The Bogeyman that Wasn’t

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Cannabis regulators are hypocrites when it comes to social consumption.

Good journalism depends on solid relationships with sources who not only will return your calls on deadline, but also talk with you on background, giving you information they can’t talk about on the record. Those relationships allow journalists a deeper understanding of the subject matter. Sometimes the sources drop truth bombs, as did former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt (a.k.a. “Deep Throat”) during the Watergate scandal. Other times they provide a more complete perspective about complex and secretive situations.

Regardless, quality journalism depends on these valuable reporter-source relationships. Here’s a brief example of how these sometimes work—and how one helped this cannabis journalist understand marijuana regulators in America’s first legal state were working toward legalizing marijuana sales at the same time they were all but working against legal consumption.

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The afternoon sun filtered into the Capitol Hill coffee shop as I sat across the table from one of Colorado’s most influential cannabis regulators back in 2014, less than a year after the state began selling adult-use marijuana. Our conversation was wide-ranging, sometimes ducking and weaving between on the record and off the record multiple times in a single answer—and illuminating much of what had been happening behind the scenes for me, a reporter whose beat was legal cannabis.

Like many reporters, I saved some of the more challenging questions for the end of the interview in case the source up and walked out right there. As our hour came to an end, I let fly a question about Colorado’s intensely restrictive consumption laws that basically limited cannabis use to one’s private home: “What are you planning to do about the problem of social cannabis consumption?”

“I’m not sure I see it as a problem,” the regulator responded, telling me everything I needed to know about the government’s take on the issue.

Think about it: You could grow your own and you could buy your own and you could share it with your friends and family, but the only place anyone could legally consume was (and largely still is) a private residence with the homeowner’s permission. All marijuana consumption, edibles included, was and is illegal in parks, on street corners, and in hotels.

I followed up. “You don’t see it as problematic that we can legally purchase this substance at hundreds of stores across the state and grow it in our basement, and yet we can’t consume it anywhere?”

The regulator talked about prioritizing the bigger issues at hand while standing up and heading for the door—and in 2014, there were bigger issues at hand. But when there was no progress on social marijuana use in 2015 or most of 2016, when a lot of the other issues had been resolved, it was obvious regulators did not care about the consumption issue.

That is, they didn’t care about it until voters in Denver County approved Initiative 300 in November 2016, which would allow neighborhood-approved businesses to act as consumption-friendly venues: art galleries, bars, restaurants, and coffee shops like the one from the above meeting. But a few days after the election results were tallied, the state’s Liquor Enforcement Division released a new rule stating any business with a liquor license would not be permitted for cannabis consumption of any kind under I300.

Of course, the rule came about after “the liquor industry raised concerns about consumption of marijuana at businesses that serve alcohol and ‘the need to expressly prohibit it,’” The Denver Post reported in November 2016, but the new rule severely limited the spaces to which I300 would apply.

So where do I300-approved businesses stand in Colorado today, four years after my conversation with the regulator and nearly two years after the election that saw Denver voters say yes to social marijuana use? An August 25, 2018, headline from my former employer, The Denver Post, says it all: “Denver’s second licensed social marijuana business to open this fall as vaping bar and lounge.”

Two approved consumption spaces in two years. Hardly what you’d call progress.

Of course, Colorado is merely one of many case studies happening throughout the world now, but the hypocritical chicken-or-egg conundrum is present in nearly every legal-ish market across the globe. Internationally, coffeehouses in the Netherlands have peddled cannabis and allowed on-site consumption for decades, but meanwhile the cultivation of marijuana is still heavily criminalized there. Spain’s cannabis club scene is growing in stature, but its unregulated, whisper-and-a-handshake membership model isn’t fully legal.

But there’s good news on the horizon. Much has been written about the limited consumption lounges in San Francisco that are licensed by the city, and none of that press has been negative. There also is movement in Alaska “to officially permit recreational marijuana consumers the right to use cannabis in specially state-licensed establishments,” Marijuana Moment recently reported.

In Nevada—where, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal, “consumption is prohibited outside of private residences” including “casinos, parks, and everywhere on the Strip and downtown, leaving an estimated 42 million annual tourists without a place to legally use marijuana”—cannabis consumption lounges are expected to open by December.

“There’s such a push for this,” Las Vegas Councilman Bob Coffin told the Las Vegas Sun. “We’re being careful and moving slowly.”

And there it is, friends: A government official recognizing the demand—the need—for spaces that are permitted for the use of this substance being legally sold all over the place. The hypocrisy of other government officials refusing to acknowledge the lack of consumption spaces as a problem is appalling, and it also flies in the face of public service.

If governments are going to allow the cultivation and sale of marijuana, they must allow for the reasonable consumption of marijuana. Anything else is a public disservice.

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