By Ean Seeb and Emmett Reistroffer
Social cannabis consumption is an important and pressing issue as more states continue to end prohibition and legalize cannabis across the country. Imagine if when ending alcohol prohibition, distillers and brewers settled for only drinking at home, and if there were no pub or tavern model. That’s essentially the situation the current cannabis industry is facing – as a world of opportunity and mainstream normalization awaits both consumers and businesses.
For the first time in history, voters in last November’s election set a precedent by approving social cannabis consumption – with provisions in both California and Maine’s statewide legalization proposals, and the passage of a local initiative (I-300) in Denver, Colorado. Although many states have passed medical and adult use reforms, and medical programs have been in full effect in states like Colorado for many years, most states remain hesitant to allow social consumption.
To overcome the stigma that still affects cannabis consumers, and to effectively shut down the black market and expand the legal marketplace, the cannabis movement must advocate for sensible social consumption policies.
In Colorado, Amendment 64, “An Act to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol” was approved by voters in 2012 and fully implemented by January 1, 2014. Language in the constitutional amendment specifies that consumption shall be permitted so long that it is not done “openly and publicly” or in “any way that endangers others.” While such language was intended to ensure consumption would be enforceable in public areas such as parks or bus stations, it has instead been interpreted by public officials to prohibit cannabis consumption at any location outside of a private residence.
Unfortunately, this interpretation goes far beyond the intent of the legalization initiative and defies the spirit of “regulating marijuana like alcohol.” In states with legal adult use, few venues or establishments have been legally approved to accommodate adult consumption. These limiting interpretations necessitate policy reforms to provide legal, safe access to social consumption areas.
In 2016, Denver Relief Consulting and Vicente Sederberg LLC, along with some of the early pioneers behind Amendment 64, took the call to action and launched an initiative campaign in Denver, and successfully created the nation’s first-ever voter-approved cannabis consumption pilot program. Known as I-300, the initiative was approved by 53.7 percent of voters, and is now set for implementation after the city convened several advisory committee meetings and recently adopted final rules for consumption permits.
The campaign’s message was tailored to local voters by focusing on neighborhood support, the merits of staff training, and recognizing the increased prevalence of consumption in public places such as parks, sidewalks, and transit stations. The Denver initiative complies with state law and requires businesses to obtain support from their neighborhoods, and limit access to consumption areas to adults over the age of 21.
The initiative was carefully crafted to provide reasonable access to consumption areas and venues, as many landlords prohibit consumption, including public housing authorities, and to address the 77 million tourists who visit Colorado each year with few consumption friendly lodging options. As a result of this legal snafu, arrests and citations for public consumption have risen dramatically, particularly for visitors and people of color. Each consumption permit must have support from the surrounding neighborhood. In allowing adults to consume cannabis in designated areas, I-300 balances the interests of cannabis consumers and non-consumers alike.
With oversight from law enforcement, fire and health officials, as well as the Director of Excise and Licenses, all consumption permits under I-300 must fulfill robust safety and security requirements. In addition, permitted private consumptions areas cannot be visible from a public right of way or places where children congregate, and must be at least 1,000 feet away from schools, playgrounds or treatment facilities.
This is not a wild west free-for-all. By bringing together neighbors, businesses, community leaders, and consumers, I-300 represents a conservative approach to the issue. Because it is a pilot program, the city will eventually decide whether to extend the ordinance, propose a new framework, or scrap it all together.
The proposed pilot program is a sensible beginning to regulating cannabis. Currently, consumption is taking place in a handful of private clubs that have no official oversight, and at unpermitted events that occur in a legal gray area, causing frustration for consumers, law enforcement, event planners and property owners.
I-300 finally creates reasonable options for consumption areas and venues, and can reduce the likelihood that cannabis consumption occurs in places where it is not allowed or where children are present. Cannabis consumers deserve access to safe social settings, and non-consumers equally deserve to be free of second-hand smoke or exposure.
Denver’s pilot program should begin issuing permits by July, and information about the permit restrictions and rules is available on the city’s licensing website.
Social consumption venues will change the course of history and open new opportunities for the cannabis industry and consumers, by bringing cannabis further out from the underground and into mainstream society. Many other states will consider social consumption policies in the near future as each newly emerging market will eventually have to address this issue. It is imperative that local advocates and industry participants pursue these policy discussions before public officials come out with misinterpretations or otherwise interfere with cannabis reform progress.
Ean Seeb was co-owner and manager of Denver Relief, one of Colorado’s most successful medical cannabis operations. He was a two-time chair of the National Cannabis Industry Association and continues to hold leadership positions with charitable organizations focused on a range of social causes, from civil rights to sustainable volunteer farming. Seeb has been actively involved with nonprofit groups for more than two decades. His years of humanitarian experience led Seeb to conceptualize and develop a cannabis-centric service organization called the Denver Relief GREEN TEAM in 2009.
Seeb helped lead the GREEN TEAM to form partnerships with other service organizations in Colorado, and the group now provides free labor for volunteer farms and gardens, free food for estranged youth, and free hygiene products for homeless community members.
Prior to founding Denver Relief, Seeb spent years working as a real estate broker, providing him with valuable insight for managing leases, contract negotiations and identifying prime retail locations. Seeb is politically active on local and state levels, and has testified at a number of city council and regulatory work group meetings in recent years.
Emmett Reistroffer was born in Rochester, Minnesota, grew up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and studied history and political science at the University of South Dakota. Reistroffer’s professional roots and passion run deep in cannabis activism, stemming from his first call to action at 19 years old when he volunteered to help multiple sclerosis patients testify at the South Dakota State Capital. From there, Reistroffer quickly worked his way up into a position of leadership for the local movement by speaking to the press, raising money, and inspiring volunteers. Facing some of the nation’s harshest drug laws, Reistroffer was able to form a non-profit organization, South Dakota Compassion, and partner with the former chairman of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society to organize a coalition of patients and advocates in support of medical marijuana.
In addition to spearheading an effort to put medical cannabis on the ballot in his home state, Reistroffer ran for city council as one of the youngest candidates ever to make an attempt.
Aside from being an outspoken activist in his home state, Reistroffer has assisted legalization campaigns in Oregon, Montana, Washington, DC, and Nevada, and also played an important role in the historic passage of Colorado’s Amendment 64. With a broad range of non-profit advocacy and political experience, Reistroffer formed his own consulting company in 2011 to help organizations, candidates and issue-based campaigns. Reistroffer’s company has served members of both major political parties and provided third parties and independents a needed boost to compete in key states.
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