DENVER -- A police raid at an Amsterdam-style cannabis lounge in Denver has triggered a debate over where adults can smoke pot in a state that allows recreational marijuana consumption -- but not in public.
Denver police showed up last week at Maryjane’s Social Club, one of dozens of private pot-smoking clubs in Colorado operating in a legal gray area. The officers handcuffed smokers, seized drug paraphernalia and ticketed the club’s owner for violating state law banning indoor cigarette smoking. Three people were cited for smoking in public.
Colorado law prohibits recreational pot consumption "openly and publicly or in a manner that endangers others." And state lawmakers say that smoke-free laws also appear to ban indoor pot smoke-outs.
But marijuana advocates argue the increasingly popular private pot dens are permissible because marijuana isn’t sold, nor is food or drink. Like Maryjane’s, the clubs are only for members, who bring their own weed.
The officers entered Maryjane’s on Friday to investigate "illegal activity" -- public marijuana consumption -- when they issued the citations, department spokesman Sonny Jackson said.
He said police are not targeting other private pot clubs but that all pot-related businesses, including private lounges, are under new scrutiny since recreational sales began in Colorado in January.
"This is new for us," said Ashley Kilroy, Denver’s executive director of marijuana policy, noting that police routinely look for pot clubs that are publicly advertising or who impose cover charges as a sham and then give away weed. "We’re going to be as proactive as we can and educate businesses as we go along."
Kandice Moss, who was inside Maryjane’s at the time, said she recognized the plainclothes detectives because they had been inside the club before, posing as new members.
One of them told her the club was a public place before they started issuing citations.
"I asked, ‘Where is it safe?"’ Moss said. "He said, ‘You’re legal to possess it and smoke it at home, and that’s it."
But Denver attorney Rob Corry, who represents one of those cited, said the club is private. It doesn’t advertise specific events, and it requires memberships to get in, even if to smoke there for just one night.
Corry argued the raid was hypocritical. He noted that the city of Denver has allowed the Colorado Symphony Orchestra to hold a series of bring-your-own-cannabis fundraising concerts -- labeled private events -- after the symphony agreed to hold the shows by invitation only at private galleries.
After days of wrangling, city officials concerned about public consumption withdrew their objections to three symphony events called Classically Cannabis, which have marijuana companies as sponsors and are expected to raise $200,000 for the symphony.
"This is an identical situation," Corry said. "It’s not even close to being a gray area."
The symphony took corrective action after the city warned them about public consumption and Maryjane’s did not, Kilroy said. Corry said he was unaware of any formal warnings the club had received.
The attorney represents Andrew Overall, who received a $135 citation for public consumption at Maryjane’s.
Officers said they saw Overall, 25, smoking hash oil from a water pipe, which they seized as evidence, according to his citation. The document also notes that his club membership was issued in June.
Overall said he started buying nightly memberships at the club for $10, and then bought a monthly pass.
"It’s a place where people who are like-minded can get together and enjoy cannabis," said Overall, who was supposed to work as a DJ the night of the crackdown. "I feel safe there."
Overall said he plans to fight the ticket in court.
Maryjane’s has closed after the arrests. Its patrons hope it would reopen, perhaps as a hookah lounge.
Owners of other private pot dens around the state are keeping an eye on the Denver case.
"The number of clubs is going to increase, and the number of enforcement actions is going to decrease," Corry predicted
David Fanelli, who owns Club Ned near Boulder with his wife, Cheryl, said the club-cafe has not had any problems since it opened in March after more than a year of planning for proper ventilation and consulting with police, an attorney and zoning officials.
Still, the town of Nederland has only allowed his club to operate for a six-month trial period. Officials will then decide whether to extend its license.
"We are just a test," Fanelli said.