep pot use out of the public eye, or, depending on the city, the loosening of existing regulations to make it a more visible and smell-able part of daily existence.

Right now, it's unclear just when the city will start issuing permits, but it'll probably happen sometime in the vast, unknown expanse that is 2017. Once that happens, city officials will be charged with conducting a little experiment on the efficacy of the initiative — they'll be studying how it works out until the end of 2020. At that point, the city can extend the pilot program after the law expires, or kill the social use experiment entirely.

But until that happens, we'll be lining up outside Casa Bonita in anticipation of their weed cellar, because really, if there's anywhere we need a joint, it's there amongst the children and the chlorine.