Cannabis & Main: ‘Why Has Social Consumption been Such a Difficult Aspect of Legalization to Figure Out?’

Civilized's podcast 'Cannabis & Main' is back with celebrated marijuana journalist Riccardo Baca returning to host the second season, which is brought to you by Fluent Cannabis. On the latest episode, Ricardo's guest is cannabis lobbyist, entrepreneur and social consumption advocate Cindy Sovine. Together they discuss the regulations surrounding social use in Colorado and beyond, and talk strategies that can make this missing piece of the legalization puzzle a reality.

You can check out the latest episode of 'Cannabis & Main' below or download it for free from podcast providers like iTunes, Spotify and Stitcher.

Ricardo Baca: Hello hello, and welcome to Cannabis & Main, a Civilized podcast where we extract one element from today's cannabis scape and go deep. I'm your host Ricardo Baca, founder of Grasslands: A Journalism-Minded Agency. And it's so great to be with you all today. Thanks for tuning in. Hey, you can learn more about this show alongside the marijuana news and cannabis lifestyle coverage you crave from Civilized, found on the world wide web at civilized.life.

Now, this week we're going to dive deep into cannabis and social consumption, with a guest who has dedicated much of her recent professional and personal life to this important conversation that has proven to vex, and confuse, and baffle. Even when it shouldn't be vexing and confusing, or baffling regulators.

And let's talk about this for a second, because here we are in the first half of 2019. We're recording this particular episode of Cannabis & Main in a recording studio in Denver, Colorado, a few blocks from the state capitol. Yes, this is the home of the world's first regulated adult use cannabis economy, which found its beginnings in 2013, 2014. And yet, the public consumption of marijuana, or social use as some people refer to it, is still generally illegal throughout the entire state.

So think about that. More than five years after Colorado's first recreational sales ring up at POS systems across the state, and it's still generally illegal to consume cannabis in almost every location throughout this beautiful, if complicated, place outside of a private home with the homeowner's permission.

And Colorado is far from the only government to still be grappling with this issue of public consumption or social use. Meanwhile, only a few other cities throughout the legal world are legitimately attempting to solve this glaring gap in the legalization model. Because while it's now many of our rights and privileges to grow, and possess, and consume cannabis, regulators, and lawmakers, and rule makers still haven't quite figured out that last part of the equation.

[clip] Derek Seagle, executive director of Ohio's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program: Is it good to have things out there that impair people even further than the things that we have put out in society such as alcohol? Yeah really, what is its impact on our society and our youth and their development?

Ricardo: Cannabis and social consumption. Let's talk about it right here on Cannabis & Main. Cindy Sovine is an entrepreneur and cannabis lobbyist in Colorado currently working on state, local, and federal policy. Cindy, why has social consumption been such a difficult aspect of legalization to figure out?

Cindy Sovine: That is definitely a multilayered question. I think that the bottom line is that you have to follow the money. And when legalization came forward, it was an issue that was not addressed. It's actually one that I'm now advocating be addressed as states tackle legalization. Don't wait 10 years to put consumption laws in. We have people smoking in the streets, and you're arresting tourists and consumers for various convictions. These are things that you need to address head-on.

I think that that's what we've learned through our experience. Because here we are 2019, and we are still in various parts of the state arresting people for consuming cannabis illegally. We are still ticketing them in this city. We are still fining people, and it is because there is no place for them to go except for their home. That is the only place in the constitution that they're allowed to do it.

Ricardo: Right.

Cindy: Yeah, and a large percentage of the people in this state, I've seen statistics upwards of 40%, rent. So they are not living in a home that they own. They are signing rental agreements that require that they comply with the Clean Indoor Air Act. They are not necessarily allowed to consume on balconies in apartments or things like that. So it is an illusion of access to many especially that are living in the city.

Ricardo: Well tell me this, because I've said this before and I know it's perhaps controversial. And I know I've probably made a few of my regulator friends grumpy, but I personally find it embarrassing that we haven't figured this out yet. What's your take?

Cindy: Yeah, I completely agree. I completely agree. We have collected $1 billion in sales tax revenue on the legal sale of this product, and yet we will not recognize that people are going to then consume it. We really should just take a step back and say, "Hmm, is that really working for us?"

Ricardo: Are you saying that people are actually combusting this flower and vaporizing those oils?

Cindy: I don't know. What do you think happens to it after they buy it?

Ricardo: I don't think they put it in a trophy case for it to just sit there.

Cindy: They must have a really large trophy case.

Ricardo: Oh my god. I know. So tell me why. Why is this an issue? Let's talk about Colorado first.

Cindy: Yeah.

Ricardo: Amendment 64 passes in 2012. Here we are in 2019, still no solution. I know a lot of the regulators came out and said Amendment 64 did not address consumption.

Cindy: Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely. And there were from the beginning, recommendations that consumption be addressed. Because how is it that you can get a legal product and put it in the marketplace, and then make it illegal for it to be consumed anywhere?

Ricardo: Right. Right.

Cindy: That's still the same thing that we are having today, and we call that progress. It is not progress. We absolutely have to adjust this missing component.

Ricardo: So are we seeing other states, or provinces, or even countries learning from this omission that somehow got left out of this creation process? Are we seeing progress elsewhere?

Cindy: Absolutely. And it's being market driven. We have to stop looking at this as something that we've missed and looking at it as an economic opportunity at the moment. It is cannabis hospitality, and it is set to flourish. And it really is just looking for an anchor point. And Colorado still has the opportunity to be that anchor point. Alaska has just passed legislation. Vegas is in the middle of moving forward on legislation. California's got legislation. All have local initiatives that are being implemented and actually have places that are licensed and operating.

We do have one. Rita, you are amazing. This is a year in coming up on your renewal now. And Denver, you better give it to her. There's so much going on, but there's so many other places that are jumping out ahead of us. And they've got a lot of great economic models, and a lot of cool stuff that's happening.

And by the way, they are monitoring intoxication and creating safe places for their consumers to go while they go there. So when we're starting to think about tourism and we were starting to think about drawing in people and also serving our consumers here at home and our patients here at home. We're definitely missing a lot of opportunity here in this state right now, and we need to figure that out.

Ricardo: We're definitely going to talk about California. Definitely Nevada and Ontario as well. But before we do, I want to break down Initiative 300, because that's kind of unique as well.

Cindy: Correct.

Ricardo: Initiative 300 for those who don't know, this passed in Denver County in 2016. Residents here including myself, approved an initiative that would allow a neighborhood group approved social cannabis license or permit to different organizations. Whether it's a yoga studio or a coffee shop. The state liquor authority came out immediately after it passed, if I remember correctly and said, "By the way, if you have a liquor license, you cannot allow any cannabis consumption of any kind," which cut out all the restaurants and the bars with liquor licenses, including the movie theaters with those liquor licenses.

So it somewhat tightened the potential market for this. But I know that you also are pursuing a license in this space. So can you tell us where is Initiative 300 succeeding and where is it failing?

Cindy: Absolutely. Yeah. So Initiative 300, right off the beginning, they had a bunch of additional regulations that were tacked on that were outside of what the voters had approved. For example, the voters put a number of safeguards in when they voted for I-300 because you had to locate a property that was at least 1,000 feet away from schools. Within that property, then you had to have a landlord that you know was okay with obviously having social consumption being a part of the use of that space. And then on top of that, you had to have a neighborhood organization, registered neighborhood organization with the city and county of Denver, approve or write a letter of non-opposition allowing you to be able to move forward of that application application.

So right off the bat, the initiative already had a number of safeguards built in. Denver came in and they added a bunch of other stuff. They created additional setback regulations that are beyond what exists for dispensaries today. While they added childcare centers, mental health treatment centers and those on that laundry list, they also added city-owned recreation centers and city-owned swimming pools to the list.

Ricardo: Yikes. And so what's your role in this conversation? Because are you still going for that permit that I read about in the newspapers last year?

Cindy: Right? It was about a year ago. Yeah. No, I was denied. My application was denied. I was the second applicant and to apply for an I-300 permit. I turned in everything. I actually got the support of every single registered neighborhood organization in my area, in Capitol Hill. I have to this day a lot of support for the model. I ended up getting denied my application for being 986 feet away from a childcare center.

Ricardo: And the setback is 1,000 feet?

Cindy: Correct. Correct. And for reference, that childcare center, you'll know exactly where it is because it's right next to Stoney's Bar and Grill here on Lincoln Street, right next door to their patio where folks are drinking and smoking all day long. So it's really interesting dynamic that I got pulled into this from the beginning as a sort of veteran pharmaceutical healthcare lobbyist turned cannabis lobbyist. To be like, "Really Denver?" So I bit, and I've been working on changing it for everyone ever since.

Ricardo: So Initiative 300 passes in November of 2016. Here we are, mid '19. How many permits exist in the city and county of Denver today?

Cindy: One.

Ricardo: One.

Cindy: There are two that actually have been licensed. Vape and Play is currently not active. The only one that is active is The Coffee Joint.

Ricardo: And so that is a coffee shop that's right next door to a dispensary right off the highway in an industrial neighborhood. Not far from where I live. But one permit in more than two years. That tells me that a program is not working.

Cindy: Correct. Correct. And that's the reality. Where we are at today, we have in the last year gone through a task force that brought all the neighborhood groups back in that were a part of the original conversation. A number of city council members, a number of business owners, and a few of the initiative authors. And they sat for six months and deliberated on a series of recommendations that boiled down to three things.

That was to get rid of the pilot status of the program because that was scaring off investors when they didn't think they'd be able to recoup their money inside of three years. We've already done that. We had 11 out of 12 city council members vote in favor of making social consumption permanent here in this city.

The second recommendation that the councils made were twofold. They said either a letter of non-opposition from the setback or support from the setback should allow the applicant to move forward. Or get rid of all of the additional setbacks that were not part of the original initiative.

I tended to support the latter because I think that while that would work for me, one of my clients that I represented for 15 years was the Early Childhood Education Association of Colorado. I have great relationships with childcare centers. That's not necessarily the best way to do public policy, and it does not allow for vibrant industry to exist. And that is what we need. This is really going to be an all ships rise with the tide kind of thing, and it's going to happen organically or not at all.

So it requires us to work together. So I supported the 1,000 foot restrictions and that was not palatable to council at all to remove everything else. So they came forward with what they called the compromise measure, which is to reduce everything but schools from 1,000 feet to 500 feet.

Ricardo: Okay.

Cindy: Now that does not create a panacea or a floodgate type of situation where we're now going to have a huge marketplace. But what it will do is it will let the dozens of operators that have been trying to get into the space for the last couple of years, the ability to do that because there will actually be more locations and options that would exist for that to be able to take place.

Ricardo: Well, it just saddens me. Because I remember back to that election, of course, 2016. We not only had Trump versus Hillary, we had nine state ballot initiatives throughout the US for recreational and medical, eight of which passed. And the first social permit for cannabis consumption in the history of the modern world. And it passed here in Denver. And then it didn't go anywhere.

Cindy: Yeah.

Ricardo: So this model isn't working, but I know you're also working as recently as yesterday in the State Capitol on the issue of ... I know you're also working as recently as yesterday in the State Capitol on the issue of public consumption. So what conversation is happening at the state level in Colorado right now?

Cindy: Well yeah, this is crazy because I really just wanted to open a healing center and spa where patients like my dad who are facing a diagnosis could go to learn about cannabis. I never imagined I would be in the middle of this huge political fight. Though given my background, I guess it seems like I do understand it.

So Denver, because Denver doesn't want to take responsibility for this. And particularly [the Department of] Excise and Licensing, does not want to take responsibility for the fact that they are saying that there's no licenses by saying that it's because there's no viable business models that exist. That is their go-to one liner, and that there's not statewide legislation that gives them open and public authority.

Well, there are two reasons why neither of those arguments are true. The first is we literally have over almost three dozen business operators that have reached out to licensing, that have signed onto letters saying, "We want to operate in this space. We want to operate in Denver. We want to have compliance at the forefront and be monitoring intoxication, and making this safe, and making it work. And these are our models." That's not something they're interested in hearing about. They are simply just checking boxes, and there is nobody that can get past the real estate agent at this point.

So they're not having applications because people can't find properties. And they're not going to go and invest in licensing and spending money towards compliance and putting things together, when they can't find a property to open their business. So we have lots of people talking about them wanting to do it, but they haven't applied because there's no pathway for success for them right now.

Ricardo: Hey, it's Ricardo Baca. You're listening to Cannabis & Main, a Civilized podcast.

Derek Riedle: Hi this is Derek Riedle, and I'm the publisher of Civilized. Thanks for joining us for this episode of Cannabis & Main. And of course a big thanks to our sponsors, Fluent Cannabis Care. They're based in sunny Florida, and they currently operate 10 locations. They have more on the way, but they're already serving thousands of customers every month. And they just announced a new addition to their product line, premium, whole flower, and pre rolls. Loose flower is finally legal in the state of Florida. A huge step for cannabis consumers. And since hitting the shelves, Fluent Flower has been getting rave reviews. Remember it's not just in Florida as well. They have dispensaries in Puerto Rico, in Pennsylvania. They deliver in Texas, and they're soon to be open in Michigan and in Canada. Learn more about Fluent Cannabis care at getfluent.com. Fluent. We speak cannabis.

Ricardo: And now, we continue with Cannabis & Main. I'm your host Ricardo Baca. Let's get back to the conversation. It's fascinating because in so many ways, Denver is still ground zero for a lot of these conversations, especially as they relate to local regulations. You look at poor California right now just struggling, living for the first time ever in a regulated cannabis marketplace, and really struggling trying to figure it out. But at the same time, they've already figured certain aspects of this out that we haven't even begun to approach. And let's talk about California because I think it really is an important part of this conversation. What are your thoughts about the various models that exist throughout California, whether it's the lounges in San Francisco or the restaurants in WeHo, West Hollywood?

Cindy: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. They've got both up and down. I hear there are projects going on in Napa because it's all being done at the local level right now, but there's no real estate license. But there's a much broader level of recognition that this is an issue that they need to continue to work through and deal with because they don't want people consuming in the streets and in parks and around children. So they're recognizing in these cities that they need to move forward, and they're learning what they can from Denver in terms of how to make these work and how to make them functional.

Ricardo: So why is there a broader recognition of that in California? When I'm there, I get the impression that it's just so damn normalized there because of this longstanding wild west medical market. It just becomes so normal and entrenched, that therefore their regulators seem much more compassionate toward the industry than our regulators seem toward industry here in Colorado. But what's your thoughts?

Cindy: Well, you called it already. Colorado is ground zero. And there are a huge number of dollars being invested into keeping Colorado from holding back from expansion of any kind, whether it's social consumption, delivery, even adding autism and opioids to the list of conditions we've experienced. The same players over, and over, and over again trying to pick apart any kind of expansion.

So social consumption is very much still a part of that. When you start to peel back the layers, for a long time I blamed alcohol. Well now alcohol is starting to see the writing on the wall and they're figuring out how to get involved. They're figuring out how to start to embrace it. Whether it's through hemp-based CBD, or whether it's through non-alcoholic varieties where they're infusing cannabis and selling those products in dispensary.

So they're starting to see that they're not going to be able to get rid of it, and that they have to figure out how to blend. Where that's not happening is the pharmaceutical industry, and in the hospital industry. And right now, that is where all of our opposition is coming from.

Ricardo: Interesting. And the opposition used to be also coming from alcohol as you mentioned. And I'll always remember, I was talking with my editor as well as our city hall reporter right back in 2016. And we were just thinking about how we should cover the impending I-300 vote in Denver. We'd already been reporting on them, the evolution of the bill, what people were saying inside city council, what residents were saying. But I remember the editor was like, "Well what did bars and restaurants think about this?" And I was like, "That's a great question. I'll take off and ask them." And I reported for an entire day. I was just out in LoDo, and calling friends, and cold calling owners. And found that 99% of these owners and entrepreneurs were very much against I-300. Wanted no form of legal cannabis consumption, certainly at their venues. One of my friends who I've known for years who owns a number of restaurants and bars in town told me, "Hey, why would we do that? Why would we want that? Because we're not making money off the cannabis sale, and we're inevitably losing money off the sale of our intoxicant that we control." Alcohol. I was like, "Yeah, but maybe you're making more money off the food." And they're like, "No, no, no. We make money on alcohol. And that's why we would never support such an initiative."

Cindy: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. That's absolutely correct. And I do think that there's still in Denver proper, a lot of alcohol money that is flowing through the elections right now that's coming in 2019. I think that this is absolutely still an issue that's going, it's just becoming less and less of one. I think nationwide. In Denver, I still think we're seeing that on the ground, but I think we see it lessening with the alcohol industry being more divided now because some of them are in the business. So that's kind of where that's coming from.

But it was no coincidence that we've had nationwide coverage of emergency room visits going up in Colorado for marijuana use the same week that both delivery and social consumption were hurt in committee after being introduced for the first time. And that study was done in a hospital that is owned by Philip Anschutz. That is entirely a huge issue that we have to start talking about it as a community. Because hospitals don't make money off of people who are at home managing their condition with a plan. And now we have a study that makes this huge public health crisis out of a 0.001% emergency admission room rate going up to a almost 0.5% emergency room admission rate.

None of that context was put in that story. They don't talk about the increased level of opioid deaths, or suicides, or much harder drugs than what they're seeing there. They're spending nationwide resources covering a half percent increase in one hospital in the state of Colorado who is owned by Philip Anschutz.

If you want to talk to California, he's the owner of that big music group and they just banned marijuana outside of that festival. His line in the media was, "Well, you can go 500 feet out and then the cops will deal with you." He is just anti, and I'm seeing that influence everywhere.

Ricardo: Oh man. But it's fascinating how California has so quickly jumped into the regulated marketplace and the legal marketplace, and taken the lead on this issue. West Hollywood, are you paying attention to what's happening? They're going to be cooking with cannabis in restaurant kitchens and serving it off a licensed premises, right?

Cindy: Absolutely, absolutely.

Ricardo: So exciting.

Cindy: Yeah. I think that they're ultimately going to need to get statewide legislation to be able to make that work longterm, to have some level of protection. Because I think if they get too far down the road without that umbrella, then they risk being closed down, down the road, later if there's not an overall umbrella guidance for them. But the ones that are taking off or pioneering it and they're allowing flower to be consumed indoors, through joints, with lighters. Combustible. They're allowing infused food, they're doing infused beverages. There's all kinds of innovative things that are happening all over it. And that's why I said I heard too up in Napa in wine country, they're starting to figure that out as well.

Ricardo: Oh man. And it's funny because we say innovative, and really it's kind of just going back to basics. And granted, flower consumption indoors is complicated with all of the clean indoor air acts that have been passed state by state, which I fully support not being a smoker. I'm like, "Thank you for taking cigarette smoke out of the restaurant," even out of the rock club. But now of course, cannabis is coming into the mix and there's a direct conflict there.

I want to talk about the lounges in San Francisco though. Because I was at Barbary Coast a few months ago, and I was so thrilled at the possibility, especially because of what we have here in Colorado, which is nothing. And of course I walk through the dispensary and into the lounge. And it's beautiful. High back leather booths, opaque windows so the public can't see in heaven forbid. And it just feels like a bar where people are not consuming alcohol. Laptops are out, couples are canoodling. People are having work meetings. This is not groundbreaking. This is so normal. What's the problem Cindy? Why can't we understand this here and in so many other markets?

Cindy: Yeah, yeah. They're just absolutely terrified. They don't know what they're doing. They don't understand. And that's why we have to continue to bring the conversation back to, this is about harm reduction. This is about giving people a place to consume where they can be monitored for intoxication.

We know from our experience, I've heard this line over and over again and it's so true. You get five drunk guys together, they start a fight. You put five stoned guys together, they start a band. All right? We're dealing with a different type of group with people who are consuming marijuana and what that looks like.

So we have to be able to get our policymakers to understand this is happening already. Denver is not not consuming socially together. They're just doing it underground.

Ricardo: The one I hear regularly from a lot of these people in the public who might oppose this as well is that, "Okay, we give you a cannabis consumption lounge. How are you getting home from that lounge safely?" Do you hear that much? Of course, completely ignoring the fact that there's thousands of bars out there and people somehow figure it out. And there's a thing called Lyft, but regardless. What's the value of that counterpoint?

Cindy: It is exactly the reason why we need to have these places, because then you have people who are assessing the user, whether they're a new user, whether they're a daily user, whether they're somewhere in between. And then monitoring their consumption and ensuring their level of intoxication. Are they still functional when they're coming and asking for more? Are they able to talk, speak? It's the same training that you take when you learn how to monitor for intoxication. Intoxication is intoxication. So when you are looking for that, you have to look for a few different things with cannabis because the onset can be a little bit later, but then you also have to recognize that if they're taking an edible or if they're consuming flower, what different parameters are. There are ways to do this. We do it today, like you pointed out, with alcohol. Which is why it makes sense to open this up to exist in hospitality industries because they been doing this for years already. Right. It's not going to be a challenge for them to apply.

And then yes, if they're too intoxicated, well we can keep them out of those emergency rooms by giving them the quiet space they need and some of the remedies that are available to bring them back off of Saturn if they've just consumed too much THC and they want to get back on earth. There are a number of products out there in the marketplace that have that. And we have spaces for that to be able to occur instead of somebody that is a tourist or a new user, or even forbid a patient facing a diagnosis that takes a really high THC edible, and goes to outer space and just freaks out about it. You would have somebody to be able to guide them through how to use that mindfully. This is exactly why we need these places, because we want to be able to ensure people are using them safely. Not in somebody's giant private warehouse where they're also doing shots and consuming cannabis for the first time, and then getting in their car and going home. And that's just pretending like none of this is happening.

Ricardo: That is cannabis and social consumption. Cindy Sovine, thank you so much for joining us today.

Cindy: Thank you very much. I really appreciate it.

Ricardo: This is Ricardo Baca with Cannabis & Main, and we will see you next week.

Thank you for listening to Cannabis & Main. Please rate, review, and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and your app of choice. For transcripts, show notes, and more of the cannabis lifestyle coverage you crave, go to civilized.life.

The voice heard at the beginning of the podcast was Derek [Seagle 00:29:44], executive director of Ohio's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program. This episode was edited and produced by Jeremiah Tiddle of Native Creative Podcasts. Executive producers are Derek Riedle and Katie Labrie. Your host is Ricardo Baca.

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