Social consumption laws should protect children

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When I returned to Denver City Council in 2011, voters had already approved medical marijuana. Interested operators began to open locations before Denver was able to establish a regulatory framework to define how and where they could operate in our city. The new council worked quickly to catch up with the emerging industry. Denver was able to put in place a regulatory framework before the state, and in fact, our rules became a guide for the state.

In 2012, another statewide ballot measure passed legalizing recreational marijuana. The Colorado State Legislature and Denver City Council became the first in the country to create a roadmap for operators and define safeguards for communities where marijuana facilities would be located. While in the middle of our process, Denver and Colorado received a memo from U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole of the Obama administration, stating that our efforts must focus on protecting children.

Our Marijuana Committee — at the time chaired by Councilman Charlie Brown — worked with all stakeholders to create a 1,000-foot buffer from key locations, such as schools, daycare, parks and recreation centers, that serve children and youth. We also discussed cultivation facilities and co-location of retail sites with medical storefronts and testing labs. To address concerns about marijuana facilities saturating low-income neighborhoods, we considered a citywide cap on licenses or the number of licenses at a specific location.

Most recently, Denver voters passed Initiative 300 in 2016 to allow social consumption of marijuana. This created a new set of questions. The ballot language asked voters if Denver should adopt a cannabis consumption pilot program to allow people to use marijuana at social consumption areas in permitted businesses. Excise and License currently requires social consumption areas to have the same 1,000-foot buffer from schools, etc., as marijuana stores and other facilities.

Only one cannabis consumption business has opened in Denver and another is going through the licensing and permitting process. The industry has asked that Denver and the state consider the following to create a more favorable business climate: change the distance requirement to allow business to seek exemptions from the subject of the setback or eliminate the setback for daycares, recreation centers and treatment facilities but maintain the setback for schools; eliminate the 2020 sunset of the pilot program; lower event permit fees for social consumption events; create rules to permit bus tours, tasting rooms and private clubs; consider private clubs as exempt from the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act; consider allowing marijuana and alcohol to be served on the same premises.

I have been firm and consistent that protecting our kids remains the most pressing issue. According to numerous medical professionals and organizations, childhood and adolescent use of marijuana has lasting impacts on brain development and cognition. Until we know whether proximity to marijuana businesses increases acceptance and use by adolescents, we should err on the side of protecting our kids.

I do not support the proposal to allow marijuana entrepreneurs to skirt the buffering requirement by obtaining approval from schools, daycare centers, etc. While this would create a more favorable business environment, I think this approach opens the door to a transactional approach that puts kids at risk.

Is it City Council’s responsibility to create exceptions that allow further growth in the marijuana industry? Should we adopt a permissive regulatory structure that favors business development and growth at its heart? Greater leniency may put the health of workers and patrons exposed to marijuana at risk, as well as lead to greater use by children and young people. At a bar, if you aren’t drinking alcohol, you are not exposed to its toxicity. The same is not true for smoke.

Let’s not gamble with our health and take a cautious approach until we have more data on the impacts of social consumption.

Deborah Ortega is a councilmember at-large on the Denver City Council. At-large council members represent the city as a whole. She can be reached at ortegaatlarge@denvergov.org.

Editor’s note: The Washington Park Profile recently covered the second business going through the licensing process for social consumption of marijuana. Vape and Play anticipated opening by the end of 2018. To learn more, visit http://washparkprofile.com/stories/clearing-the-smoke,270783?

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