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Colorado’s paradox: Recreational marijuana is legal, but it’s tough to use

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Surveying the noisy lunchtime crowd at the popular City O’ City restaurant here, owner Daniel Landes considered his options.

A few days earlier, Denver voters had approved the use of recreational marijuana in bars, restaurants and other public places, opening for Landes and other business owners a new world of possibilities.

There was the comedy club Landes owned upstairs. Maybe a cannabis and comedy night? And the yoga studio. Perhaps a pot-inspired yoga practice?

“This has been the missing ingredient,” Landes said. “You have people coming to Denver to enjoy legal pot, and they have had no place to use it.”

But the options quickly narrowed late Friday after state licensing authorities weighed in with a new rule saying bars and restaurants with liquor licenses could not allow pot use on the premises. The Colorado Department of Revenue said it made the decision after talks last summer with the liquor industry, health experts and groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

In a news release, state officials said the new rule prohibiting “dual consumption” of alcohol and pot is in the best interest of public health and safety. Using both substances, they said, increases the risk of motor vehicle crashes more than using just one.

The Colorado Restaurant Assn. agreed, saying marijuana use in bars and restaurants “will dramatically increase the liability risks for these establishments.”

The surprise move put a damper on what many were heralding as the next step in the normalization of cannabis in Colorado and the nation.

Pot advocates accused the state of openly fighting a turf battle on behalf of the liquor industry. The state denied that, saying the ruling was not tied to the passage of the new marijuana measure.

“They seem to think it’s fine for patrons of bars and concert venues to get blackout drunk, but unacceptable for them to use a far less harmful substance like marijuana instead,” said Mason Tvert, spokesman for the National Marijuana Policy Project. “This rule will not prevent bar-goers from consuming marijuana, but it will ensure that they consume it outside in the alley or on the street rather than inside of a private establishment.”

This latest twist in Colorado’s roiling cannabis landscape is probably being watched closely by the ever-increasing slate of states who have legalized pot.

In 2012 Colorado and Washington became the first states to make recreational marijuana legal. The District of Columbia and six other states have followed, including California this month. The newcomers are looking to these pioneers for clues into what works, what doesn’t and how to navigate the inevitable conflicts with the federal government which still considers pot an illegal drug.

Backers of Denver’s new marijuana law, known as Initiative 300, say even if it’s been somewhat neutered, it still goes a long way toward addressing a central paradox of Colorado’s weed policy — pot may be legal here but finding a place to eat, vape or smoke it is another matter.

Tourists who visit Denver for the marijuana quickly discover that hotels, bars and restaurants usually ban it. Some end up smoking pot in their rental cars or in a handful of legalized “cannabis clubs” or marijuana-friendly bed and breakfasts.

“You have seen a dramatic rise in arrests in Colorado for public consumption of pot. People are using it in the parks and sidewalks where they shouldn’t,” said Kayvan Khalatbari, co-owner of Denver Relief Consulting, who campaigned in favor of the initiative. “Our hope is that [Initiative 300] will reduce public consumption.”

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