Colorado lawmakers moving cautiously toward marijuana consumption clubs

March 1, 2017 Updated: March 1, 2017 at 8:27 pm
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FILE - In this Dec. 31, 2013 file photo, partygoers smoke marijuana during a Prohibition-era themed New Year's Eve invite-only party celebrating the start of retail pot sales, at a bar in Denver. Colorado is on the brink of becoming the first state with licensed pot clubs. Denver officials are working on regulations to open a one-year pilot of bring-your-own marijuana clubs. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)

State lawmakers on Wednesday began slowly moving toward allowing marijuana consumption clubs, even as the White House has signaled a possible crackdown.

One of two bills passed the Republican-controlled Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee with bipartisan support.

Another bill, Senate Bill 192, which would allow marijuana deliveries, was also heard on Wednesday, though lawmakers delayed a vote on the measure.

Cannabis consumption clubs took center stage.

Senate Bill 184 would authorize local governments to allow private marijuana clubs. Consumers would likely pay a fee to become a member of the club and consume marijuana there.

It also would define what open and public consumption of marijuana is, a thorny issue that has perplexed lawmakers since rules and regulations were first crafted in 2013. Public places - where marijuana use is prohibited - would be defined as highways, transportation facilities, parks, playgrounds, and the common areas of public buildings, to name a few places.

The bill passed 5-2 after a more than three-hour hearing. The "no" votes came from Sens. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, and Jim Smallwood, R-Parker. It now heads to the Senate floor for consideration.

Neville supports the concept of consumption clubs, but he didn't believe Senate Bill 184 was the right solution. Instead, he supported Senate Bill 63.

Senate Bill 63 offered a larger effort to allow for public consumption. It would have allowed for marijuana consumption club licenses to be issued to establishments where retail marijuana could be sold and consumed.

Clubs would have been limited to people at least 21 years old. All marijuana products would have been required to be consumed or disposed of at the club. It also protected local control.

The legislation failed 6-1, with Neville offering the only vote in support of the bill.

The two bills could have presumably worked in tandem, in which local governments would have chosen between allowing private clubs or more public consumption businesses. But with Senate Bill 63 dying, consumers might have to settle for a membership club.

"Why can't we give these people a place to go?" asked Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, who sponsored Senate Bill 63.

She said private clubs don't really take the state where it needs to go because people might not want to pay a membership fee, or tourists might not want to sign up.

"If you're in Colorado, buy marijuana, we'll take your money, but we won't give you any safeguards or anywhere to really use this product," Marble said.

Towns and cities continue to grapple with the dilemma. Denver voters passed an initiative allowing for social consumption clubs, but the framework for allowing such clubs is still being crafted.

Colorado Springs has expressed strong opposition to the proliferation of marijuana, though a club, Studio A64, named after the 2012 legalization initiative, operates in Colorado Springs as the state's first cannabis club.

Some worry that passage of Senate Bill 184 would lead to less cannabis clubs, as local governments would be empowered to reject such facilities.

"Senate Bill 184 purports to give local governments the ability to prohibit adults from gathering together and consuming," said Rob Corry, an attorney for Studio A64, who also is a part owner of a separate cannabis club in Denver, Club 64.

Corry wonders whether prohibiting cannabis clubs would be legal under Amendment 64. He said if the bill passes the Legislature, it would likely face a legal challenge.

He also took issue with the definition of open and public consumption, suggesting that the language is so broad that it would prohibit people from smoking a joint on their front porch. The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, believes those issues would not come up.

"It is a bill that is necessary for us to ensure that we have a common regulatory system for the use of marijuana and for private clubs," Gardner said.

The issue pitted supporters of public consumption against law enforcement, who testified that Senate Bill 63 would have made things hazier for them in terms of enforcement.

"I don't think we can automatically assume that all of those people will be going to clubs ..." said Greenwood Village Police Chief John Jackson, with the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police. "This does not make your community safer as it is being portrayed.

"This has become so confusing, we have become so backed up, and we have not made this a priority at all with regard to enforcement, and that is why we have open consumption that is out of control."

Neville took issue with the comments, suggesting that police officers have a duty to make sense of marijuana laws now that voters backed it. He added that police officers should do their job in curbing public consumption.

"I see consumption activity all the time ..." Neville told Jackson. "I'm trying to understand. You're saying this is going to create a safety issue, but I'm looking at it and saying there's a safety issue right now."

Another argument made against consumption clubs is that it would work against the Clean Indoor Act, which prohibits smoking in most public places. Cannabis clubs would essentially be offered an exemption.

Critics of public smoking, including the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, say too much work has been accomplished to roll it back with cannabis clubs.

Another concern is that allowing marijuana consumption clubs could invite federal blowback under the Trump administration led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an ardent critic of marijuana legalization. The White House recently signaled there could be "greater enforcement."

As it became apparent that Senate Bill 63 would not pass its first test, Marble became frustrated.

"We're saying if you can't afford your own home to smoke in, then we don't care," Marble said. "We've got to care about those people, and we have to let then know that they're accepted and that they are valued members of our society."

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