Marijuana may be allowed in Colorado, but consuming cannabis in public venues remains illegal in Durango. The Durango Marijuana Hospitality Association wants to change that – and it has legal support to do it.
Jurisdictions in Colorado can opt in to a 2019 state law that allows businesses to apply for a license to permit consumption of cannabis on site, thereby labeling them as “marijuana hospitality establishments.”
Durango City Council on Tuesday postponed a decision to dedicate resources for a marijuana hospitality proposal to see how other jurisdictions interpreted and implemented the law.
“There’s a lot of different options as we move forward, including all the types of businesses we want to consider,” said Nicol Killian, assistant director of community development.
The law also permits local voters to allow marijuana hospitality establishments by referendum. Jaime McMillan, president of the Durango Marijuana Hospitality Association, said, “When the government can’t and fails to act, the last resort is the people.”
McMillan and more than 100 members of the association are preparing a ballot question to ask Durango voters to decide. State law requires at least 15% of voters sign a petition to get the question on a ballot. No petition for a marijuana hospitality referendum has been submitted to the City Clerk’s Office.
Allowing marijuana hospitality in Durango could add to ever-growing sales tax revenue; cannabis sales account for more than $800,000, about 3%, of the city’s sales-tax collections, McMillan said.
The former City Council candidate criticized elected officials for a lack of understanding related to new marijuana rules and an unwillingness to engage in a conversation about whether the city wants marijuana hospitality establishments within its boarders.
“They miss the social aspect,” he told The Durango Herald. “Let’s be honest – they’re treating it like, whereas alcohol is freely available in multiple outlets, cannabis is restricted to a pharmacy model. That pharmacy model is going to be disrupted.”
City Council didn’t reject the proposal, said Councilor Chris Bettin; rather, it just said it isn’t ready to consider it. The city has plenty of other issues – including a search for a new city manager – that are of higher priority right now.
“It’s not a refutation, and I went out of my way to say that,” Bettin said. “It wasn’t a yes or a no, it just was the idea that we don’t have space on our agenda for it.”
Dick White, a former city councilor who served when Colorado legalized marijuana, said he supports City Council’s decision to wait.
White voted to legalize marijuana in 2012 to get the drug off the black market and curb incarceration for possession, he said. But allowing public cannabis consumption – typically associated with smoke – is a conversation about public health, not social justice, he said.
The science is still out about the health effects of smoking cannabis. Federal prohibition of the plant stymied research for decades. The political landscape related to marijuana is evolving, but White said it is the duty of local government to look to the public health impacts, which are unclear.
McMillan linked the conversation about marijuana rules to another popular intoxicant: alcohol. Dozens of establishments around Durango allow sale and consumption of alcohol on site – why can’t the same happen for cannabis, he asked.
“To accept one kind of behavior just because it’s alcohol but not allow another similar behavior because it’s marijuana, it’s discrimination,” he said.
White recalled the “national experiment about prohibiting alcohol 100 years ago, and that was a huge disaster.” As more states around the nation legalize recreational marijuana, the U.S. Congress may be forced to act. But until then, it’s OK to wait.
“Research will come. I don’t see a compelling need to act short of that. If it goes to the ballot, then let the people decide,” he said. “It’s an issue that we will deal with locally, statewide and nationally.”