Don’t Get Too Excited About America’s First-Ever Marijuana Cafés

Denver is preparing to open the country’s first cannabis cafés, but people in the bud business say overly strict rules could kill the city’s — and the nation’s — pot lounges before they ever get a chance to thrive.

Picture this: a pub in Colorado where you can go with friends after a long hike, where they blast killer live music, serve your favorite grub, and always have a couple of hoppy IPAs on draft. After you order, you lean back on a stool, crowd around a high table, and pass a joint, all while hollering over SportsCenter in the background.

City officials in Denver are preparing to launch the country’s first legal cannabis cafés — but you should probably adjust your expectations. That scene in the tavern with the beer, the food, and the joint isn’t happening anytime soon. Voters passed Initiative 300 in November, which created a four-year pilot program that will allow Denver to experiment with pot cafés starting as soon as this summer. Under the current plan, a license would cost $1,000. But the compromises made during the rule-making process have changed what the lounges will look like and how they’ll operate, and some pot-business owners wonder if bureaucracy will bury the budding industry before it gets a chance to launch.

In passionate debates at public hearings, neighborhood leaders have expressed fears that cafés will help weed find its way into kids’ hands, or that residents will smell stinky pot from their porches instead of the fragrance of their prized roses. On the other side, marijuana entrepreneurs worry about how they’ll make money since they won’t be allowed to sell weed at cafés: Instead, the spaces will be bring-your-own, and businesses that serve alcohol will be banned from having cannabis on the premises.

Still, all eyes are on Denver, the first US city to open cannabis cafés. There’s a sense that if things go well here, legal public cannabis consumption will spread elsewhere in the country. But if Denver fails to craft a successful blueprint for public pot consumption, that could spell trouble for cannabis business owners hoping for cafés in other states. With tight restrictions strangling this first swing at public consumption, are US cannabis cafés doomed to fail?

Jim Norris is the co-owner of the Mutiny Information Cafe, a used-book store and coffee shop, and he hopes to be one of the first people to get a cannabis café license, known officially as a public consumption permit, when it becomes available. That’s expected to happen in July. Norris’s shop is a weirdo’s delight that Denver’s most hardcore punks and nerds call home. Boxes of Frosted Flakes and Cap’n Crunch sit on the coffee bar — customers can buy a bowl for $2.50 — to draw in locals and tourists already high after visiting one of the city’s retail cannabis shops. Mutiny smells like a comforting mix of coffee and decades-old books. By the end of the summer, Norris hopes it’ll also smell like weed.

On a recent June afternoon, Norris, who has a graying and neatly trimmed beard and two ear gauges, talked about how he has mapped out what legal social use will look like at Mutiny. On one Friday a month, he’ll invite academics, politicians, artists, business owners, and musicians to the 3,000-square-foot space to get stoned and discuss politics, music, and art. Then, on one Saturday night a month, Norris wants to move his tired tables and chairs out of the way, bring out the fog machine and laser lights, and transform the quiet space into a “dance party/comedy deal.” In other words, a night of “things more directed right at being high, things that make it fun.” Norris is better positioned than many in Denver’s marijuana scene to open a cannabis café because he doesn’t have a liquor license — which would make Mutiny ineligible — and because cannabis customers won’t be Mutiny’s only source of income.

“We’re going to have people come in and just smoke weed and hang out. They’re going to buy a book, they’re going to play pinball, they’re going to have some coffee, maybe get a comic or a record. So basically, it’s already the same thing I’ve got going, except we can smoke weed,” Norris said. “Caffeine and cannabis is the perfect combination. It inspires talk, it inspires creativity.”

Norris is in the minority with his overwhelmingly positive attitude. At a strategy meeting at a Starbucks, just before the last hearing on how the café rules would play out, a dozen or so proponents of Initiative 300, also known as the Social Pot Use Initiative or I-300, huddled to talk about how they could persuade the city to loosen regulations before the permit-application process opens. One of the rules they find most troubling would prevent cafés from selling both marijuana and alcohol. That would force bars, art galleries, concert halls, and other places with a liquor license to choose between booze and bud. Another controversial rule would require customers to sign a waiver before entering a cannabis café, something industry advocates say would drive away people worried about privacy issues. Businesses with more than three employees would find themselves bumping up against Colorado’s Clean Air Act, which bans indoor smoking and would limit them to vaping and edibles. And restrictions on where cafés can operate — they must be 1,000 feet from schools, child care centers, city pools and recreational facilities, and rehab centers, for instance — will push them to the edge of the sprawling city, discouraging business, some permit seekers said.

“This is what I would expect out of Jeff Sessions’ office, if he had to come up with a permitting program for social cannabis.”

Tim Morgen, who does community relations for the Denver-based marijuana company BGood, said the biggest problem is that nobody in the pot business will be able to make any money off of public consumption.

“The industry, as a whole, has nothing to win on this,” Morgen said, at a Starbucks with other opponents of the rules. “It’s not worth the fight.” Sitting nearby, Nick Armogida, a Denver resident and marketing consultant, said the regulations are far stricter than voters intended. “This is what I would expect out of Jeff Sessions’ office if he had to come up with a permitting program for social cannabis,” he said.

Emmett Reistroffer, campaign director for I-300, warned that Denver's cannabis café industry might fail before it ever gets off the ground if the pilot program sets such restrictive rules. "Too many of us have invested too much in this to let that happen," he said before opening the door, turning left, and walking a couple of blocks to make his case to local lawmakers.

Cannabis cafés 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. But they are jarring symbols for leaders who might not be ready to accept just how drastically pot has changed American culture. Legalization has gained momentum, especially over the past decade, and today eight states and Washington, DC, permit some form of recreational cannabis use, while 29 states and DC permit medical marijuana. Nationally, though, policies around public consumption of cannabis have faced some tough opposition. Alaskan regulators, who were the first in the country to propose pot cafés, dropped their plan to open lounges after Donald Trump was elected president, figuring that such a visual display of marijuana use, which remains a federally prohibited drug, was a bad idea with a new, conservative administration occupying the White House.

“We don’t want to be waving a red flag in front of federal law enforcement, at least not now,” Alaska marijuana control board member Mark Springer said after the vote in February to shelve the program, the Juneau Empire reported. The state is due to reconsider the issue next month.

Democratic Nevada Sen. Tick Segerblom pushed hard for cannabis cafés in his state, especially in Clark County, home to Las Vegas and its huge tourist industry. But the bill died before it could reach the governor’s desk, infuriating Segerblom.

“You can’t expect 40 million people to come here and buy marijuana, and then say, ‘Oh, by the way, there’s nowhere to use it.’ We’re a tourism capital. We have gambling. We have prostitution. We have everything you can imagine. So marijuana, to me, fits in perfectly,” Segerblom told BuzzFeed News.

In Colorado, recreational marijuana use has been legal since 2012, but in the absence of cafés or lounges to smoke, places like Denver’s bustling 16th Street Mall have become go-to spots for the marijuana crowd. The mall, a long corridor lined with restaurants, bars, and a couple of retail cannabis shops, is where you can follow your nose to find a good burger or an illegally lit bowl on the sidewalk. Until cafés open, marijuana consumption is legal in Denver only in private residences, and the people who light up at the mall might have landlords who forbid smoking or perhaps children or people who have asthma at home. Some live in public or federally subsidized housing, where marijuana is banned, and some are tourists whose hotels ban smoking cannabis in their rooms.

“You can’t expect 40 million people to come here and buy marijuana, and then say, ‘Oh, by the way, there’s nowhere to use it.’"

Because of the limitations on public consumption, marijuana advocates pushed for I-300 in November, and more than 53% of voters approved the initiative. For the next six months, the city lawmakers, industry reps, parents, residents, and business owners hammered out the rules that would govern the pilot cannabis cafés. The disagreement over those rules shows how difficult it is to take the industry mainstream.

On June 13, the city held its final public hearing on the issue. More than 100 people packed the room, and during the three-hour meeting the dividing line quickly became clear: Those who favored the rules as written also supported a conservative approach to marijuana or opposed it altogether; those who opposed the restrictions were, generally, individuals and businesses tied to the cannabis industry. The latter group included Reistroffer, the I-300 campaigner, who sounded frustrated as he addressed the gathering.

“What we’re approving today is far from what the voters approved six months ago,” Reistroffer said. “I would say 99% of the businesses that expressed interest in these permits are no longer eligible or interested because of the burdens.”

How, he asked, could investors be expected to pay for the fancy ventilation systems and full-time security mandated for cannabis cafés? Why should the rules require these things if they just want to sell coffee to customers bringing in their own marijuana? The audience erupted into loud applause.

“It is far too restrictive, and I am eager to see who is going to be able to pull off a permit,” Reistroffer said.

Michael Heyward, a law clerk at Vicente Sederberg, a firm that represents cannabis business owners, agreed. One goal of the pilot program is to collect data, he said. “If our regulations are too tight,” he said, “then we’re not going to have data to know how to make better regulations going forward.”

Ashley Kilroy, who is the city's executive director of marijuana policy, led the meeting and said later that opponents of the rules had been given months to discuss their concerns with city officials. "None of this was a surprise, and they weren't pulled out of thin air,” she said of the restrictions. Kilroy added that the cafés were never intended as another revenue generator for marijuana businesses.

“This is just to provide a place for like-minded people to consume marijuana, and they're hoping it will also alleviate people consuming in public. It was never to be moneymaking,” she told BuzzFeed News.

Proponents of restrictions included Gertrude Grant, a member of the West Washington Park neighborhood board, who said residents’ rights were “under siege” in areas that abut commercial zones with a lot of cannabis activity. Grant was concerned that patio permits for some cafés could send pungent smoke wafting over residential neighborhoods, and she asked the city to consider requiring buffer zones between outdoor smoking areas and private homes. “Please don’t let Denver become even more of a skunk city,” she said, to applause from neighborhood advocates.

Rachel O'Bryan, an attorney who has been a vocal opponent of cannabis cafés, said no industry should be allowed to craft its own regulations, and that goes for marijuana, too. O’Bryan heads Protect Denver’s Atmosphere, a coalition opposed to cafés for varying reasons. It includes representatives from several anti-tobacco organizations, the American Lung Association Colorado chapter, the parents’ group Smart Colorado, and the Colorado Restaurant Association, among others.

O'Bryan, the mother of a teenager, is concerned about how public consumption will play out, especially among minors.

“Please don’t let Denver become even more of a skunk city.”

Because of the proposed rules, Denver residents and tourists could see high yoga classes, high art-gallery viewings, or even cannabis-infused laundromats, she said.

O’Bryan argued that allowing public consumption in so many areas of everyday life could make young people think it’s okay to be high all the time. “300 goes beyond destigmatizing,” she said.

Regardless of the obstacles facing cannabis cafés, the push for them isn’t likely to let up given the pace of legalization in the United States. Last November alone, voters approved marijuana initiatives in eight out of nine states where the issue was on the ballot. In Nevada, where recreational cannabis sales begin in July, Segerblom isn’t giving up on his effort to open Vegas cafés. “I don’t think the issue, just because my bill died, is going to die,” he said. “We just need to encourage the local elected officials to have some balls and try to see if there’s a way to do it. You don’t have to license 100 places, but try one and just see how it works. But the fact is you’re just asking for trouble by not offering tourists a place to legally use it.”

There’s a chance that Americans might never see a pot clubs like those in Amsterdam, where anyone can kick back with a book and light a pre-rolled joint. The most well-known one is probably the Bulldog Amsterdam, which opened in 1975, claims to be the first such café, and is now housed in a former police station. The presence of weed and other soft drugs like hallucinogenic mushrooms seem to coexist mostly without incident in Amsterdam, alongside some of the best museums in the world; tourists from all over get off the Leidseplein Square tram stop, find a place to buy some bud or hash, and smoke it before exploring the city. Cannabis cafés in the US are a new spin on this idea, but they’re hampered by various indoor air acts, which prohibit most indoor smoking. US smoking rules were a response to death and illness related to tobacco, not cannabis, but they’re adding to the obstacles facing prospective cannabis café operations.

Some cannabis fans have gone underground to get around the limitations on consumption, opening a handful of quasi-legal clubs across Colorado that are open to people willing to seek them out and pay admission; Puff, Pass & Paint classes, for example, can cost $40 and often sell out. The clubs have quietly existed under a loose interpretation of the law that that limits consumption to “private” spaces, but they’ve been subject to occasional police raids.

Norris has occasionally used his space to test this concept with “Atomic Doobie Saturdays” at Mutiny, which involve rolling “the biggest, baddest joints” possible, sealing the doors, blacking out the windows, and gathering some good friends to smoke weed, listen to music, and enjoy one another’s company.

The proposed pot regulations work perfectly for Norris, who said it's as if they were "handcrafted" for him and Mutiny. But not so much for JJ Walker, co-owner of My 420 Tours, which attracts cannabis tourists seeking pot-friendly hotels and close-up looks at the marijuana industry. Walker said My 420 has catered to about 40,000 people since pot became legal in Colorado, and its offerings include cannabis cooking classes, visits to one of Denver's soccer field–sized marijuana gardens, and transport in buses that serve as “private” spaces so visitors can consume cannabis while on tours. For $69, you can even learn to roll sushi while also learning how to roll joints.

My 420 Tours seems ripe for one of the consumption permits in Denver, but its office might be too close to a school and park. At the public hearing, Walker said the café licenses should be decided on a case-by-case basis so that legitimate businesses don’t get shut out on technicalities, such as being a few feet short of the 1,000-foot buffer zone requirement. If the rules stay as they are, Walker warned, businesses will be forced to work around them, even if that means violating them.

"We're going to continue to run our business,” even if the rules prove too restrictive for My 420 to score a café license, Walker said. ●

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