With more states across the country approving adult-use cannabis laws, the initiatives that seem least able to gather momentum are those allowing social or public consumption. Nevada recently launched adult-use cannabis this month, but try lighting up most anywhere in town and you could be slapped with a $600 fine. Proponents point to de-stigmatizing the consumption of cannabis, showing that users can enjoy responsibly, just like alcohol. But those pushing for change have been met with strong opposition in state legislatures and local jurisdictions, with many still reluctant to welcome cannabis into public settings.
That opposition has maintained a persistent inequity within adult-use states, where cannabis may be “legal”, but consumption is essentially illegal, unless it’s in your own home or on private property. For renters, landlords often include For visitors, there are even fewer options, with most hotels and vacation rentals including harsh language and fines for any breach of their smoking bans. In Oregon, public consumption is illegal, crossing off a wide range of potential outdoor locations, and the OLCC considers any establishment with a state liquor license to be public, meaning patios or decks set aside for smokers are also off-limits. The OLCC even provides a “good” rule of thumb: Thanks.
Another major barrier are state indoor clean air laws, originally written to prevent second-hand tobacco smoke from any workplace, but now amended to include cannabis in many states. In 2015, with Measure 91’s adult-use program gearing up for launch, Oregon’s Indoor Clean Air Act was specifically amended to include and prevent indoor marijuana consumption. In 2016 an amendment introduced by Eugene State Senator, Floyd Prozanski, a vocal proponent of social consumption, failed to gather the votes to pass.
In the 2017 legislative session, renewed efforts to approve social consumption in Oregon again failed to pass. SB 307 would have allowed OLCC to regulate the consumption and sale of adult-use marijuana at cannabis lounges and temporary events, and SB 308 would have at least set up a task force to tackle the topic. Neither made it out of committee.
The OLCC has shown some flexibility to allow social consumption at special events, but support is rare and hardly reliable. The general feeling among advocates and industry businesses is that an actual change of law is required, not just prearranged individual exceptions negotiated with regulators.
There is some hope shining from Colorado, which seems to be the one state that has managed to get social consumption efforts moving forward (Alaska has also made some progress, and Maine has approved onsite consumption, but their whole program is facing legislative redesign). In November, Denver, Colorado residents became the first in the nation to approve a law, Initiative 300, allowing bars and restaurants the option to let patrons use marijuana on-site. Since November’s vote, there has been progress accompanied by some major setbacks. On April 20th, Denver’s International Church of Cannabis found itself a target of a Denver Police Department sting operation and received citations for violations of the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act. The operation seems to have been initiated by the Denver Police Department, but has since been supported by City Attorney, Marley Bordovsky. Meanwhile, on July 1st, Denver officially issued its Rules Governing Marijuana Consumption Areas, as approved by City Attorney, Kristin Bronson. While that policy juxtaposition is not inexplicable, it certainly leaves some question as to whether all of Denver’s interested parties are on the same page just yet.
Healthy skepticism aside, the release of Denver’s official social use rules marks a major step forward, not just for Denver, but for all adult-use states. State legislatures have continued to improve and adapt adult-use bills since Washington and Colorado rolled out programs in 2012. But once again, Denver and its Social Consumption Advisory Committee (SCAC) have had to start from scratch. Denver’s Initiative will create a four-year pilot program, allowing for city-issued “consumption area” permits, after approval from local neighborhood or business groups. The ordinance also provides for the city to permit cannabis consumption special events, though you’ll need to plan ahead and submit an application at least 120 days prior (Quick PSA: that’s December 21st, for any 4/20 scenesters).
One of the early notable surprises has been the diversity of businesses interested in creating consumption areas, from yoga studios to bookstores to coffee shops. Those sorts of unexpected market responses are likely to continue, and we’ll be keeping a close eye on the Denver Initiative as it rolls out over the coming months.
In Part II of this piece, we’ll take a closer look at Denver’s chosen regulatory framework, stay tuned.