DENVER – Two months after undercover Denver police officers led a raid on marijuana party buses, the case is heading toward a trial.
The tour buses, which are still operating, allow paying customers to use cannabis while they ride between dispensaries and other destinations. After running for years with little trouble, buses from two companies were targeted in a June 15 operation that resulted in criminal charges for dozens of customers and employees.
“They were facing criminal charges that based on the professions they had that would have really destroyed some of these people’s lives,” said Danny Schaefer, CEO of My 420 Tours, one of the affected companies.
More than $100,000 in legal bills later, he said, the 27 customers caught up in the raid have settled their cases for public consumption by instead accepting low-level civil tickets. But the fight isn’t over: Four employees of the tour bus companies have agreed to go to trial on for various criminal charges, Schaefer said.
“We’ve been working diligently to come to kind of an amicable resolution with the city,” he said. “Unfortunately, they’re taking a hardline stance on just our segment of the space, straight across the board.”
Meanwhile, My 420 Tours is still running its operation in Denver. The other targeted company, Colorado Cannabis Tours, declined to comment on its current routes.
And to make things even more complicated, a new recommendation from a city task force says that the buses should be legalized. That will be up for discussion by the Denver City Council in the coming months.
The crackdown highlighted what some see as a gap in the state’s recreational marijuana laws. There are few legal spaces to consume marijuana, aside from private homes. Tourists make up most of the market for the buses, and most of the tickets went to out-of-staters.
The companies have paid their customers’ legal and travel bills, including for a group of eight that had to travel back to Denver for a court date, Schaefer said. Several weeks ago, 26 of the tourists pleaded guilty to a lesser civil infraction of smoking in public, he said.
The companies themselves face no legal action and haven’t received a cease-and-desist order or similar notice, Schaefer said. The employees face charges of “unlawful acts” and violating the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act, and a driver was charged with DUI.
“They were just doing their jobs, as they have for five years,” Schaefer said. City officials warned the bus operators earlier in the year that they could be violating the law, but the operators said that city officials didn’t respond to further questions.
There hasn’t been any further police action involving the buses, according to Eric Escudero, spokesperson for the city’s department of excise and licenses.
“If they’re operating unlawfully in this or any other industry, they could be subject to enforcement action,” he said.
In November 2016, Denver voters approved Initiative 300, which was supposed to allow marijuana use in certain business spaces. So far, only a single business has opened under the new rules. Cannabis entrepreneurs say that the city’s rules are overly restrictive, forcing businesses into out-of-the way strip malls and industrial neighborhoods, though Escudero points out there are thousands of potential locations.
Earlier this year, the city pulled together a task force to review the rule. The committee’s report suggested that Denver license and regulate bus tours, among other suggestions. Councilwoman Kendra Black, who chairs the group, said Colorado’s laws on the subject are confusing and limiting.
“There’s no definition of ‘public,’” Black said. And the state’s laws forbid public consumption. “The city decided that buses are public, but the bus companies are saying, No, they’re private.”
It’s been a topic of debate at the state level for years, but legislators haven’t clarified the question. Black added: “I think that whatever happens with these cases in Denver will help inform that and push it along.”