Will Denver host the first U.S. cannabis cafe?

Two years ago, in an on-brand move to always be the first at everything when it comes to progressing the cannabis industry, Denver voters passed Initiative 300, the first piece of consumption-based marijuana legislation in the country. The measure created a four-year pilot program that will permit certain businesses to allow patrons to consume weed on their premises. Now, all eyes are on Denver as city officials are preparing to launch the nation’s first legal cannabis club.

The first social use permit application was filed by the owners of the Coffee Joint, located in an industrial area on the west side of Denver. Initiative 300 does not allow clubs to sell marijuana products, but the Coffee Joint plans to charge an entry fee to the space where customers are allowed to vape and eat edibles.

Amsterdam used to be the weed capital of the world, and you had to travel there if you wanted to legally get stoned in public. It’s interesting that it has taken this long for Colorado to embrace the Dutch coffee shop model, especially considering that marijuana tourism is booming. Still, state laws essentially confine consumption to private residences. Thousands of tourists visit Colorado every year to legally buy pot, but using it in most hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs is forbidden under both public consumption and general smoking laws, leaving them with nowhere to smoke. Some Airbnb’s in the area advertise themselves as 420-friendly, but many rental spaces and HOA-regulated condos forbid smoking or any federally illegal drug activity.

As of now, Denver has only received two permit applications, because while 300 comes across as progressive in theory, many proponents fear it’s too restrictive in practice. Smoking any substance indoors is still strictly prohibited by the state, so indoor venues will only allow vaping and edibles. Under the current plan, a permit would cost $1,000 and the business must first obtain a letter of approval from a neighborhood or local business group. Permits would also allow pot smoke in specified outdoor areas, like rooftop patios, but cannabis consumption will remain illegal in public spaces, like sidewalks.

The problem is that too many locations are ineligible because they are within 1,000 feet from schools, child care centers, city pools and recreational facilities, and drug and alcohol treatment centers. This discourages many budding entrepreneurs since it would push them to the edge of the city, away from heavily trafficked tourist areas. Additionally, the state liquor board prohibits marijuana use at any place with a liquor license, making it impossible for most bars and restaurants to apply. Dispensaries have never been able to allow consumption on their property, which is just as confusing as the fact that these new pot clubs aren’t allowed to sell marijuana products, making it a challenge to figure out how to make a weed cafe lucrative. Instead, the clubs will practice a bring-your-own policy and charge for the space.

Before 300 passed, some businesses and tour companies discovered loopholes in consumption laws by creating mobile smoking lounges inside party buses or creating private, invite-only events focusing on consumption for tourists. But because those fall within a legal gray area, those operations feel slightly sketchy at best and do nothing to contribute to a positive model of coffee shop culture.

Cannabis cafes are, in some ways, the final frontier in the mainstreaming of legalization, because they take marijuana out of people’s homes and into public life. With public-consumption tickets dramatically increasing, as well as the amount of tourists increasingly frustrated with the lack of options where they can actually consume all of the legal pot they purchase, something has to be done. While operating within its tight restrictions is not ideal for most businesses, 300 could offer many solutions if done right.

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