If and when adult use cannabis delivery goes live next year in Denver, the epicenter of the state’s cannabis industry, will it be with an equitable approach?
That was the topic of debate front and center as Denver held its first Marijuana Licensing Work Group meeting last week, virtually, bringing together regulators, city council members, and representatives from Governor Jared Polis’ office, the city attorney’s office, the Mayor’s Office of Social Equity and Innovation, and Denver Public Schools.
The group was formed to “make recommendations regarding marijuana licensing,” according to the original announcement. Specifically, the group will discuss licensing as it relates to two bills signed into law last May by Governor Jared Polis. One bill allows for cannabis delivery and the other for hospitality licenses, both only in jurisdictions that “opt in.” The group will discuss whether and how Denver should participate, with a focus on how “to promote and encourage full participation in the marijuana industry by people from communities that have been disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition.”
This first meeting was focused on delivery. Last year, lawmakers passed House Bill 1912 34, which allowed the state to begin issuing permits for medical cannabis delivery on January 2, 2020, and adult use cannabis in January 2021. Only licensed retail shops or licensed transporters may apply for a delivery permit, and, since jurisdictions can decide whether to allow or ban cannabis delivery, one of the first questions of the day was: should Denver allow cannabis delivery?
After they review and discuss cannabis delivery policies, the work group will create a proposal for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and the City Council for approval.
Michelle Garcia, who is with Hancock’s Office of Social Equity and Innovation, kicked off the discussion by emphasizing that Hancock has “prioritized equity in his final term. It’s the guiding star of the third term. And we want to use an equity lens in really all the policies we bring forth.”
While Colorado was the first state in the US to launch adult use sales, in 2014, hindsight has shown that the states first to legalize could have gone further on equity provisions. So, going forward, Denver has put equity front and center on cannabis-related issues.
This push has been in the making for some time. In October, regulators, lawmakers, public health officials, law enforcement, and industry members from across the globe descended upon Denver for the annual Marijuana Management Symposium. Cannabis Wire had a Q&A with Ashley Kilroy, director of Denver’s Department of Excise and Licenses, who has been the top cannabis regulator there since those very first sales in 2014. Kilroy told Cannabis Wire that equity was the major theme of last year’s symposium.
When sales went live in Colorado, Kilroy said, the state had implemented rules that “put in more barriers to entrance,” like a ban on people joining the industry if they had “certain criminal convictions.”
“The stricter rules and regulations became, the more costly it became to be in a regulated industry. So that’s how we got started. And I think everybody acknowledges that’s how we got here. And it was inadvertent, but it did put in real barriers to people to get into the market,” Kilroy said. “So the question about: what are we going to do about it?”
At the workgroup meeting on delivery, Garcia added that, when it comes to equity and shifting policies, it’s important to “pause to really take a very close look at how different groups would be impacted by different policies. And that means looking by neighborhood, by looking by demographics, looking by age, looking by any different identity characteristics.”
Jessica Scardina, with Vicente Sederberg, a cannabis law firm, said that she supports Denver opting into cannabis delivery in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s especially important to consider how delivery can assist medical patients and their access to important products,” she said, adding that Hancock and Polis have declared cannabis businesses “essential.”
“So, I think the question now is: how do we ensure that patients and consumers can safely access these products? I think delivery gives us an avenue to do that.”
Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca asked if the group has explored delivery models in other jurisdictions, and whether it would be possible to have the delivery permits “not tied to a particular dispensary,” and instead “also be available primarily to people who have been excluded from this sector to begin with.”
“I am concerned about opening up that option without first teasing out what went wrong with our licensing to begin with,” CdeBaca said, of delivery. “I wonder if there is a possibility for us to take an approach like Oakland did when they legalized marijuana, and they made all of their first licenses available to people of color who initially were criminalized by the war on drugs. I think that that would make a lot of sense here.”
Jacqueline Flug, general counsel for Drizly, a national alcohol delivery platform, pointed out Massachusetts as an example, highlighting that equity applicants, or “people who can meet their standards to show that they were impacted negatively by the war on drugs,” are the only ones eligible for transport licenses for the first two years. Flug is also the former general counsel to the New York State Liquor Authority. Drizly has recently launched Lantern, a platform for cannabis delivery.
“The thought behind this is that these are the businesses that are more readily capitalized and easier to get started and more accessible for people in social equity groups,” Flug said.
Councilman Chris Hinds pointed out Denver has just over 10,000 medical cannabis patients, a “very small subset” of the population that consumes cannabis in the city, as most are in the adult use market.
As such, many of these patients are people who have severe pain, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or are on the autism spectrum, for example.
So when it comes to medical cannabis delivery, Hinds said, “We owe it to these folks who are already under a lot of stress and pain. We’re under a pandemic and a lockdown, and allowing deliveries sooner would help the people who are already medically cleared by a medical professional to need cannabis for their treatment.”
Sarah Woodson, of the Color of Cannabis, agreed that the city should move forward with medical cannabis delivery. Adult use, though, requires some more thought, she said.
“In conjunction with talking about patient access, we also need to focus on when delivery is viable for social equity, which will be in 2021. How does that look?” Woodson said. She added that she’s had conversations with members of the cannabis industry on this topic, and “not all industry people will be doing delivery in-house. So if they’re planning on hiring a transporter, you definitely want to make some concessions for social equity transporters.”
Sarah Belstock, the Behavioral Health Planner at Denver Public Health, raised the question of whether increased access might also translate to increased cannabis use.
“I think we just have a lot of question marks there still. So I am wondering, moving towards particularly allowing recreational delivery is kind of opening the door for that. I do wonder what surveillance mechanisms we put into place to make sure that we are not having the unintended consequences and over burdening any one group in our community,” Belstock said.
Michel Holien, the substance prevention supervisor for Denver Public Schools, said that while “some really valid points have been raised about medicinal” cannabis delivery, she has concerns about the possibility of adult use delivery.
“I know right now we’re looking at no-contact delivery in the state of this pandemic, and kind of this new normal. And I’ve read things online about people having alcohol deliveries that literally just show up on their door that you don’t have to sign for. You don’t have to show an ID. So I do have some concerns about access, and who’s going to be receiving these deliveries,” Holien said.
Ean Seeb, who owned one of Denver’s first cannabis shops, Denver Relief, and, later, Denver Relief Consulting, and who is now Governor Jared Polis’ adviser on cannabis, responded to Holien’s comments by pointing out the strict delivery and hospitality guidelines for alcohol and cannabis.
“I understand and recognize that there is a clear difference between delivering alcohol and delivering cannabis,” Seeb said. “The state will be taking a very firm stance on overall compliance, just as they do within regulated businesses. And I want to be clear that compliance within regulated marijuana businesses is far, far higher than it is for alcohol. It’s above ninety nine percent. And we expect that to continue with these typed of additional opportunities to increase access on both the medical and retail side.”
Flug, of Drizly and Lantern, clarified that what Holien was likely referring to was, for example, a delivery from a winery, where a package coming from a UPS or FedEx might not come with that identification requirement. And, Flug said, there aren’t any legal cannabis sales coming through those delivery channels.
“We’re not simply inventing delivery. Marijuana delivery is happening right now in every jurisdiction. And the jurisdictions that are serious about bringing people from the illegal market into the legal regulated market are opting for delivery. That’s the only way,” Flug said.
Three additional Marijuana Licensing Work Group meetings are scheduled for May 28, June 11, and June 25.