DENVER — As Colorado this month became the first place in the world to legalize marijuana sales to anyone over 21 for any reason, state tourism officials imposed an unofficial moratorium on marketing pot tourism while they monitor the potential pluses and minuses of the landmark event, which made international headlines.
From wealthy skiers upset at subjecting their teenagers to seemingly nonstop talk about marijuana, to pot smokers eager to travel to the state to be part of history, tourism officials are treading tricky waters surrounding all of the new attention.
At least for now, education seems to be the main focus for hotels and ski resorts.
No, people will not be walking down the streets or riding ski lifts openly smoking joints. Smoking bans in hotel rooms apply to marijuana just as they do to tobacco, though cannabis can also be purchased and consumed in edible forms.
It is also illegal to take pot out of state or through Denver International Airport.
Still, as people take pictures of their friends smoking pot on this city’s downtown pedestrian mall and others openly divvy up their marijuana purchases into zip-close bags on the downtown shuttle, questions remain about whether the new law will be good, bad or neutral for Colorado tourism.
“I think it is really too soon to tell,” said Al White, director of the Colorado Tourism Office. “I think there will be some parents who will pick other destinations because they are concerned about the pot availability and the environment they are afraid their kids will be subject to. On the other hand, I am sure there will be others who make Colorado their destination because they can ski and be able to buy a joint legally.”
Indeed, in a recent letter published by the Vail Daily, a woman identified as Christine Arakelian of New York wrote that she would likely opt for Utah over Colorado for future ski vacations after she and her son “were exposed to numerous conversations on buses, gondola rides and restaurants related to recreational drug use.”
She wrote: “People were obviously put off by my asking them to stop, and I was furious to even be put in this situation. … I really recommend you get this situation under control as quickly as possible because word will get out to families very quickly. … You can’t be a destination resort for high-earners and a pot-town at the same time — you have to choose.”
But Vail Resorts, hotel managers and the trade association representing Colorado ski resorts say they have not had a lot of inquiries or pushback about the new laws, and they emphasized that marijuana is illegal on the slopes because they are on federal forest land.
“Vail Resorts has a zero-tolerance policy toward skiing or riding under the influence and does not permit the consumption of marijuana in or on any of its lifts, facilities or premises under its control,” said Jen Brown, the spokeswoman for Vail’s Beaver Creek.
“We are communicating with our guests and the community verbally, through signage, on our website and through social media,” Brown wrote in an email. “Employees have been provided with cards to hand out to guests and to assist in explaining that marijuana use is, in fact, still illegal on our resorts.”
She added: “In addition, there is no smoking of any kind — tobacco, marijuana or electronic cigarettes — permitted in any of our owned-and-operated facilities, including restaurants, lodges and hotels, and we will continue to enforce that policy.”
Hotels are following suit.
“We believe that the best way to handle this new law is to be educated,” said Kristen Pryor, director of sales and marketing at the Westin Riverfront Beaver Creek. “So we prepared talking points for our staff to share with guests so that everyone is well-informed. Like everyone in Colorado tourism, we are interested to see how this legalization will evolve and impact our industry.”
Jennifer Rudolph, the spokeswoman for Colorado Ski Country USA, said the trade association was not concerned about losing business, “primarily because our resorts have so much to offer families going on ski vacations that greatly outweigh use of recreational marijuana, which cannot legally be smoked at a ski resort.”
Rich Grant, the spokesman for Visit Denver, said tourism groups had agreed to an unofficial one-year moratorium on marijuana-related marketing.
“I think the whole state is united in that,” he said. “Nobody has embraced this as part of the tourism industry at this point.”
Still, a few companies have begun offering pot tourism. Colorado Green Tours, for example, offers limousine and SUV rides to dispensaries and private growing operations.
Another company, Colorado Highlife, offers more budget-friendly bus rides to pot retail stores. And My 420 Tours is offering package trips to Denver.
White and Grant, however, downplay the viability of any real pot tourism industry.
Travelers who came from out of state on New Year’s for the first day of legal retail sales are people who “came to say I was one of the first in line” on a historic day, White said. “I think that’s kind of the novelty aspect of it. If somebody has been smoking pot for 20 years, they have been getting it wherever they live. But the novelty of coming across the country to get it … you are not going to do that more than once.”
Plus, he noted, pot in Colorado is not exactly a bargain. Taxes are 25% on ounces generally priced from $150 to $300.
“They can probably get it cheaper at home,” White said.
Grant noted that Amsterdam, which has allowed pot to be smoked in designated coffee shops for decades, has never marketed pot tourism.
Marijuana has been readily available in Colorado for medicinal purposes for several years. After lawmakers passed a law regulating the medical marijuana industry in 2010, more than 1,000 dispensaries opened, and doctor’s offices began offering licenses for anyone willing to pay $100 for a medical marijuana card to medicate everything from menstrual cramps to back pain. That number has since dropped by about 40%, and only a fraction of those currently offer retail sales.
Cities can ban retail sales, and many, including Colorado Springs, have done so.
The only ski towns that currently have retail stores are Telluride and Breckenridge, although towns near or on their way to resorts along I-70, such as Frisco and Idaho Springs, also have retail outlets. Retail outlets can also be found in the gambling center of Central City and Blackhawk, and pot businesses are planning to open retail outlets in Aspen, Steamboat and towns near Vail and Beaver Creek.
Denver is the main center for dispensaries. But despite all the publicity surrounding the New Year’s Day opening of retail sales, Grant said the influx of out-of-towners was “just a blip.”
The city, he noted, has 44,000 hotel rooms and has seen its tourism industry growing steadily over the years, thanks to continued downtown redevelopment, a number of new hotels, a popular arts scene and a growing craft brewery industry.
White and Grant said that for now, the state and cities are focused on education and enforcing the laws.
Like the ski slopes, Denver’s 16th Street pedestrian mall has signs reminding people that it is illegal to consume pot in public. The Denver Post reported recently that police were arresting about one person a day for violating that rule.
While locals can buy up to an ounce, people with out-of-state licenses can’t buy more than a quarter ounce, and it is illegal to take the drug out of state.
It is also illegal to carry pot in Denver’s airport. But the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is not about to change its focus from weapons and explosives in order to catch violators.
“We are not changing enforcement efforts,” said airport spokeswoman Stacey Stegman. “It’s business as usual. If TSA discovers marijuana, they will refer [the case] to law enforcement to determine how to handle. We did have one instance last week, and the person opted to leave the [airport].”
As for the Denver police, they are “not seizing marijuana,” she said, “but rather individuals will be encouraged to voluntarily throw it away, put it in a vehicle or leave the facility. They will not be allowed to go through security with marijuana, and [cannabis] remains illegal under federal law.”
Photo of Denver skyline courtesy of Shutterstock.com.