What will Denver’s public places look like if open cannabis consumption is a thing?

What will Denver’s public places look like if open cannabis consumption is a thing?

VicesOctober 26, 2016 By Brian Frederick

When the conversation about legalizing recreational weed grew louder than an outdoor voice instead of holding steady at an inaudible whisper, many people suggested the worst was about to happen. Dropouts. Theft. Addiction. Rapes. Murder. Zombies. Apocalypse.

Yet here we are, nearing three years into an unprecedented social experiment, and that just isn’t the case. In fact, recreational pot has managed the opposite of supporting the hysteria, all while putting fattening stacks of cash into state services. It is (along with medical marijuana) on track to rake in over $1 billion in sales this year alone. By all accounts, it’s been a great success. Even without anywhere legal to consume it in public.

Which is what a pilot program titled Neighborhood-Supported Social Use is hoping to change.

As it stands, residents of Colorado must take whatever purchases from a dispensary home first and shutter themselves inside like a phobic recluse. And for tourists, the problem lies in not having a home at all, with most hotels or Airbnb rentals strictly enforcing no smoking policies on site.

If voted in on November 8, the social use campaign Initiative 300 looks to give adults over the age of 21 a place to smoke or consume that’s out in the open (respectively) and not relegated to the depths of a private hideaway.

In it, the initiative asks permit seekers to attain neighborhood approval before anything else. Consumption must happen “in designated exterior areas that are not visible to the public right of way” or inside where businesses are still “required to comply with the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act, which means only non-smokable forms of cannabis, such as vaporizers, will be allowed indoors,” says its site.

Designated areas must also be 1,000 feet away from anywhere children congregate, including parks and schools. If after four years the state feels like it wasn’t a success, it can be scrapped altogether — and if it’s a barrel burner after 6 months, it can be completely disbanded for advocates to possibly try other ideas the next election cycle.

Opponents of it feel the change will open gates to mass consumption, while making public places less desirable for non-cannabis users and encouraging an epidemic of stoned driving.

"What is the intent of people smoking pot? To get high?" asks Jean Grattet, a Denver resident who is currently urging her neighbors to vote 'no' on 300. "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?"

Those against it are expecting an upswing in bar life and having their favorite restaurants or neighborhood strips being ruined. Those in support of the measure have differing ideas of what a successful program looks like, however, and understand that Grattet's concerns are valid, but unlikely to happen.

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

He cites the conservative nature of most neighborhood organizations keeping a lot of areas from even garnering enough support to attain permits, though stretches like the Santa Fe Arts District (of which he’s a board member of) and the Bluebird Business Improvement District — which often look towards more unique ideas to bring people in — will have a better chance of experimenting with the process.

“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 explains. “So the Art District on Sante Fe is looking at this as an opportunity to really set themselves apart.”

There’s also the concern of concurrent use with cannabis at places like bars, music venues and restaurants that serve alcohol. It’s a potentially chaotic combination many owners aren’t yet ready to take a risk on. He says he imagines places like coffee shops, art galleries, massage parlors and yoga studios as businesses willing to give it a shot first, as they tend to cater more to the cannabis culture than busier venues anyway.

Though many are still open to the possibilities.

“If 300 passes, we will be having conversations with our business owners, Denver License and Excise, plus surrounding neighborhood groups to see what might make sense for our particular neighborhood,” says Don Novak, President of the Bluebird Business Improvement District.

His organization’s sentiment is like plenty of other businesses reached for comment. Many have no problem with enacting a plan for public consumption, but haven’t given it much thought on whether they’d embark on it if it passes.

If a place does plan on having open consumption, however, restrictions on it ensure that not much will change with favorite hangouts. As stated, consumption areas are required be closed off from public view, and will need to have air filtration services in place to contain the smell. No place would be allowed to sell cannabis on-site, either.

That said, would it really matter so much if, say, a comedy club allows patrons to consume edibles while performances happen on stage? Is that so much different than enjoying a drink?

Come November 9, don’t expect the city to crumble under the weight of public consumption. It’s going to take months, possibly even years for any viable effects on the city to take place. And when they do, non-cannabis users will likely find it hard to notice.

As a pilot program, it’s just another step in the direction cannabis advocates see the industry going. Forward.