Doubling down

Boulder County says no again to hospitality establishments for marijuana

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On July 29, Boulder’s Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) voted to approve changes to the County codes related to marijuana. Among several additions they approved was a clarification on the County’s stance on one particularly unsettled issue in Boulder County: “cannabis hospitality establishments,” businesses where people can use cannabis in public.

Instead of moving to approve these businesses as Denver and Colorado Springs have, Boulder updated its policy to clarify that it still won’t allow social consumption clubs. Despite the state having legalized hospitality establishments for marijuana, and despite other, similar establishments already existing within the County. 

“Boulder County has not authorized hospitality establishments, so staff is proposing to clarify this in the Code by indicating that Membership Clubs, retail food establishments, and eating or drinking places … are not eligible for this use.” The proposed policy update reads. “This clarification will prevent future misinterpretation of the Code.”

BOCC voted 2-0 in approval. (Commissioner Marta Loachamin was excused.) 

This reiteration of the County’s stance on hospitality establishments comes just months after the City of Boulder’s Cannabis Licensing and Advisory Board (CLAB) hosted an hours-long public comment meeting on this issue. Proponents and opponents both made arguments before CLAB, making it clear that there’s no real consensus on the subject of licensing these establishments in Boulder. 

Opponents see these establishments as a step backwards for a very health-conscious place. 

“The City of Boulder has historically been one of the first communities to ensure clean air for its residents by passing and implementing comprehensive smoke-free policies,” Gretchen Smith, who works in Boulder County Public Health’s Tobacco Education and Prevention Partnership, argued to CLAB. “We are concerned that allowing marijuana hospitality establishments would be a step back in these protections.”

Proponents, like Art Way, a drug policy consultant, argued the opposite. He told CLAB that these establishments will actually make marijuana consumption safer for users and non-users alike. 

“If we can normalize the culture of alcohol, which from a public health perspective is far more damaging to the body and society than marijuana will ever be, I think we’ll be able to figure out how to normalize marijuana,” Way said. “And I actually think the more we normalize it, the more we take away the countercultural aspect of it that made it so popular in the first place.”

That was at a City Council meeting in May. Then on July 29, the County held its vote and approved the updates to language in its own Land Use and Zoning Codes — reiterating its stance just in case anyone wasn’t clear on it. 

“We’re really just clarifying in our code what we had already been interpreting, which is that Boulder County has not authorized hospitality establishments,” Molly Marcucilli, a planner with Boulder County, says. “We’re just clarifying the code language to avoid any ambiguity.”

Hospitality establishments for marijuana have been legal in Colorado since 2019. The law legalizing them left it up to the local governments to opt into the licensing program, though. So, if a county didn’t want hospitality establishments for marijuana, they didn’t have to have them.

In places like Denver and Colorado Springs, where hospitality establishments have been given the go-ahead, new businesses like the Coffee Joint and Studio A64 opened their doors, creating jobs and enriching the local business scene — and, more importantly, changing the public stigma surrounding cannabis. 

Still, Boulder County’s decision isn’t surprising. Boulder was one of the first counties in the nation to enact a ban on smoking cigarettes indoors. Since the mid-’80s there have been ordinances in the city prohibiting indoor smoking or smoking within proximity to air vents and entryways. And several years ago, smoking was outlawed anywhere on the Pearl Street Mall. 

“Some of the public comments from the planning commission, people had concerns about the safety of allowing the consumption of marijuana in a public place,” Marcucilli says. “I know there have been some members of the public who have mentioned that air quality is a big concern as well for those types of uses.”

However, Boulder County already allows for certain exemptions to that rule. Hookah lounges, for example, are permitted as businesses within City and County limits. Patrons at these establishments agree to the risks associated with smoking indoors, and smoke in a safe and social environment. 

If air quality is the issue, proponents wonder, why couldn’t the same setup work for cannabis clubs that works for hookah lounges? Why isn’t the County opting, to allow these businesses to open their doors?

Marcucilli says it could happen someday down the road. But for now, the County has doubled down on its stance: It won’t abide cannabis lounges in Boulder County.

“I wouldn’t even go as far as to say that Boulder County has opted out [of licensing hospitality establishments] forever,” Marcucilli says. “I just don’t think they have enough information to make an informed decision, yet.” 

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