Denver’s social marijuana use ballot measure passes

Initiative 300 will allow businesses to seek pot-use permits if a neighborhood or business group signs off

Beth Bice of Charlotte, N.C., smokes a joint on the bus during a marijuana tour hosted by My 420 Tours in Denver on Dec. 6, 2014. (Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post)

Beth Bice of Charlotte, N.C., smokes a joint on the bus during a marijuana tour hosted by My 420 Tours in Denver on Dec. 6, 2014. (Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post)

Denver’s ballot measure allowing social marijuana use at some businesses has passed, with updated results Tuesday morning leaving too few uncounted ballots to flip the result.

Supporters immediately pivoted to discussing how implementation of Initiative 300 might look — a question that city officials will need to address in coming months. City attorneys also will be tasked with addressing legalities under state law involving the consumption of marijuana in some publicly accessible places.

Initiative 300 has received support from 53.3 percent of the 302,505 Denver voters who weighed in on the issue, according to a results update that reflected 19,657 more ballots counted late Monday. Roughly 10,000 to 12,000 ballots remained to be counted in the main processing of the Nov. 8 election, Denver Elections spokesman Alton Dillard estimated.

That is less than Initiative 300’s current winning margin of 20,055 votes, or 6.6 percentage points.

The measure — which calls for the creation of a four-year pilot program — would allow businesses, from bars to cafes and even yoga studios, to seek city-issued permits to create “consumption areas.” They first would need to obtain backing from a single local neighborhood or business group.

The Denver Department of Excise and Licenses is now charged with developing rules and regulations for that permitting system.

The only deadline officials face is that they have 60 days after the election results’ certification on Nov. 22 to make a permit application available. That means interested businesses could begin applying in late January — but it’s unclear when the city would issue the first permits.

Licensing spokesman Dan Rowland said the close vote underscored the need to be diligent in implementing Initiative 300, taking into account competing interests.

“I think this is really going to set an example” nationally, predicted Mason Tvert, a marijuana activist, during an afternoon news conference held by proponents outside the City and County Building.

“And this is a pilot program,” he added. “This is something the city can experiment with for the next couple of years — and either adopt it permanently or make tweaks to it or decide to take a different approach.”

One motivation behind the initiative was to provide more places for tourists to smoke or consume marijuana, as well as for residents whose landlords forbid it.

“We are truly grateful to the people of Denver for approving this sensible measure to allow social cannabis use in the city,” lead backer Kayvan Khalatbari, co-owner of Denver Relief Consulting, said in a statement issued Monday evening, when Initiative 300’s backers declared victory. “This is a victory for cannabis consumers who, like alcohol consumers, simply want the option to enjoy cannabis in social settings.”

The ballot measure has performed well among voters in central and north Denver. Opposition to it has led in large pockets of southwest, southeast and northeast neighborhoods, which tend to be more suburban in character.

An opposition group, called Protect Denver’s Atmosphere, conceded defeat Tuesday. But campaign manager Rachel O’Bryan urged city officials to implement Initiative 300 carefully, and she compared the result to Amendment 64, which won support from 66 percent of voters in Denver four years ago.

“Back in 2012, marijuana legalization passed with a strong majority in Denver. Four years later, Initiative 300 has passed by a much slimmer margin,” she said in a statement. “It appears that many Denver voters who originally supported marijuana legalization do not want to see marijuana consumption everywhere in Denver.

“They believed the promise in Amendment 64 that marijuana use would not be conducted ‘openly and publicly.’ They are rightly confused how Initiative 300 can let public establishments like restaurants, bars, art galleries, yoga studios — indeed any business — apply to permit marijuana use.”

The group argued that 300’s passage would encourage more public use of marijuana — which is banned by state law — and harm public safety. City officials similarly have raised some concerns and have said the initiative might conflict with state laws.

O’Bryan urged city officials to seek an opinion from Attorney General Cynthia Coffman about 300’s legality.

Supporters have said they expect just a handful of businesses in central Denver may seek consumption area permits early on, in areas such as along East Colfax Avenue and Broadway or in the Santa Fe Arts District. Neighborhood considerations or insurance issues could dissuade other businesses.

Khalatbari called 300’s outcome “a victory for the city of Denver, its diverse neighborhoods and those who don’t consume cannabis, as it will reduce the likelihood that adults will resort to consuming in public.”

Dillard said most remaining ballots should be processed by Tuesday night. Military and overseas ballots must arrive by Wednesday to be counted, and that also is the deadline for voters whose signatures were flagged as not matching records to respond to notifications they were sent.

Denver’s count has gone slowly in large part because of a crush of last-minute ballots received during the final two days before polls closed.

The initiative is backed by some marijuana activists and business owners. It takes a different approach from the private cannabis clubs that have sprung up in some Colorado cities and towns by instead seeking to allow marijuana use at some regular businesses.

Interested businesses would seek annual or temporary permits for over-age-21 consumption areas, accommodating customers who bring their own marijuana products. Those areas could be indoors (allowing vaping and edibles, but not smoking) or outdoors (allowing smoking).

But applicants first would need backing from a local neighborhood group, such as a city-registered neighborhood organization or business improvement district. That would allow the outside group to set operating conditions in exchange for support.

A sunset clause would end the permits if the City Council does not decide to make the program permanent by the end of 2020.

Beginning in six months, the council would have the option of repealing the new voter-initiated ordinance or making changes with a two-thirds majority.

Updated Nov. 15, 2016, at 3:38 p.m.: Information added about implementation of Initiative 300 and supporters’ news conference.

Updated Nov. 15, 2016, at 11:30 a.m.: Several edits were made after a Tuesday morning results update from the Denver Election Division showed Initiative 300’s margin of support outpacing uncounted ballots for the first time.

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