Marijuana Banking

Oswaldo Barrientos picks dead leaves from marijuana plants at the grow facility where he works near downtown Denver in an April 3, 2019, photo. 

The Denver City Council will hold its final vote on three bills Monday that could lead to what many consider the biggest shift in marijuana policy since Amendment 64, which made recreational marijuana legal in 2014.

If approved, the laws would allow marijuana delivery, and marijuana hospitality businesses within the city and county. The city will allocate $350,000 to the Department of Excise and Licenses (DEL) to administer the new business licenses.

Some organizations such as Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), a national organization that opposes the legalization and commercialization of the product, is against all three measures. 

Others like Smart Colorado -- a local nonprofit that focuses on protecting children across the nation from what it says are the potential dangers of marijuana -- and 16 Denver Public School principals are against the proposed hospitality law.

Luke Niforatos, the executive director for SAM says if these regulations are passed, it'll essentially parallel what happened with the tobacco industry throughout the 20th century.

"We need to treat marijuana as something like a public health product that needs to be strictly regulated, and walking back regulations like they are proposing to do in Denver and other parts of the state is the wrong thing for protecting the public," Niforatos said. "We've been fighting the tobacco industry for 50 years, and I truly hope we don't have to fight marijuana for (the same amount of time)."

Smart Colorado, which is a member of Denver's Marijuana Licensing Workgroup, was originally against marijuana delivery but has changed its position to "neutral with concerns" in regard to delivery options. It still opposes any legislation for any marijuana hospitality businesses, said Henny Lasley, co-founder and executive director of the organization.

"We continue to be worried about expansive marijuana commercialization and delivery is apart of that, because diversion to use, but we are especially concerned with hospitality" Lasley said.

Denver's Marijuana Licensing Workgroup has collaborated for around two years and is made up of social equity and child safety activists, law enforcement, marijuana industry and city council members, and representatives from the community and various city and county agencies. 

Additionally 16 principals from DPS wrote a letter to members of Denver Finance and Governance Committee on March 16

We "are concerned that marijuana hospitality establishment could inadvertently cause an increase in marijuana access and use among our youth and young adults," the principals wrote in a letter provided to The Denver Gazette.

"Increasing the number of marijuana businesses in Denver will expand availability and increase youth's exposure to marijuana."

In the letter the educators cited studies that have found that the higher number of marijuana dispensaries, the more likely youth are to use the product whether it's smoking or eating it. 

However, Eric Escudero, the director of communications for DEL says its "High Cost" campaign is providing sufficient information to Colorado's youth to keep them safe and informed.

"Since the launch of the campaign, dedicated to giving youth the facts about marijuana, so they have accurate peer-to-peer conversations because kids listen to friends more than their parents, campaign materials have been viewed an estimated 256 million times on billboards, bus ads, social media, digital radio and video game platforms," Escudero said. 

"We don't give them the scare tactics of the 1980s, but we give them the facts that it could impact your ability to get a drivers license, federal scholarships, how it can impact the ability to play sports, and historical information."

Escudero added the department believes this why Colorado student usage rates have stayed fairly similar in recent years.

According to the 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, 19.4% of local high schoolers and 5.2% of middle schoolers reported they used marijuana in the last 30 days.

In comparison to the usage rate of middle schoolers in 2011 the percentage is up .8%, but down nearly 2% for high schools from 2005, but still remain among the highest in the country.

Only 8.66% of the total square miles in Denver would be eligible to operate hospitality businesses. Additionally these new businesses would not be allowed to open in the five areas with the highest number of current businesses.

"We want to make sure some neighborhoods aren't saturated with marijuana businesses, so there is a clause that will not allow marijuana businesses in those neighborhoods," Escudero. "This will be reevaluated on an annual basis, so it keeps spreading the businesses around town and not in a handful of areas."

In-terms of delivering marijuana, SAM and Smart Colorado share some similar sentiment regarding the security to prevent youth getting their hands on the product. However, Lasley says there is not enough data available to decide one way or the other.

"There are a lot of hypotheticals with delivery," she said. "We worry about youth diversion and the fact there is no way to control looping ... what happens if the delivery person sees a customer answering the door, who is older enough to buy it, but there are a household of people inside who are not? Opportunities like that are what make us worried about the expansion of marijuana sales outside of the regulated market."

Although Lasley and Smart Colorado have their worries, they made recommendations to implement an online tracking system to monitor the amount of deliveries made to the home. 

The proposed deliver program would allow people 21 and older to receive deliveries directly to private's residences within Denver and other jurisdictions that allow for marijuana delivery. Delivery drivers would be required to check the receivers ID using an ID scanner.

The delivers would be permitted from 8 a.m. through midnight and would be limited to the same amount of retail product that can be purchased in stores: 1 ounce of marijuana, 8 grams of marijuana concentrate and products with 800 milligrams of THC.

Vehicles use for delivers would also be required to have a locked storage compartment to store the product, and there must be constant video surveillance of the compartment and front view of the vehicle.

These efforts are included in the proposal to decrease the 945 reports of crimes associated with marijuana by the Denver Police Department in 2020, according to the department. 

Other provisions within the legislation would require retail stores to include an overnight storage area within the building to reduce the number of crimes such as burglaries by Jan. 1, 2022, Escudero said.

DPD declined to comment on the impact the new laws could have on enforcement as "we do not comment on any pending legislation," a spokesperson for the department said in an email statement to The Denver Gazette.

Both proposals are also designed to bring social equity into the state's marijuana industry. Delivery licenses would only be available to those applicants until 2024, while licenses for stores, transporters, cultivation, manufacturing and the hospitality establishment would be limited until 2027. 

Social equity applicants are defined as Colorado residents who have never had a marijuana license revoked and meet one of the following social equity criteria:

  • Applicant lived in an opportunity zone or a disproportionately impacted area between 1980 and 2010
  • Applicant or immediate family was arrested, convicted or suffered civil asset forfeiture due to a marijuana offense
  • Applicant’s household income doesn't exceed 50% of the state median income

By providing exclusivity to social equity applicants, Denver officials say they are trying to make up for the damage caused by the War on Drugs and the unequal persecution of disadvantaged communities for marijuana offenses.

But these proposals and provisions still raise the alarm for SAM and says delivery options and hospitality businesses will cause a drastic surge in users.

"Delivery is just going to expand the use of this drug in the state, which is already skyrocketing," Niforatos said. "We've already seen year-over-year double-digit percentage increases in young adults between 20 to 30 (years old), but this will skyrocket that even more."

Furthermore, both Niforatos and Lasley believe the Colorado General Assembly have misconstrued Amendment 64, and adding delivery or hospitality businesses goes against what Coloradans voted for in 2012.

"None of this stuff was voted on in Amendment 64, and here we are, the industry is pushing these massive concessions to further normalize their drug," Niforatos said.

"(If these provisions are passed) were going to look back in 10 years from now and say, 'Wow, that was like the days when we had cigarettes on airplanes,' and its just crazy to allow these sort of things to happen."

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