Cannabis Clubs

The Aspen City Council has tabled any research looking into allowing marijuana consumption lounges within city limits. A state law that went into effect Jan. 1 allows the use, but each municipality has to opt in.

On Jan. 1, two new laws went into effect in Colorado allowing public marijuana consumption lounges. Just as retail marijuana legalization was enacted, the consumption laws need to be opted into by individual municipalities.

On Tuesday, Aspen City Council members decided they aren’t there yet.

The state law regulates many aspects of what the lounges would look like. Much like a bar, there would be age limits, and rules about employee consumption while on the job. Cities and counties that decide to allow the use can further regulate how those lounges operate and establish a criteria for granting business licenses.

Ron LeBlanc, special projects manager for the city, told councilmembers during a Tuesday work session that community members had approached city staff, inquiring if and how the new law would be enacted locally.

While the council had an hourlong conversation that ranged from specific legal questions regarding the lounges to a broader philosophical discussion about the impact of marijuana locally, in the end they decided staff time was not well spent looking into indoor smoking lounges in the midst of a pandemic — particularly as COVID-19 is known as a respiratory disease that spreads within enclosed spaces.

“I could entertain this post-COVID-19. I really don’t want to spend more time on it now,” said Councilmember Ward Hauenstein.

He said he understood why there might be a need for social consumption lounges, being that most of Aspen’s outdoors are federal land where marijuana is prohibited, and smoking in lodges and restaurants also is banned.

The rest of council agreed that the many priorities staff are pursuing to support public health or Aspen’s hard-hit economy were worth pursuing ahead of adopting an ordinance legalizing consumption lounges.

Among other worries about indoor gatherings and smoke inhalation, Councilmember Rachel Richards pointed out that earlier on Tuesday, Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order banning alcohol sales at bars and restaurants after 10 p.m., specifically because he viewed inebriation as a threat to public health.

“When people are on some sort of intoxicant they tend to slip up on their social distancing and mask wearing,” she said.

Richards then questioned the change in character that recreational marijuana consumption lounges would have on Aspen. Physical lounges would have the ability to have a mobile branch as well.

“The idea of mobile party wagons circling the core. No. That’s not what we need. That’s not a new enhancement to our businesses model,” Richards said. “I’m not anti-marijuana, I’m not anti-folks taking their enjoyment where they will, but I don’t think we need to change our codes, change the makeup of our commercial core, and change our image as a community as dramatically as this has the potential to do.”

She suggested that if the law is adopted in the future that lounges be barred from owning prime downtown space, saying she feared they would push out other businesses. Richards also suggested that a new enforcement division might have to be created, as she could not envision police walking into a marijuana smoke-filled lounge to check for underage patrons in the same manner they do with alcohol at bars.

Mayor Torre wondered if the second-tier space requirements would hurt smaller local businesses, many of which cannot afford premier locations. Right now, Aspen has nine retail pot shops, and Torre said the next conversation may focus on whether that’s an appropriate number for the city. 

He suggested the discussion also may include the effects that the pot industry may be having on commercial real estate.

“I do want council to be thinking about that maybe in the future,” Torre said.

Without council support to research the potential adoption of a social pot consumption license, the matter will be dropped indefinitely.

Councilmember Skippy Mesirow requested that when the conversation arises again, community members who have shown interest in bringing this type of business to Aspen should be part of the presentation. 

“Everything is, in a word, confusing,” he said. “Real world examples would help demystify this for me.”

Alycin Bektesh is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at Alycin@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @alycinwonder.