Colorado Springs City Council's springtime vote to ban cannabis clubs by 2024 and require licensing in the meantime didn't go down so well.
Those devoted to recreational cannabis and the city officials dead-set against it are in a standoff, with many clubs resisting the city's new rules.
Right off the bat, most club owners vowed not to bother applying for the city's new, temporary Marijuana Consumption Club (MCC) license. To comply with the terms of the license, after all, would entail nixing a key component of their current business model — reimbursement, which lets patrons of the private social clubs pay a membership fee or sign over their six constitutionally protected plants to the club in exchange for cannabis to be consumed on-site. Without the ability to offer that service, club owners say they couldn't survive financially or reasonably guarantee that black market transactions don't take place instead.
But of all reasons to reject the license — and what clubs find most offensive — is the provision that MCCs must shut down in eight years. So rather than sign up for their own death sentence, nine clubs teamed up to sue the city, arguing that the prohibition on consumption clubs violates their rights under Amendment 64 as citizens, aged 21 and up, to use, possess and share cannabis in private. They also argue the ban violates multiple provisions of the U.S. Constitution and Colorado Constitution that protect everything from freedom of speech to religious freedom to the right to due process. The case bounced up to federal court, then back down to district court where proceedings are ongoing.
Separately, at the beginning of this month the city filed for a temporary restraining order against clubs that didn't apply for licenses, arguing they were operating in violation of the city's decision to opt out of the recreational sale of marijuana. A district court judge granted that motion, ruling that, until further notice, those clubs can't allow consumption, sales or transfer of cannabis on their premises.
Now, the clubs find themselves embroiled in yet another legal conundrum at the municipal level. Over the past week, seven club owners received "cease and desist" letters from the city alleging the unlawful operation of unlicensed MCCs. (According to city spokesperson Kim Melchor, of the five businesses that applied for licenses, one was approved, two were denied and two are still in review.)
But that won't deter club advocates like Jason Warf of the Southern Colorado Cannabis Council who arranged a press conference at Studio A64 to denounce the city's enforcement action.
"The clubs provide an invaluable service to the community through offering a safe, private place for cannabis consumption," he said.
Warf explained that the appeal the clubs' attorney filed seeks to protect the clubs in a manner that will make them harder to regulate in the future.
He added that a bill set to drop in the state legislature in January could provide the city a better policy framework than the all-out ban.
Warf believes a 2013 zoning appeal won by Studio A64, the first club to open its doors in the Springs, protects the clubs' current operations.
"KC (Stark, the club's founder) was clear about the service they provided," he told the press in response to a question about whether the city's determination in that case means the reimbursement model is a lawful land use.
That argument, Warf acknowledged, will be tested in municipal court during the appeal process.
Despite all the uncertainty, it's business as usual at the cannabis clubs around town.
Casper Arsenault, 41, a regular patron at Studio A64 downtown, is unperturbed by the club's legal situation. "I've been to jail twice for weed in Wisconsin, so no, this doesn't bother me one bit," he told the Indy.
Studio A64 owner Ambur Racek was unavailable for comment, but her employee J.T. Jaquess was slinging coffee and dabs with poise on Monday. "I came here to be a part of history and that's what we'll keep doing," he said.
City Clerk Sarah Johnson, whose office administers the license in question, was unable to comment on this story due to the ongoing appeal process and pending litigation. But city communications specialist Kim Melchor made clear that "pending litigation does not impact enforcement of the ordinances regarding marijuana consumption clubs."