Last week, news broke that the brains behind Colorado's world-changing 2012 marijuana legalization campaign are now pursuing a bold new ballot measure in Denver, with the working title "The Limited Social Marijuana Consumption Initiative." That may sound like kind of a drag at first, but it's actually lawyer talk for, "Let's allow people to get high together and socialize in restaurants and bars, just like they do with booze."
After all, it's been almost three years since Colorado voters approved The Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act by a wide margin, and nearly 18 months since the state's first recreational weed stores opened for business as a result. Yet private homes and a small number of 4/20-friendly hotel rooms remain the only places you can legally consume cannabis in the Mile High City—and not for a lack of trying. In the week leading up to April 20 this year, Denver police shut down two separate unlicensed "marijuana social clubs," and last year, the proprietor of Edible Events, which has worked directly with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra on a series of cannabis-friendly performances, plead guilty to an alcohol charge related to a bring-your-own-pot party.
"It's really irrational to allow adults to consume this product but prohibit them from using it in private places that would allow it," cannabis activist Mason Tvert, mastermind of Colorado's 2102 legalization campaign and co-director of this new initiative, recently told The Denver Post. "[So] we're proposing a narrow exemption to Denver's current ban on social cannabis use that would simply allow adults 21 and older to consume marijuana in designated areas and in venues where only adults are allowed."
Meanwhile, the hospitality industry in Colorado's more weed-friendly (and wholly tourism-dependent) mountain towns has already begun catering to visitors hungry for a legal cannabis adventure. During last February's X-Games, Phillip Wolf—proprietor of Cultivating Spirits tour company—pulled off a 50-head high-end weed, wine, and fine dining event that skirted the rules against public consumption by remaining invitation-only, despite taking place at a historic venue in downtown Aspen.
The five-course affair started with "two fat cannabis nuggets" as an amuse-bouche, according to the local paper's gushing account, and got progressively stonier from there, without ever surrendering the high ground of class and sophistication. Course number three, for example, paired Grandaddy Purps—an indica variety redolent of ripe berry—with a roast duck dish sauced in a blackberry red wine reduction and a glass of 2013 malbec.
The dinner was "groundbreaking," according to the evening's impresario, who started Cultivating Spirits just two years ago. In addition to gala ganja dinners, the outfit also offers a wide range of tours and classes covering everything from cultivation to connoisseurship. (Check out the latest episode of MUNCHIES' cannabis/cuisine series Bong Appetit to watch Wolf lead a red-eyed tour of Silverthorne, Colorado, including stops at a marijuana-growing facility and a recreational pot store, followed by a smoke-filled limo ride to a cooking class and cannabis "pairing dinner" with head chef Jessica Catalano, who was part of the culinary team behind the X-Games dinner.)
Catalano, who is the author of The Ganja Kitchen Revolution cookbook, specializes in pairing specific strains of cannabis with food and wine, and is also a master cultivator who starts every class with her expert advice for growing top-grade marijuana and making and consuming marijuana-infused edibles at home. You can tour the crop, sample the produce, learn to cook with the herb, and pair it with food—basically all the same farm-to-glass "wine country" experiences that've been drawing oenophiles to Napa and Sonoma since the 1970s, albeit with a twist.
According to Catalano, early adopters like Cultivating Spirits are actually blazing a trail the rest of the food and hospitality industry will soon follow. And why wouldn't they? Obviously not everybody's going to go green if and when the law allows on-site consumption, but those that do will be richly rewarded—and in time, when the sky doesn't fall, most of the rest will follow. At that point, they too will learn the magic formula that you get more customers (and those customers order a lot more food per capita) when you let everybody get stoned.
Meanwhile, ask any waitstaff or bartender on Earth whether they'd rather serve a table of drunks or a table that's one toke over the line. Or better yet, ask for their worst "horror story" about each scenario, and then be prepared for one terrible saga involving the police and stitches (at best), followed by something along the lines of, "This guy just kept changing his order, and then laughing, and then changing his order, back and forth, for like a full minute, and then I'd go on to someone else, and he'd ask to change it again. He did that a couple of times, and then when I brought him a plate of pasta primavera, he had to ask what he'd ordered."
Right now, the legal marijuana market in Colorado is an acutely vertically integrated supply chain with a correspondingly high financial barrier to entry. Imagine if wine could only be bought in an artificially small number of speciality shops that largely grew their own grapes, and bottled their own vintages, and alcohol could only be consumed in a private home or (in some jurisdictions) at a small private event.
And then just think of all the jobs and opportunities that will open up if this new voter initiative passes in Denver, and any bar, restaurant or event space in town can create a 21-and-over section that's out of sight—and presumably smell—of minors, and start allowing marijuana vaporizing (indoors) or smoking (outdoors). Suddenly, the new big "green rush" in the weed biz isn't in building massive cultivation facilities, processing "dabs," or dropping millions of dollars to open a licensed pot store; it's in retrofitting existing restaurants and bars so they can properly court this new on-site consumption market while still maintaining their core business.
Imagine offering guests the option of reserving a private back room as a 4/20-friendly space, or devoting your entire outdoor patio to a 21-and-over jazz brunch every Sunday with real "jazz cigarettes." Think that might pull in a few new customers?
But before you start ringing the cash register, Catalano suggests those in the food and entertainment world who want to add marijuana to the mix start by taking a deep breath (of some fine herb), followed by a lot of serious research into cannabis in all aspects. From there, it's mostly a matter of treating your new clientele (and their preferred intoxicant) with the same level of respect you extend to any other customer. Start by making sure the smoking or vaping area you provide offers the same level of comfort and hospitality as the rest of your establishment. Also, staff should be fully trained on responsible cannabis consumption, including the effects of edibles and concentrates and how to help someone who has overindulged.
"Under the new initiative, patrons won't be able to buy cannabis edibles or cannabis buds from the establishment itself, but would be allowed to bring in their own products to safely consume in one of these designated areas," Catalano concludes. "My guess is that a lot of chefs, restauranteurs, and bar owners have actually been waiting a long time for this moment, and already have some big ideas of how to make this work!"
If such plans involve hiring a marijuana sommelier, The Weed Eater is open to hearing offers.
WATCH: Bong Appetit - Colorado Ganja Tour