The Battle in Colorado Over the Right to Smoke Weed at Movie Screenings and Comic-Cons

Denver has made life miserable for anyone trying to host a show or party that is advertised as allowing pot smoke. But the demand for cannabis clubs and weed-friendly venues is putting the massive grey areas of Colorado's marijuana laws to the test.

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Dec 10 2014, 9:20pm

Photo via Flickr user Cannabis Destiny

"We found out this week that weed is still kinda illegal here," Seth Rogen tells me, while pouring a straight-from-the-bottle shot of tequila into my mouth. Rogen is feeding booze to a small crowd of fans—who stand before him like baby birds waiting for their mama's puked-up worm entrails—in the balcony of a Denver theater, essentially apologizing that he didn't come through on his promise to get high with the crowd during an advance screening of his new film, The Interview, which is opening this Christmas.

Back in November, Rogen tweeted, "We are going to do a screening of #TheInterviewMovie in Colorado where I get baked with everyone first, and we can smoke weed in the theater." Originally, this event was to be hosted by the Sie Film Center, but they refused to allow marijuana to be smoked in their theater. A new theater—the ​Oriential—was found at the last minute.

The venue had played host to many comedy shows this year during which marijuana has been copiously consumed, but once word got out about where Rogen was poised to hold his cinematic smoke-fest, Denver's Department of Excise and Licenses told the owners that their liquor license was going to be in jeopardy if they allowed cannabis to be consumed at the show. Extra security was hired to police the event, and anyone who so much as hit a vape pen was tossed out. Two sources confirmed that several plainclothes police officers were roaming the theater. Smartphones were confiscated from all who attended, and only given back once their owners left the place.

Public consumption of marijuana has actually been one of the  signature issues facing Colorado this year. State law ​prohibits marijuana from being displayed or ingested in any "public" setting—but the meaning of that word has been debated endlessly. This has proved to be a minor disaster for the tourism industry that has taken off in the wake of legalization, as well as the number of "pot-friendly" comedy, music, food, and art events that keep popping up.

Police and officials in Denver have made life miserable for anyone trying to host a show or party that is advertised as allowing pot smoke. But this is an industry that was birthed by civil disobedience, and the demand for cannabis clubs and weed-friendly venues is putting the massive gray areas of Colorado's marijuana laws to the test.

According to Colorado Public Radio, Denver police have handed out 6​68 citations for public consumption of marijuana in the first three quarters of this year, a 471 percent increase from 2013. "A lot of [the citations] are complaint-driven," says Christine Downs, a spokesperson for the Denver Police Department. "People call in and say, 'Someone's smoking outside' and we'll go issue a citation, if needed."

Colorado Springs has found a temporary solution to this issue in the form of cannabis clubs like Speakeasy Vape Lounge. Since they serve no booze, the Vape Lounge doesn't have a liquor license the city can threaten to revoke, and the venue is technically considered "private," since anyone inside its doors must pay for a daily or yearly membership. But whether these types of clubs are actually legal remains unclear, and pot-party entrepreneurs are spending a lot of money and undergoing a lot of stress as they try to stay on the right side of the law.

"A lot like gun laws, [public smoking laws] only affect those who are trying to obey the rules," Jamen Johnson, owner of Speakeasy Vape Lounge, tells me. "The people who bother to go through the red tape are the ones they harass... With alcohol you have production, distribution, and consumption licenses. With cannabis we have two of those, production and distribution licenses, but we don't have consumption licenses. If you make a license to apply for, I'll apply for it. Give me a fee, and I'll pay it. "

Last month, Johnson was hoping to steer clear of the cops while hosting Chr​omic Con, a marijuana-friendly comic book convention in Denver. Outside the venue was a sign proclaiming that this is "a private event," and anyone inside ostensibly purchased a ticket through a website that required a password. (In fact, the password was advertised on the event Facebook page, which was open to the public.)

Responding to the legality of Speakeasy Vape Lounge, Colorado Springs City's Planning and Development Director, Peter Wysocki, tells me that the City Council has "directed staff to draft an ordinance addressing cannabis consumption clubs. We are currently working with City Attorney's Office on the ordinance. Cannabis consumption clubs are currently considered as 'private membership clubs' and are permitted in any zoning district that allows 'private membership clubs.'"

Event organizers are deploying a variety of tactics to make their events "private," and the law's lack of clarity on the issue allow some to evade prosecution. This comes with a constant of police arriving unexpectedly to shut down your party and potentially arrest you. But law-breaking on a mass scale was essentially what brought on marijuana legalization in the first place, and creating a legal space for cannabis consumption outside the home will most likely only be achieved by similar illegal activity.

"There's an argument to be made that systems only change when forces from the outside challenge them directly through civil disobedience, instead of working from the inside," says James Walsh, a University of Colorado Denver history professor who specializes in social movements and civil disobedience in the US. "We've seen that with marijuana, in the 420 rallies with mass amounts of people engaging in civil disobedience, and police never know how to react to that other than not reacting. I don't think we'd be seeing so many other states following in Colorado's path if it weren't for civil disobedience."

Colorado has enjoyed a smoother ride when it comes to legalization than Washington state, and has set a constantly-cited precedent for states like Alaska and Oregon in their efforts to legalize. But blazing that trail hasn't been pain-free, and Denver City Attorney Marley Bordovsky is presented a new case involving some "private" marijuana event that the city deemed public on a daily basis.

"If you want to have friends over and smoke marijuana in your own home, that's fine," says Bordovsky, who is the point person at the Denver City Attorney's office for all marijuana issues. "But if any stranger could come to your house and you're charging five dollars to get in, and are letting in just anyone, then you're verging on a [public] event."

Bordovsky says that when these pot-friendly event cases go to court in Colorado, many prosecutors are pointing to the 1989 Supreme Court ruling in U​S v. Lansdowne Swim Club for clarification of what constitutes a private event space. In that case, a Pennsylvania swim club was facing prosecution for discriminating against potential black members in violation of the Civil Rights Act—but the defense argued that they were not subject to the 1964 law since they were not a public establishment.

The case ran into the same problem that Colorado courts have encountered in that the Civil Rights Act did not provide a clear definition of what constitutes a private club, and there had been very few court rulings in the past that lawyers on either side could reference. In the end, the justices ruled that the swim club was a public space, not a private one, and had been hiding behind things like membership fees in order to discriminate against black patrons.

Perhaps ironically, discrimination is actually an essential component in determining the legal definition of a private club. Deciding who comes to your house for dinner (friends, family, colleagues, etc.) is different from deciding who comes to your concert (anyone who can pay the cover charge and doesn't start a fight). This does help narrow things down a bit, but these parameters are still not fundamental enough to stop many in Denver from widening their "social circle" to include any stranger with money.

"People are attending cannabis-friendly events all over the state every weekend," says Jane West, founder of Edible Events, a company that hosts pot-friendly gourmet dinners around the state. "It's important to me that I'm in a safe zone legally, but unfortunately there is no such safe zone." Following legalization, West put on a number of highly successful parties in private art galleries, going so far as to get an officer from Excise and Licenses to walk through the space—and she says he gave her enthusiastic approval to go ahead. Believing she was in compliance with state law, she planned a small brunch event on April 20.

As the event was winding down, West says that "eight SWAT team members and three undercover police officers descended upon our little corner bakery. There were more of them than there were people at the event. I was given a ticket for distributing alcohol without a permit." West adds that if she had applied for a temporary alcohol permit, her event would be considered "public" according to the law.

Many 4/20 events were getting similar treatment on that day. Alcohol was tied to most of these citations, whether it was not having a permit or being threatened with the revocation of a liquor license for allowing marijuana to be consumed. In the last year, West has been in court six times and has incurred thousands of dollars in court costs, lawyer fees, and losses from events that have been shut down. She pleaded guilty with a deferred judgement for the 4/20 brunch, which means if she gets in trouble again she could potentially face a prison sentence.

Hardcore marijuana activists enjoy citing Henry David Thoreau's wisdom on civil disobedience: "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison." But West is a mother with two young children and considers herself more of a businesswoman than an activist.

She continues to host her Edible Events parties, albeit with absolutely no public promotion and a limited guest list that includes only people she knows personally. There is no cover charge, the event is financed entirely through sponsorship, and cannabis consumption only occurs within party busses parked outside the venue (since they fall under the same laws with marijuana that limos do with alcohol). " I still don't know if I'm completely safe," she says.

No one really does, apparently not even the Colorado government or police. That will only happen if policymakers are compelled by civil disobedience to provide some clarity.

In that sense, Seth Rogen's failed attempt at creating a public pot party was a step backward in this fight, even if it was a good time. The audience learned that Rogen smokes "five to seven" joints a day, and that he was so blitzed on a pot cookie at the time he had "no idea what's going on right now." The movie itself was funny as hell. But it would've been a lot better accompanied by a joint instead of several pints of beer. 

Follow Josiah M. Hesse on ​Twitter.

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