Don’t Get Too Excited About America’s First-Ever Marijuana Cafés

Denver is preparing to open the country’s first cannabis cafés,
but people in the bud business say overly strict rules could kill
the city’s — and the nation’s — pot lounges before they ever get
a chance to thrive.

Posted on June 29, 2017, 12:03 GMT

Picture this: a pub in Colorado where you can go with
friends after a long hike, where they blast killer live
music, serve your favorite grub, and always have a couple of
hoppy IPAs on draft. After you order, you lean back on a
stool, crowd around around a high table, and pass a joint,
all while hollering over SportsCenter in the background.

City officials in Denver are preparing to launch the
country’s first legal cannabis cafés — but you should
probably adjust your expectations. That scene in the tavern
with the beer, the food, and the joint isn’t happening
anytime soon. Voters passed Initiative 300 in November, which
created a four-year pilot program that will allow Denver to
experiment with pot cafés starting as soon as this summer.
Under the current plan, a license would cost $1,000. But the
compromises made during the rule-making process have changed
what the lounges will look like and how they’ll operate, and
some pot-business owners wonder if bureaucracy will bury the
budding industry before it gets a chance to launch.

In passionate debates at public hearings, neighborhood
leaders have expressed fears that cafés will help weed find
its way into kids’ hands, or that residents will smell stinky
pot from their porches instead of the fragrance of their
prized roses. On the other side, marijuana entrepreneurs
worry about how they’ll make money since they won’t be
allowed to sell weed at cafés: Instead, the spaces will be
bring-your-own, and businesses that serve alcohol will be
banned from having cannabis on the premises.

Still, all eyes are on Denver, the first US city to open
cannabis cafés. There’s a sense that if things go well here,
legal public cannabis consumption will spread elsewhere in
the country. But if Denver fails to craft a successful
blueprint for public pot consumption, that could spell
trouble for cannabis business owners hoping for cafés in
other states. With tight restrictions strangling this first
swing at public consumption, are US cannabis cafés doomed to

Dougal Brownlie for BuzzFeed News

Jim Norris, co-owner of Mutiny Information Cafe.

Jim Norris is the co-owner of the Mutiny Information Cafe, a
used-book store and coffee shop, and he hopes to be one of
the first people to get a cannabis café license, known
officially as a public consumption permit, when it becomes
available. That’s expected to happen in July. Norris’s shop
is a weirdo’s delight that Denver’s most hardcore punks and
nerds call home. Boxes of Frosted Flakes and Cap’n Crunch sit
on the coffee bar — customers can buy a bowl for $2.50 — to
draw in locals and tourists already high after visiting one
of the city’s retail cannabis shops. Mutiny smells like a
comforting mix of coffee and decades-old books. By the end of
the summer, Norris hopes it’ll also smell like weed.

On a recent June afternoon, Norris, who has a graying and
neatly trimmed beard and two ear gauges, talked about how he
has mapped out what legal social use will look like at
Mutiny. On one Friday a month, he’ll invite academics,
politicians, artists, business owners, and musicians to the
3,000-square-foot space to get stoned and discuss politics,
music, and art. Then, on one Saturday night a month, Norris
wants to move his tired tables and chairs out of the way,
bring out the fog machine and laser lights, and transform the
quiet space into a “dance party/comedy deal.” In other words,
a night of “things more directed right at being high, things
that make it fun.” Norris is better positioned than many in
Denver’s marijuana scene to open a cannabis café because he
doesn’t have a liquor license — which would make Mutiny
ineligible — and because cannabis customers won’t be Mutiny’s
only source of income.

Alyson Martin / BuzzFeed News

A “Tasting Notes for Cannabis” journal at Mutiny
Information Cafe.

“We’re going to have people come in and just smoke weed and
hang out. They’re going to buy a book, they’re going to play
pinball, they’re going to have some coffee, maybe get a comic
or a record. So basically, it’s already the same thing I’ve
got going, except we can smoke weed,” Norris said. “Caffeine
and cannabis is the perfect combination. It inspires talk, it
inspires creativity.”

Norris is in the minority with his overwhelmingly positive
attitude. At a strategy meeting at a Starbucks, just before
the last hearing on how the café rules would play out, a
dozen or so proponents of Initiative 300, also known as the
Social Pot Use Initiative or I-300, huddled to talk about how
they could persuade the city to loosen regulations before the
permit-application process opens. One of the rules they find
most troubling would prevent cafés from selling both
marijuana and alcohol. That would force bars, art galleries,
concert halls, and other places with a liquor license to
choose between booze and bud. Another controversial rule
would require customers to sign a waiver before entering a
cannabis café, something industry advocates say would drive
away people worried about privacy issues. Businesses with
more than three employees would find themselves bumping up
against Colorado’s Clean Air Act, which bans indoor smoking
and would limit them to vaping and edibles. And restrictions
on where cafés can operate — they must be 1,000 feet from
schools, child care centers, city pools and recreational
facilities, and rehab centers, for instance — will push them
to the edge of the sprawling city, discouraging business,
some permit seekers said.

“This is what I would expect out of Jeff Sessions’ office, if
he had to come up with a permitting program for social

Tim Morgen, who does community relations for the Denver-based
marijuana company BGood, said the biggest problem is that
nobody in the pot business will be able to make any money off
of public consumption.

“The industry, as a whole, has nothing to win on this,”
Morgen said, at a Starbucks with other opponents of the
rules. “It’s not worth the fight.” Sitting nearby, Nick
Armogida, a Denver resident and marketing consultant, said
the regulations are far stricter than voters intended. “This
is what I would expect out of Jeff Sessions’ office if he had
to come up with a permitting program for social cannabis,” he

Emmett Reistroffer, campaign director for I-300, warned that
Denver’s cannabis café industry might fail before it ever
gets off the ground if the pilot program sets such
restrictive rules. “Too many of us have invested too much in
this to let that happen,” he said before opening the door,
turning left, and walking a couple of blocks to make his case
to local lawmakers.

Dougal Brownlie for BuzzFeed News

Cannabis cafés are, in some ways, the final frontier
in the mainstreaming of legalization, because they take
marijuana out of people’s homes and into public life. But
they are jarring symbols for leaders who might not be ready
to accept just how drastically pot has changed American
culture. Legalization has gained momentum, especially over
the past decade, and today eight states and Washington, DC,
permit some form of recreational cannabis use, while 29
states and DC permit medical marijuana. Nationally, though,
policies around public consumption of cannabis have faced
some tough opposition. Alaskan regulators, who were the first
in the country to propose pot cafés, dropped their plan to
open lounges after Donald Trump was elected president,
figuring that such a visual display of marijuana use, which
remains a federally prohibited drug, was a bad idea with a
new, conservative administration occupying the White House.

“We don’t want to be waving a red flag in front of federal
law enforcement, at least not now,” Alaska marijuana control
board member Mark Springer said after the vote in February to
shelve the program, the Juneau Empire reported. The state is due to reconsider the issue next month.

David Zalubowski / AP

Nevada State Sen. Tick Segerblom (left) tours a grow
operations for marijuana, April 2015.

Democratic Nevada Sen. Tick Segerblom pushed hard for
cannabis cafés in his state, especially in Clark County, home
to Las Vegas and its huge tourist industry. But the bill died
before it could reach the governor’s desk, infuriating

“You can’t expect 40 million people to come here and buy
marijuana, and then say, ‘Oh, by the way, there’s nowhere to
use it.’ We’re a tourism capital. We have gambling. We have
prostitution. We have everything you can imagine. So
marijuana, to me, fits in perfectly,” Segerblom told BuzzFeed

In Colorado, recreational marijuana use has been legal since
2012, but in the absence of cafés or lounges to smoke, places
like Denver’s bustling 16th Street Mall have become go-to
spots for the marijuana crowd. The mall, a long corridor
lined with restaurants, bars, and a couple of retail cannabis
shops, is where you can follow your nose to find a good
burger or an illegally lit bowl on the sidewalk. Until cafés
open, marijuana consumption is legal in Denver only in
private residences, and the people who light up at the mall
might have landlords who forbid smoking or perhaps children
or people who have asthma at home. Some live in public or
federally subsidized housing, where marijuana is banned, and
some are tourists whose hotels ban smoking cannabis in their

“You can’t expect 40 million people to come here and buy
marijuana, and then say, ‘Oh, by the way, there’s nowhere to
use it.’”

Because of the limitations on public consumption, marijuana
advocates pushed for I-300 in November, and more than 53% of
voters approved the initiative. For the next six months, the
city lawmakers, industry reps, parents, residents, and
business owners hammered out the rules that would govern the
pilot cannabis cafés. The disagreement over those rules shows
how difficult it is to take the industry mainstream.

On June 13, the city held its final public hearing on the
issue. More than 100 people packed the room, and during the
three-hour meeting the dividing line quickly became clear:
Those who favored the rules as written also supported a
conservative approach to marijuana or opposed it altogether;
those who opposed the restrictions were, generally,
individuals and businesses tied to the cannabis industry. The
latter group included Reistroffer, the I-300 campaigner, who
sounded frustrated as he addressed the gathering.

Alyson Martin / BuzzFeed News

Denver residents and business owners attend the final
public hearing on Initiative 300 on June 13.

“What we’re approving today is far from what the voters
approved six months ago,” Reistroffer said. “I would say 99%
of the businesses that expressed interest in these permits
are no longer eligible or interested because of the burdens.”

How, he asked, could investors be expected to pay for the
fancy ventilation systems and full-time security mandated for
cannabis cafés? Why should the rules require these things if
they just want to sell coffee to customers bringing in their
own marijuana? The audience erupted into loud applause.

“It is far too restrictive, and I am eager to see who is
going to be able to pull off a permit,” Reistroffer said.

Michael Heyward, a law clerk at Vicente Sederberg, a firm
that represents cannabis business owners, agreed. One goal of
the pilot program is to collect data, he said. “If our
regulations are too tight,” he said, “then we’re not going to
have data to know how to make better regulations going

Ashley Kilroy, who is the city’s executive director of
marijuana policy, led the meeting and said later that
opponents of the rules had been given months to discuss their
concerns with city officials. “None of this was a surprise,
and they weren’t pulled out of thin air,” she said of the
restrictions. Kilroy added that the cafés were never intended
as another revenue generator for marijuana businesses.

“This is just to provide a place for like-minded people to
consume marijuana, and they’re hoping it will also alleviate
people consuming in public. It was never to be moneymaking,”
she told BuzzFeed News.

Proponents of restrictions included Gertrude Grant, a member
of the West Washington Park neighborhood board, who said
residents’ rights were “under siege” in areas that abut
commercial zones with a lot of cannabis activity. Grant was
concerned that patio permits for some cafés could send
pungent smoke wafting over residential neighborhoods, and she
asked the city to consider requiring buffer zones between
outdoor smoking areas and private homes. “Please don’t let
Denver become even more of a skunk city,” she said, to
applause from neighborhood advocates.

Brennan Linsley / AP

Smoke fills the air during the annual 4/20 marijuana
festival in Denver’s downtown Civic Center Park.

Rachel O’Bryan, an attorney who has been a vocal opponent of
cannabis cafés, said no industry should be allowed to craft
its own regulations, and that goes for marijuana, too.
O’Bryan heads Protect Denver’s Atmosphere, a coalition
opposed to cafés for varying reasons. It includes
representatives from several anti-tobacco organizations, the
American Lung Association Colorado chapter, the parents’
group Smart Colorado, and the Colorado Restaurant
Association, among others.

O’Bryan, the mother of a teenager, is concerned about how
public consumption will play out, especially among minors.

“Please don’t let Denver become even more of a skunk city.”

Because of the proposed rules, Denver residents and tourists
could see high yoga classes, high art-gallery viewings, or
even cannabis-infused laundromats, she said.

O’Bryan argued that allowing public consumption in so many
areas of everyday life could make young people think it’s
okay to be high all the time. “300 goes beyond
destigmatizing,” she said.

Regardless of the obstacles facing cannabis cafés, the push
for them isn’t likely to let up given the pace of
legalization in the United States. Last November alone,
voters approved marijuana initiatives in eight out of nine
states where the issue was on the ballot. In Nevada, where
recreational cannabis sales begin in July, Segerblom isn’t
giving up on his effort to open Vegas cafés. “I don’t think
the issue, just because my bill died, is going to die,” he
said. “We just need to encourage the local elected officials
to have some balls and try to see if there’s a way to do it.
You don’t have to license 100 places, but try one and just
see how it works. But the fact is you’re just asking for
trouble by not offering tourists a place to legally use it.”

Paul Brown / Paul Brown / REX / Shutterstock

The Bulldog Amsterdam, where marijuana is sold legally.

There’s a chance that Americans might never see a pot
clubs like those in Amsterdam, where anyone can kick back
with a book and light a pre-rolled joint. The most well-known
one is probably the Bulldog Amsterdam, which opened in 1975,
claims to be the first such café, and is now housed in a
former police station. The presence of weed and other soft
drugs like hallucinogenic mushrooms seem to coexist mostly
without incident in Amsterdam, alongside some of the best
museums in the world; tourists from all over get off the
Leidseplein Square tram stop, find a place to buy some bud or
hash, and smoke it before exploring the city. Cannabis cafés
in the US are a new spin on this idea, but they’re hampered
by the US Clean Indoor Act, which prohibits most indoor
smoking. US smoking rules were a response to death and
illness related to tobacco, not cannabis, but they’re adding
to the obstacles facing prospective cannabis café

Some cannabis fans have gone underground to get around the
limitations on consumption, opening a handful of quasi-legal
clubs across Colorado that are open to people willing to seek
them out and pay admission; Puff, Pass & Paint classes,
for example, can cost $40 and often sell out.
The clubs have quietly existed under a loose interpretation
of the law that that limits consumption to “private” spaces,
but they’ve been subject to occasional police raids.

Rick Wilking / Reuters

My 420 Tours could be shut out of a consumption permit
due to Initiative 300’s strict rules.

Norris has occasionally used his space to test this concept
with “Atomic Doobie Saturdays” at Mutiny, which involve
rolling “the biggest, baddest joints” possible, sealing the
doors, blacking out the windows, and gathering some good
friends to smoke weed, listen to music, and enjoy one
another’s company.

The proposed pot regulations work perfectly for Norris, who
said it’s as if they were “handcrafted” for him and Mutiny.
But not so much for JJ Walker, co-owner of My 420 Tours,
which attracts cannabis tourists seeking pot-friendly hotels
and close-up looks at the marijuana industry. Walker said My
420 has catered to about 40,000 people since pot became legal
in Colorado, and its offerings include cannabis cooking
classes, visits to one of Denver’s soccer field–sized
marijuana gardens, and transport in buses that serve as
“private” spaces so visitors can consume cannabis while on
tours. For $69, you can even learn to roll sushi while also
learning how to roll joints.

My 420 Tours seems ripe for one of the consumption permits in
Denver, but its office might be too close to a school and
park. At the public hearing, Walker said the café licenses
should be decided on a case-by-case basis so that legitimate
businesses don’t get shut out on technicalities, such as
being a few feet short of the 1,000-foot buffer zone
requirement. If the rules stay as they are, Walker warned,
businesses will be forced to work around them, even if that
means violating them.

“We’re going to continue to run our business,” even if the
rules prove too restrictive for My 420 to score a café
license, Walker said. ●

Alyson Martin is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and
is based in New York.

Contact Alyson Martin at

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