The Colorado Symphony's novel effort to hold a bring-your-own-marijuana concert may illegally promote public consumption of pot and will be ordered shut down if the fundraiser goes on, Denver officials told the symphony Thursday.
The pot concert controversy is the latest debate to arise since Colorado became the first state to allow recreational sales of marijuana.
The symphony announced plans last week to hold three fundraising concerts where patrons could smoke marijuana on an enclosed patio at a private art gallery — an event designed to raise funds and attract younger patrons at time of declining support. The marijuana industry came forward with sponsorship money and 65 people bought $75 tickets on the first day of sales.
But in a letter sent Thursday to symphony President Jerome Kern, the city said "Classically Cannabis: The High Note Series" could violate city and state law.
"If you go forward, we will exercise any and all options available to the city of Denver to halt the event and hold the business owners, event organizers responsible for any violations of law," wrote Stacie Loucks, director of the department of excise and licenses. She warned that attendees would also be held accountable for eating or smoking pot in public.
The symphony said that it was consulting with its legal team to review the issues raised and expressed confidence that the matter could be quickly resolved.
"When the Colorado Symphony accepted support from the legal cannabis industry — as a means of supporting our financial operations and connecting with a culturally diverse audience — we believed we did so in full compliance with the law," the nonprofit symphony said in a statement.
At issue are several statutes and ordinances, the city said.
The state constitutional amendment that legalized marijuana also banned its open and public use. Last month, Denver police arrested 92 people for public consumption in and around a festival celebrating marijuana. Organizers of the event, held at a public downtown park, admonished the thousands of attendees not to light up.
Though the symphony planned to hold its events in a private gallery, the city attorney's office advised that the venue may be considered a public place under state law. Places such as museums and theaters are usually considered public places for the purpose of discrimination laws in Colorado.
Although legalization was heralded by advocates as regulating marijuana in the same way as alcohol, the city's ordinance governing retail sales of marijuana bans businesses outside of the pot industry from benefiting from the consumption of marijuana. In other words, selling alcohol to patrons at events is OK, but not so with marijuana.
The letter also noted that the concert site, the Space Gallery, could face prosecution for allowing unlawful smoking.
The symphony was put on notice too. Its contract with the city to use Boettcher Concert Hall requires compliance with all laws, including federal law. Because marijuana remains illegal under U.S. law, promoting it at an event could be a breach of contract, the letter said.
The letter came in response to two special permit applications that faced public hearing ahead of the first event, scheduled for May 23.
"The advertisements promoting public consumption of marijuana will be examined at this hearing," the letter said. "With the foregoing in mind, we advise that you cancel the effort."
The series is a collaboration between the symphony and event planner Jane West, who has sought to eliminate the image of marijuana as a drug used only by lazy teenagers. West said pot helped deliver better awareness of the tastes of food and the sounds of music. She was not immediately available for comment Thursday.