Denver ballot measure aims to curb possible loss of marijuana tourists

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Supporters of a ballot measure to allow cannabis consumption in restaurants, bars and other public venues in Denver hope to pre-empt a potential loss of marijuana tourists.

Nevada and California, both major tourist draws, have adult-use legalization initiatives on their Nov. 8 ballots. 

If those measures pass, industry watchers in Colorado fret that Nevada – which is home to tourist mecca Las Vegas – and California will permit public marijuana use sooner rather than later.

That could attract cannabis tourists to those states instead of Colorado and result in lost sales for marijuana stores in Denver and across the state, where leisure tourists spent nearly $100 million on recreational cannabis last year. Colorado currently doesn’t allow cannabis users to consume in public.

The prospects for the Denver measure – Initiative 300 – are unclear, given that the marijuana industry hasn’t lined up to support it.

Initiative 300 would establish a four-year pilot program to permit consumption in any number of businesses, including coffee shops, yoga studios and laundromats, provided neighborhood groups support a business owner’s application. The measure wouldn’t allow cannabis stores to offer on-site consumption, however.

Supporters – including marijuana tourism advocates and some cannabis businesses – see it as important for the DenverMJ industry as well as for the safety of consumers.

First of its kind

If the measure passes, Denver would become the first city in the world to openly sanction public consumption of cannabis, according to Kayvan Khalatbari, lead proponent of the initiative and co-founder of Denver Relief Consulting.

“We have 70 million tourists coming to Colorado with no place to consume,” Khalatbari said. “If we have these two very large tourist destinations (Nevada and California) legalize social consumption you’re going to see a dent put in Colorado.”

Travelers who visited Colorado primarily for leisure purposes spent roughly $98 million at recreational marijuana stores last year, accounting for nearly 17% of overall adult-use cannabis sales in the state, according to a recent estimate by Marijuana Business Daily.

But Denver’s marijuana industry is divided about Initiative 300. The Denver chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) has openly opposed it. The group had sought unsuccessfully to place a measure on the Denver ballot permitting private marijuana clubs.

Khalatbari bemoans the lack of widespread support from industry heavyweights.

“A lot of the big players here aren’t getting involved in this conversation,” Khalatbari said. “They believe if they come out in favor of supporting us there’s going to be some kind of hammer brought down on them by the city through licensing or zoning or something.”

What would the initiative mean?

Under the four-year test program, Denver businesses would be allowed to create consumption areas both inside and outside. Consumers 21 and older would be able to bring their own marijuana to the business and consume edibles and use vaporizers indoors. Smoking marijuana would be allowed only outdoors.

Businesses that allow smoking outdoors would have to implement an odor-control plan. After the four years are up, the Denver City Council would review the program and vote on altering or repealing it.

Businesses seeking a social-use permit would have to secure the approval of an eligible neighborhood organization. Denver has 192 such groups, including registered neighborhood organizations as well as business improvement districts.

Approval could be as simple as a letter on an organization’s letterhead that says: “Per the Initiated Ordinance 300, we approve this person to be in this location.” The business owner would then take that letter and apply to Denver’s Department of Excise and Licensing for formal approval.

A neighborhood organization could stipulate any rules, regulations or restrictions that are within legal bounds, as long as they don’t conflict with the final ordinance. For example, the organization could deny outdoor smoking during weekdays if children pass by the business on their way home from school.

Local authorities would be allowed to revoke the permit of a business owner who has compliance issues. A permit would cost $1,000. Permit costs for special events may vary. 

Too fast, too soon?

Opponents of Initiative 300 worry about mixing marijuana and alcohol, as well as the ability to regulate businesses that permit social use.

Rachel O’Bryan, campaign manager for Protect Denver’s Atmosphere, which opposes Initiative 300, said the measure is “too much and too risky,” and she doesn’t buy the tourism argument.

“We seem right now to be ahead of the science,” she said. “The concern about losing business still doesn’t justify putting a bad law in place.”

But others in the industry argue the initiative would encourage safe consumption. Meg Sanders, CEO of Mindful, a marijuana retailer with shops in Colorado and Illinois, said the initiative would help people find a safe place to consume, including those who live in rented housing or have family members they don’t want to consume around.

“It’s a critical piece of the puzzle,” Sanders said.

To the tourism point, O’Bryan said public consumption of cannabis in areas such as Denver’s 16th Street Mall has deterred families from returning to to the city.

Mike Eymer, who operates Colorado Cannabis Tours – which takes marijuana tourists on limo and party bus rides to MJ-related businesses including including grow houses – sees Nevada and California’s upcoming vote as a key threat to sustaining marijuana tourism in Colorado.

“In order to keep a competitive edge, we’re going to need good amenities for (tourists),” said Eymer, who supports the initiative. “Doing this now will keep us ahead of the game.”

Bart Schaneman can be reached at