Colorado Warms to Pot Clubs, Despite Federal Uncertainty

Denver (AP) -- At risk of raising the ire of the White House, Colorado is on the brink of becoming the first state with licensed pot clubs. But the details of how these clubs will operate are as hazy as the underground clubs operating already.

Denver officials are working on regulations to open a one-year pilot of bring-your-own marijuana clubs, while state lawmakers are expected to consider measures to allow either marijuana "tasting rooms" run by marijuana dispensaries, or smoke-friendly clubs akin to cigar bars.

Alaska regulators, spooked by how the Trump administration might view marijuana, recently decided not to move forward with rules for use of marijuana at authorized stores, though the issue there isn't dead.

California and Maine voters expressly signed off on public marijuana consumption, but haven't settled on rules. That means Colorado may be first out of the gate with statewide pot-club regulations, possibly by this summer.

Colorado officials from both parties have come around to the idea of Amsterdam-style pot clubs for a simple reason: Everyone is tired of seeing pot smokers on public sidewalks.

"It's a problem we've got to address," said state Sen. Chris Holbert, a suburban Denver Republican who opposed marijuana legalization but doesn't like seeing its use on the sidewalk, either.

Pointing jokingly to his suit and tie, the gray-haired Holbert said he's even had panhandlers ask him for marijuana near the state Capitol.

"I mean, look at me. If I'm getting hassled, everyone's getting hassled," Holbert told reporters.

Democrats here agree that tourists need an out-of-sight place to use marijuana.

"No voter in Colorado voted to allow the use of marijuana on their sidewalk, in their parks, in their public view," said state Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver. "But that's essentially what we've done by not allowing private club space for marijuana uses."

So both parties seem to agree that Colorado needs to allow for places that let patrons smoke weed. But that's where agreement breaks down.

A Republican-sponsored measure to allow marijuana clubs to be regulated like cigar bars was put on hold for a re-write. That's because sponsors are trying to address concerns that pot clubs shouldn't allow medical marijuana use, along with other legal wrinkles.

"Telling people to socially use their medicine? That's like we're legalizing pill parties," said Rachel O'Bryan, who opposes marijuana clubs and ran an unsuccessful campaign to defeat a Denver social-use measure last fall.

There's also intense disagreement over whether establishing pot clubs would invite a federal crackdown.

Some say the clubs would be too much for federal authorities to ignore; others insist the Justice Department would view clubs as a way to keep pot away from children, a priority according to previous Justice Department directions.

"Jeff Sessions is the big question mark right now," Democratic state Rep. Jonathan Singer said, referring to the newly minted, anti-marijuana U.S. attorney general. "I think we need to send a message to him that Colorado's doing it right."

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who opposed pot legalization but is undecided on signing a bill to allow clubs, said he's not sure how the administration would respond to clubs.

"I don't know whether we'd be inviting federal intervention, but certainly that's one argument I've heard used persuasively," Hickenlooper said Thursday.

The governor did indicate he'd veto a bill that allowed indoor smoking, not just smoking on enclosed private patios. The Denver clubs would have to abide by clean-air laws banning burned marijuana inside; the statewide proposal would allow indoor smoking with "proper ventilation."

"We spent a long time letting everyone know that smoking is bad for you," Hickenlooper said. "Just cause that smoke makes you happy, and dumb, doesn't mean it's good for you."

The marijuana industry seems frustrated by Colorado's halting attempts to figure out how to allow pot clubs. Because current marijuana law is vague, Colorado currently has a patchwork of underground clubs, many of them raided when they try to file permits or pay taxes.

"The situation right now is a disaster," said Chris Jetter, a licensed marijuana grower who owned a west Denver pot club that was raided twice. Jetter said authorities took more than six pounds of marijuana, along with tens of thousands in cash, then charged him with illegally distributing pot.

(Jetter eventually pleaded guilty to public consumption of marijuana, and was fined $100. He disputes he was doing anything illegal and says he pleaded guilty to end the matter. He has since closed his club.)

"Two or more people can get together and consume alcohol almost anywhere, and there's no problem with that," Jetter said. "But we're not treating marijuana like alcohol. What's going to happen with the feds? If they start kicking in doors, I don't know. But we need to figure something out."

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Kristen Wyatt can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/APkristenwyatt

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