“Bitch bitch bitch!”

This was always the response I was given by my non-smoking friends whenever I would explain how unfair cannabis laws in America were. Of course, this was when I first started smoking in the mid/late 90s while living in ultra-conservative Wyoming. So, this response wasn’t entirely surprising.

But now it is 2023 where, in Colorado, marijuana has been legal for a decade. Plus, the Marijuana Enforcement Division of Colorado (MED) has been making headlines with its willingness to give out cannabis hospitality licenses. Add in the fact that per Yahoo! Finance, the city of Denver alone smoked 6.8 metric tons of the stuff last year, and surely the laws have relaxed enough to where the need to bitch has been removed completely, right?

Sadly, when it comes to the cannabis hospitality industry of Colorado, the answer is a resounding NO. In fact, not only have the laws become more stringent in some cases, but certain city leaders who control the course of these laws have decided to kick up their opposition a notch. So much so that the actions of these local leaders have made it appear as if their feelings on the Devil’s lettuce mirror the same levels of disgust as my former cowboy buddies.

I mean, eight different businesses being harassed and/or ticketed by the city of Denver during the summer of 2023 for violations of city ordinances when it comes to hosting cannabis-related events says a lot, I feel.

To see where this political counteroffensive began, we have to turn back the hands of time to 2022 when all of this began.

Prior to that year in Denver, people could consume marijuana legally outside their homes if it was at a private social club operating on a membership. After overhauling its marijuana rules and regulations in 2021, Denver stopped allowing private clubs to allow on-site consumption anymore—the city switched to a system that required a license to allow such consumption.

This system, beginning in 2022, required the establishment/applicant to first get a cannabis consumption license through the MED, and then an application would be submitted to the city.

Knowing how vociferously the US government has fought the (losing) war on drugs, and that the MED is supposed to be a liaison between federal and state government agencies when it comes to regulating cannabis, I felt they would be the best place to start with my interviews. In my mind, I couldn’t see how the federal government wasn’t somehow pressuring the MED into forcing local law enforcement into performing the city-wide crackdowns.

I was incredibly wrong.

Yes, the MED is a liaison between the state and the federal government; but not in any particularly negative way. From day one, their job duties have included a specific focus on troubleshooting any and all problems that arise on a state level, to prevent them from being repeated nationally when cannabis eventually becomes legal on a federal level.

Says the MED, “[we] proactively work to ensure that the areas in which we focus as an agency take into account, or are otherwise responsive, to what we understand is important from a federal perspective, including prevention of youth access and criminal enterprise activity. Recognizing the ongoing status of marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance, we see it as important to demonstrate that the work we do in Colorado can help inform a future federal framework at a national level.”

This includes navigating how hospitality licenses will be approved.

The MED makes it clear that, “The MED issues two types of hospitality licenses—a hospitality and sales license (allowing for commercial sales on site) and a hospitality license (which does not allow for commercial sales, but rather allows patrons to bring their own product for consumption on site).” They did make it clear when I spoke to them that since the laws for open cannabis consumption had changed in 2022, they have approved a number of the new licenses without much difficulty.

During our conversation, I learned that one of the establishments that had been working in conjunction with the MED when it came to being a federal guinea pig was Tetra Lounge. Coincidentally, since the owner of Tetra Lounge, Dewayne Benjamin, was the only business owner who had actually been ticketed by the city, he just so happened to be the next person I was going to speak with.

The first topic we discussed was if the MED was being honest. According to Benjamin, everything they said was the truth. “Tetra has been open since 2018, so a lot of the laws are based on Tetra. A lot of the provisions like a Private membership club [I helped]. I sat in on all the MED work groups and social networking meetings so I helped develop the strategies for social equity and hospitality.”

He also made it clear that they were being honest when it came to making it easy for establishments to get these licenses. “For the state, everything with MED went really well actually. My state process with licensing went really easy. But, when it came down to the city, they’ve been developing ways to give me a fucking headache.” He explains, “I’ve turned in so many documents—site plans, infrastructure plans—I have [submitted] a whole bunch of shit that has nothing to do with my business, the safety of my business, or what we provide because we don’t sell any cannabis products.”

It was then that the picture of where the real problems with hospitality licensing came from.

“The problems come down to the last the last mayor [of Denver, Hancock], it comes down to politics. So, it was a really big disconnect from city and state, which really doesn’t have anything to do with me. But they had very different views on how cannabis should be [handled] going forward. The last administration for the city, they definitely didn’t have any problem putting more hurdles in place, instead of taking away barriers. Things that are available to normal business, restaurants or things like that, where you can get a special event permit, they’re not available for cannabis, just alcohol.”

Of course, alcohol is fine! Just try not to think about the wide-ranging study from 2022 by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice that found driving drunk is a much bigger problem in the state than driving high. According to statistics in the report, case filings for alcohol were roughly five times more common than they were for marijuana.

But I digress …

It’s worth noting that some of the hurdles the city of Denver placed in front of Benjamin were nothing short of legal harassment.

Before the ticketing—where “the MED, the city, all the things came in here, looked around, took pictures” before issuing him a ticket due to cannabis consumption going on—the city tried to get Tetra in legal trouble by snitching to the MED. Shortly after getting state-licensed, the city contacted the MED immediately following Tetra Lounge’s ribbon cutting in March of this year. “My guys from the state department actually called me and informed me that I had issues with the building. I never had like, a letter or anything come from the city directly telling me that ‘you’re doing this illegally’ or anything [like that].”

After speaking with Benjamin, it became clear that the problems encountered by the cannabis hospitality industry in Colorado—well, Denver anyway—were coming from the city. When I found out that Benjamin had not yet spoken to our newly-elected Mayor Johnston about the future of licensing in the city, I mentioned to him that I would reach out to my contact at the mayor’s office.

This caused him to laugh.

He told me that I would be referred back to Eric Escudero of the Department of Excise and Licenses, where I would be given the same non-answer that had been given to every media outlet since the ticketing had been broken by the news.

He was right.

Every single time a question was emailed or asked to Escudero about the harassment/ticketing/licenses, he would give the same canned response. “Citations, fines, and enforcement activity by the City and County of Denver are always a last resort after every effort has been made to educate businesses about licensing rules and regulations.” Continuing, “Allowing unlicensed businesses to operate presents a health, safety, and welfare threat to the community and hurts social equity businesses that have taken on the effort and expense to get a license and legally operate in Denver. They should not have to compete against illegal competition.”

When I reached out to my contact about interviewing Mayor Johnston about the problems with the city and these cannabis licenses, she was more than happy to set up the interview, or at least get a statement from the mayor. After three days of waiting excitedly for my interview confirmation, I received a text that quickly threw my optimism into the toilet: my contact informed me that the best person to speak to about this matter would be Eric Escudero of the Department of Excise and Licenses.

I was now a victim of the oldest trick in the political handbook: finger-pointing in an attempt to avoid accountability.

The future of these venues and the laws they might have to follow is murky at best. Benjamin gave me an emphatic “I don’t know” when I asked him what was next. And with the “hey look over there” strategies being levied by the city and the Department of Excise and Licenses, I don’t see much in the way of anything changing—a gray area littered with legal gameplay.

Sadly, we all know how this is going to turn out. The business owners will try to make an honest living all while being punished at every turn for trying to follow the labyrinthine mess of city regulations invented by weed curmudgeons whose favorite phrase to use against their naysayers is “bitch bitch bitch!”