Marijuana might be legal in Colorado, but the industry still has battles to fight.
Adams County elected officials denied High Times' event permit application in February over concerns about excessive public consumption of marijuana and security issues at the event. In March, the magazine applied for a special event permit in Pueblo County, 100 miles south of Denver, but hit regulatory and timing issues. Last week, High Times withdrew its application in Pueblo and announced the move to California.
Larry Linietsky, the recently-appointed chief operating officer of High Times, says the event permit application process revealed that the industry still has work to do.
"I think Colorado has the reputation as the most progressive area for cannabis legalization, but that is not true. Legalization is not uniformly seen as positive by many individuals across the state," Linietsky says. "Every time we apply to hold our event, it is an opportunity for people in the community to weigh in on how they feel about legalization of cannabis and not everybody feels it's a good idea."
Linietsky, who held executive management roles at Clear Channel and Napster, says High Times had always been able to obtain a permit in Colorado in years past. But this year, elected officials and law enforcement stood up against the event.
The opposition is not totally unwarranted. The U.S. Cannabis Cup on 4/20 has grown in size each year since its first year in Denver in 2011. Last year, 35,000 people attended the Cup everyday for five days, up from an expected 15,000. The event was peaceful, but plumes of smoke rose from the Denver Mart, the venue that hosted the Cup. Colorado state law explicitly prohibits smoking in public.
Todd Reeves, the commander of Denver's North Metro Drug Task Force, told Adams County commissioners to deny the event permit because the Cup broke the law.
"The state laws were allowed to be violated hundreds of times in this facility last year," Reeves said during a public meeting regarding High Times' application in Denver.
The Cannabis Cup, which started in Amsterdam in 1987 and migrated to the states as laws became more hospitable, has had its fair share of legal troubles. The main event of the Cup is a contest where judges award companies for the best flower, concentrates, edibles and other marijuana products. The Cup is a massive celebration of marijuana where vendors give away thousands of joints and attendees sample hundreds of grams of weed. The event was tolerated for years as it served as an outlet to protest federal law, but now as Colorado's legal marketplace enters its third year, state laws like the ban on public consumption are being enforced.
It is ironic that High Times has acted as a catalyst of legalization, crusading against federal law for 40 years, only to be denied a permit to hold its annual pot-smoker's ball in a state in which weed is legal. But with legalization comes regulations. The Cup has always been a counter-culture event, but now that Colorado's legal sales surpassed $1 billion in 2015, the event has garnered more attention and scrutiny.
The companies that participate also have a lot to lose. Last year, Colorado's Marijuana Enforcement Division issued a statement a few days before the Cup stating that any Colorado business caught selling or distributing marijuana would lose its license. Colorado-based companies did not give out samples like past years, but out-of-state vendors did. Pete Williams, cofounder of Denver-based producer and retailer Medicine Man, decided not to have a booth last year because of MED's announcement. In years past, Medicine Man gave away 4,000 joints and hundreds of grams of flower over the five-day event.
"We have too much to lose," Williams says.
As the industry has emerged from the black market and into the legitimate economy, businesses need to follow every law on the books in order to stay compliant under state law. Kirk Taylor, Sheriff of Pueblo County, told local newspapers that he was opposed to the Cup and that there was to be absolutely no consumption.
Kyle Sherman, co-founder of payment system and plant and product management software company Flowhub, says the industry is trying to prove to the rest of the country that legalization can work. Many local businesses felt the Cup could be a liability, he says.
"We're trying to prove that we can track cannabis from seed-to-sale, prevent product from entering the black market and bring legalization nation-wide," Sherman says. "High Times has driven legalization and brought the industry to where it is today, but we're entering a new era where there is business and money in the industry and we need to legitimize it to the next level."
Sherman says cannabis is still not as socially accepted as alcohol and until smoking lounges are legalized the industry has to be careful.
"We are in this weird purgatory stage where we are trying to figure out our future. We still have a lot of people to convince that this is a good idea," Sherman says. "You have licensed companies that could lose their license if they give away samples, you have vendors who are putting everything on the line for tourists who will be here for a few days."
Until laws change, the Cup is stuck in a place where state law prohibits the very thing the event is known for.
Linietsky says the difficulty in obtaining a permit shows that the industry still has a lot of work to do to achieve nation-wide legalization.
"I think we are in the second-inning for the fight for cannabis legalization," he says. "Everybody needs to realize that the fight is still going to go on for many years. The acceptability for a beer and wine event is so much more than a cannabis event, not for any good reason."