Colorado's Shadow Tourist Boom: Visitors Can Openly Buy Marijuana, but They Still Have to Consume It on the Sly

By Sullum, Jacob | Reason, November 2014 | Go to article overview

Colorado's Shadow Tourist Boom: Visitors Can Openly Buy Marijuana, but They Still Have to Consume It on the Sly


Sullum, Jacob, Reason


FOR 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 Hopper.com 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 Colorado.com, "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. …

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