Free Minds & Free Markets

Colorado's Shadow Tourist Boom

Visitors can openly buy marijuana, but they still have to consume it on the sly.

Denver airportWikimedia CommonsFor cannabis consumers accustomed to the black market's meager selection and iffy quality, Colorado's state-licensed dispensaries are a revelation: dozens of strains, each with a distinctive bouquet, fresh enough that you can smell the difference. Denver-area budtenders, who say tourists account for most of their recreational business, are used to amazed reactions, reminiscent of the scene in Moscow on the Hudson where Robin Williams, playing a Soviet defector, encounters an American supermarket for the first time. But once a visitor settles on a gram of Budderface or a quarter-ounce of Cinderella 99, he has a problem: Where can he smoke it? It turns out there is no easy answer to that question.

Colorado's cannabis consumption conundrum illustrates a broader pattern in the state's approach to marijuana regulation. Amendment 64, the 2012 ballot initiative that legalized marijuana for recreational use, declared that "marijuana should be regulated in a manner similar to alcohol." But in several important respects, including rules for advertising, packaging, sales, and consumption, the state's treatment of marijuana is quite different from its treatment of alcohol. To some extent, this divergence reflects marijuana's continued federal illegality. But it also reflects the attitudes of government officials, many of whom view the newly legal industry as distasteful and embarrassing.

Since legalization, more people have been visiting Colorado than ever before. The travel site reported that flight searches for Denver surged around the time that recreational sales began in January. Denver International Airport saw record numbers of incoming passengers in January and in April, a month that included the first 4/20 holiday since pot stores opened. Although it's not clear how much marijuana has to do with Colorado's increased popularity as a tourist destination, dispensaries regularly see tourists who are drawn by the novelty of buying pot from friendly and knowledgeable salespeople in clean, well-lit stores instead of getting it on the sly from some dude whose apartment smells like old pizza and incense.

"We've had people book vacations who have never been to Colorado before, and the single reason is because of the freedom that we have here," says Kent McBride, a Denver-area limo driver. Others are "coming back specifically because they can buy cannabis. They say, 'I can't believe I can walk around with up to an ounce of pot and not have to worry about getting busted."

"At least once every two weeks there is a bus from Kansas of tourists who come in for the weekend," says Toni Fox, owner of Denver's 3D Cannabis Center, the first dispensary to start serving recreational customers. "It's amazing."

Alex Troester is a budtender at Mind Body Spirit, a dispensary right off Interstate 70 in Dumont, about 40 miles from Denver. He says tourists account for as much as three-quarters of his recreational customers, visiting from states such as Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Texas, and California. "People are coming to Colorado right now just because it's a cannabis-friendly spot," he says. "There isn't really another place where you can just walk in and pick out a bunch of different strains of weed and go home with a bag of it without the fear of prosecution and all that jazz."

Yet if you stop by a visitor center in Denver, you will not find any pamphlets about this exciting new attraction. If you search for "marijuana" on, "The Official Site of Colorado Tourism," you will be taken to a page that explains all the things you are not allowed to do with cannabis in Colorado. "It is illegal to consume marijuana in public," it says. "It is illegal to take marijuana out of state. Only licensed establishments may sell marijuana products. It is illegal to give or sell retail marijuana to minors. You must be 21 or older to have or use retail marijuana. It is illegal to drive high." Fun! The search results for "beer" are decidedly more inviting: a cheery article titled "Colorado Breweries: Defining the Craft," beneath which are links to "related trip ideas," including a "Colorado Tasting Tour."

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a former brewer who opposed Amendment 64, does not seem eager to promote the state's marijuana industry. "Colorado is known for many great things," he said in 2012. "Marijuana should not be one of them."

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who also opposed legalization, takes a similar view. "[For] those of us who may have not supported the amendment," he told WBUR, the Boston NPR station, in April, "it was really about how do we protect the image of our state and our cities-that we maintain the important industries such as tourism, and that people feel safe, and they don't feel like they're going to be inundated with marijuana, marijuana smell and things of that nature." Last year Hancock unsuccessfully championed an ordinance that would have made it illegal to consume marijuana on your own property if passers-by or neighbors can see or smell it. "Your activities should not pervade others' peace and ability to enjoy," he told The Denver Post. "Marijuana is one of those elements that can be quite pervasive and invasive."

Rules Written in 'Prohibitionville'

Public officials who do not welcome marijuana tourists have ways of making marijuana tourists feel unwelcome, most conspicuously when it comes to finding a place to legally enjoy the cannabis they are legally allowed to buy. Because Amendment 64 prohibits consumption of cannabis on the premises of the state-licensed stores that sell it, Colorado does not have anything like Amsterdam's famous "coffee shops," where you can buy and consume marijuana along with soft drinks and snacks.

The Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act, which has been amended to cover marijuana as well as tobacco, bans smoking inside bars and restaurants. Outdoor areas of those businesses are exempt from the smoking ban, but that does not necessarily mean tourists can enjoy their newly purchased pot there. The section of Amendment 64 that eliminated penalties for marijuana use does not apply to "consumption that is conducted openly and publicly," which remains a petty offense under state law. Last year Denver, the state's largest city and the center of marijuana retailing, passed an ordinance defining "openly and publicly" broadly enough to foil the plans of visitors who thought they could legally smoke pot on the patio of a bar or restaurant.

Denver's ordinance defines openly as "occurring or existing in a manner that is unconcealed, undisguised, or obvious." It defines publicly as "occurring or existing in a public place" or "occurring or existing in any outdoor location where the consumption of marijuana is clearly observable from a public place." Finally, Denver defines public place to include not just city sidewalks and parks but any business open to the public, such as a bar or restaurant.

Fine, you might say. Let's go back to the hotel. But that is also a problem, because hotels generally prohibit marijuana consumption, although whether they actually enforce that policy is another matter. "In my conversations with hotels, it's kind of vague," says Nick Brown, co-owner of Spiro Tours, which arranges marijuana-themed itineraries. "Cannabis is a 'don't ask, don't tell' type of thing."

Peter Johnson, founder and CEO of Colorado Green Tours, thinks it will be a while before big hotels officially welcome cannabis consumers. "They've got an odd interpretation of the law," he says. "They have smoking policies. They make you sign [a form] saying it's illegal to consume cannabis, when technically it's not. You have to keep in mind that they're not Colorado-only businesses. Their rules are being written over in Prohibitionville; that's where there's a big disconnect."

Some Colorado-based businesses do explicitly offer cannabis-friendly lodging, and renting apartments is another option. If you happen to have friends in Colorado (or make some during your trip), consuming marijuana in their homes is clearly legal. According to Brown and Johnson, so is consuming marijuana in a private, for-hire vehicle such as a limo, a van, or a bus (as long as you're not the driver). Relying on that exception, tour companies let customers sample their dispensary purchases en route to the next destination. They even offer free samples to enjoy during the ride, since Amendment 64 allows people to share up to an ounce "without remuneration."

Dude, Where's the Orchestra?

Denver's definition of "openly and publicly" seems to leave room for lighting up in limos, which are not open to the public. But what else might the city allow? This is territory that Jane West has been exploring since last year, when she founded Edible Events, a Denver business that plans cannabis-friendly gatherings.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Don't you see? Allowing Colorado to do this, the feds are employing a flypaper strategy. They're just getting all the marijuana terrorists in one place and then POW. Mission accomplished.

  • sarcasmic||

    I read somewhere that Boulder county has outlawed gold prospecting.

  • Every Cop is a Criminal||

    For cannabis consumers accustomed to the black market's meager selection and iffy quality

    citation needed

  • RockBottom||

    I've got to say, I found myself in the same situation described here. The first time I walked into one of these shops, I spent 20 minutes just looking around. The attendant asked me what I was looking for, and all I could think to say was, "I have no idea, I'm used to buying whatever the guy I'm talking to has on him."

  • Riven||

    "getting it on the sly from some dude whose apartment smells like old pizza and incense."

    I had no idea my guy was so well-known.

  • Buckyball magnets||

    The buckyballs (magic magnetic ball) is indeed an cool magnetic building intellectual toy. Compared to the other types of Intelligence toys, Bucky balls magnetic building toys can simulate your brain, both left and right side, so you can benefit more from it.


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