Aspen council says pandemic gives it no time for marijuana lounge talks
City leaders spent about 45 minutes Tuesday discussing the legalities and procedural nuances of legalizing cannabis lounges and tasting rooms in downtown Aspen, saying that’s about all the time they want to consume on the topic until 2021 at the earliest.
“I don’t think we need to change our code, change the makeup of our commercial core, and change our image as a community as this has the potential to do during a COVID national pandemic,” Aspen City Councilwoman Rachel Richards said during a virtual work session.
The five Aspen officeholders said their plates are plenty full with the pandemic. Starting what likely would generate substantial public discussion about pot lounges would be at odds with their pressing concern of public health.
“I quit entertaining this post-COVID-19, and I really don’t want to spend more time on it,” Councilman Ward Hauenstein said. “I think the timing is very bad.”
Adding to the bad optics would be the pandemic’s backdrop where bars still can’t be open in Aspen and Colorado, and social-distancing and mask-wearing are highly encouraged and the law of the land in some places, elected officials said. And Tuesday, Gov. Jared Polis delivered an order prohibiting the sale of alcohol in restaurants after 10 p.m.
Aspen currently has nine marijuana dispensaries, yet consuming ganja in public is illegal whether within city limits or on federal lands. Multiple parties have contacted the city about legalizing marijuana lounges, Ron LeBlanc, city special projects manager, told council.
The Colorado Legislature passed a law in 2019 exempt from the Colorado Clean Indoors Act allowing people to use cannabis inside licensed establishments receiving local approval.
The legislation, which took effect Jan. 1, allows local governments to “opt in” by creating ordinances permitting pot use in licensed venues.
One type of license, for “marijuana hospitality establishments,” permits on-site consumption of pot but not the sale of it.
The second type of license, “retail marijuana hospitality and sales,” would allow dispensaries to have tasting rooms for their products.
Alcohol and tobacco consumption would be prohibited at either licensed establishments, which like bars would be open to individuals 21 and older.
Denver passed its own laws prior to state legislation getting passed last year, and Summit County is taking a hard look at opting in with its own ordinance.
Yet Aspen isn’t ready to go there just yet, council members agreed. In addition to holding two hearings for such an ordinance, the city also would need to revise its complex land-use code to include marijuana lounges and hospitality businesses.
“Right now, for us to be looking at this is counter to public health,” Mayor Torre said. “We will come back to it for sure in the future.”
Torre said city leaders also should have a better understanding of how downtown’s nine dispensaries have affected commercial rental rates and their impact on other business.
Likewise, Councilwoman Ann Mullins said there isn’t enough political will for such an effort now.
“I think we can put this conversation off until there are three council members that are enthusiastically pursuing this hospitality business,” she said. “I’d rather just table this.”
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