Two marijuana dispensary owners hoping to open another one in southwest Denver have sued the city for denying them a license for it, saying in part that neighborhood opposition was motivated “at least in part by racial discrimination.”
Gabriel Lindsay and Neelein Shead, who are black, filed a lawsuit Friday in connection with their effort to open a store at 3680 Morrison Road, in Denver’s Westwood neighborhood.
Westwood is a heavily Hispanic part of the city. Lindsay and Shead allege that officials with the city’s Department of Excise and Licenses gave more weight to anti-dispensary resident testimony because of that fact.
“If Westwood was a predominantly white neighborhood, Defendants would have afforded no weight to the testimony of white individuals of a neighborhood testifying that ‘this is a predominantly white neighborhood’ and ‘we don’t want outsiders in our neighborhood,’” the plaintiffs wrote.
An Excise and Licenses spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Lindsay and Shead are the owners of First Class 2 LLC, which is the plaintiff in the lawsuit. The pair already operate a Cookies dispensary in Commerce City and an Elite Cannabis store on the Denver-Aurora border. They also co-own Status Ultra Lounge, a hip-hop nightclub in downtown Denver.
The dispensary in Westwood was to be called Red Roots. The business applied for a retail marijuana store license in February.
In addition to race, city records show the months-long debate that followed touched on crime and the concentration of retail marijuana shops. Westwood residents voiced concerns about both being too high.
Opponents spoke up at a public hearing held in the spring. On April 27, shortly after it was held, the official who oversaw it recommended the license be denied. The final decision was up to Molly Duplechian, the department’s executive director, who acted on that recommendation on July 18.
Duplechian wrote in her decision — which didn’t use the words “black” or “Hispanic” a single time — that the applicant had “failed to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the reasonable requirements of the neighborhood are not already being met by the existing retail marijuana stores in or near the neighborhood and that the adult inhabitants of the neighborhood desire that the license issue.”
There were 137 signatures submitted in opposition to the dispensary license, and 127 in favor. Duplechian called those figures “notable,” while the plaintiffs in their lawsuit said the difference between the numbers was “not statistically significant” given the thousands of people that live nearby.
Five nearby business owners submitted affidavits in support of the license, generally voicing support of small business and the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. The property manager of the building where Red Roots would operate also spoke in favor.
On the other side, nine individuals testified or submitted affidavits against the license, generally talking about crime or other nearby marjuana stores. Councilwoman Jamie Torres, who represents Westwood, and a neighborhood organization also came out in opposition.
Duplechian largely rejected opponents’ arguments that the dispensary would negatively impact crime on the area. She called those arguments “speculative” and said that “many” businesses in Westwood “have contributed to making the neighborhood safer.” Shead had testified in April that Red Roots would have 25 cameras.
But Duplechian did see merit in concerns about the number of nearby dispensaries — 10 within two miles or a five-minute drive.
“Not a single witness testified that they have any issues obtaining retail marijuana from the marijuana stores near the neighborhood,” she wrote. “Affidavits submitted by the Applicant, at best, suggest that it could be helpful to have another store for the community.”
Lindsay and Shead say in their lawsuit that “distance is relative” and two miles should not be considered close “in a densely populated area such as Westwood.”
They say dispensary opponents were simply opposed to “marijuana in general” or “black ‘outsiders’ operating a business in their neighborhood.”
The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys Zachary Alan Crow and Jeremy S. Wysocki of Wysocki Law Group. They did not respond to requests for comment.