The dawn of pot tourism in Colorado will bring shuttle buses to the state’s first recreational marijuana shops, guides sharing their stashes with out-of-staters and watchful eyes at ski resorts and Denver’s airport.
After months of speculation, the opening of the nation’s first recreational pot shops Wednesday will provide early signs of whether marijuana tourism is legitimate and worthy of investment or overstated and damaging to the state’s image.
At least three pot-themed tourism companies that didn’t exist a year ago are preparing to welcome their first visitors of 2014 and trying to figure out how state and local regulations will influence their plans.
The state tourism office is keeping its distance, while the ski industry is assuring guests the slopes are pot-free and the air is clean.
Marijuana industry officials estimate 30 percent of recreational sales — made possible by voter-approved Amendment 64 last year — could be made by out-of-state visitors.
But there are limits. While Colorado residents 21 and over may purchase up to an ounce of marijuana at licensed pot shops, out-of-staters may purchase only a quarter-ounce at a time. And marijuana cannot be taken out of state.
“We’ve had a lot of interest, a lot of curiosity, a lot of buzz,” said Peter Johnson of Colorado Green Tours, a travel agency seeking to cater to a luxury crowd.
Johnson’s company will take guests in limos and SUVs to newly opened stores and private grow operations. Guides are “cannabis aficionados” who share their supply with guests for no charge, Johnson said.
“We are professionals in the travel business,” said Johnson, 39, who has worked as a stock trader and tech entrepreneur. “We’re not a bunch of stoners trying to have a party.”
Timothy Vee, owner and operator of Colorado High Life Tours, is going after budget travelers. For $99 a person, the company offers “a Napa Valley wine tour, but with marijuana.”
The day-trips include guided tours of retail stores with stops at tourist spots like the mile-high step at the state Capitol. Afterward, everyone gets a “Mile High Club” sticker.
Vee said he expected a clientele of young adults, but so far his 50 or so clients are mostly baby boomers and retirees.
To address concerns about his drivers getting high, the 45-year-old Vee said that inside vehicles he is using vaporizers, which heat up marijuana and deliver the high without second-hand smoke or much smell.
Under Colorado law, it’s illegal to have an open container of marijuana in a private vehicle or consume pot on public transportation.
State law is not entirely clear about whether passengers in limousines, tour vans or tour buses can smoke marijuana.
The Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act prohibits smoking marijuana in any limousine or other vehicle that holds itself out as available to the public. Those certified by the state Public Utilities Commission may meet the description. The law provides an exception for “limousines under private hire” but does not define that term.
The state’s new open-container law for marijuana, meanwhile, provides an exception for back-seat passengers in vehicles “designed, maintained, or used primarily for the transportation of persons for compensation.”
My 420 Tours, which launched before April 20, pot’s big holiday, has eight tours scheduled through April, with the first on Wednesday, co-owner Matt Brown said.
“There are a lot of people who just want to see — who want to see what is behind the door,” he said.
The Day One plan is to ferry visitors to pot shops and a party called Cannabition, which was scaled back and moved because of uncertainties about whether it runs afoul of Denver restrictions.
Brown sees pot tourism at a juncture similar to where medical marijuana dispensaries stood in 2009 — a new industry in search of clearer regulations.
“If 2013 ends and 2014 begins with things seeming wildly out of control and flagrant violations of the intent of Amendment 64, I think we get more severe, crackdown-type rules,” he said.
The Colorado Tourism Office is not budging from its stance against promoting pot tourism, director Al White said.
“Our position is there is a whole lot more to do and see in Colorado,” he said. “We are not going to change that platform. It’s too early at this point to understand what kind of impact it will have.”
Visitors to Colorado spent $9.4 billion in the state in 2011, the office says. Richard Scharf, president of Visit Denver, warned before the 2012 vote that legalization would damage Colorado’s brand and could result in fewer conventions and leisure tourists.
Two weeks ago, Visit Denver officials toured a Denver dispensary at the invitation of the Denver-based Medical Marijuana Industry Group.
Visit Denver spokesman Rich Grant said the city’s convention and visitors bureau remains unconvinced about pot tourism. Visit Denver needs the best return on investment, and marijuana tourism has no track record, he said. Grant said the city has yet to lose any conventions from groups citing the passage of Amendment 64.
Colorado ski resorts are reminding guests through e-mails and signs that public smoking of marijuana is illegal, said Jennifer Rudolph, spokeswoman for the industry group Colorado Ski Country USA.
She said resorts are telling visitors that resorts “are a safe place to ski and ride and to enjoy the mountains and the fresh air.”
Most Colorado ski resorts are on U.S. Forest Service land, and federal law prohibits all marijuana possession. In a memo last summer laying out expectations for recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington, the Justice Department identified keeping pot off federal land as a priority.
At Denver International Airport, officials plan to begin enforcing a new policy soon prohibiting possession of marijuana on all airport property, spokeswoman Stacey Stegman said.
After Amendment 64 went into effect, airport visitors could carry an ounce or less at the airport as long as they weren’t going through security, she said. Flying with marijuana — including medical marijuana — is not allowed because pot possession is prohibited by the Transportation Security Administration, she said.
Stegman said city-owned DIA chose to bar all possession and display of pot to eliminate confusion and make the same rules apply to all.
The airport has discretion to set such rules under state law and city charter. On other city property, possession of marijuana is legal, but it cannot be displayed or transferred.
Stegman said the airport will add decals on sliding glass doors and signs stating the rules. Violators may be fined up to $999.
State Rep. Dan Pabon, a Denver Democrat who sat on a task force that recommended rules and regulations for recreational marijuana, said tourists should know the state has set limits, including prohibiting driving while stoned.
“It’s a cautionary tale at the very least to those who think this is just a free-for-all state,” Pabon said. “It’s definitely not.”
With little more than word of mouth, the Cliff House Lodge and Hot Tub Cottages in Morrison has become a destination for visitors who enjoy marijuana as tourists or use it as medicine.
Angela Bernhardt, who with her husband manages the historic inn, said tobacco smoking is prohibited in rooms — not-so-subtle code words. On the back porch, surrounded by privacy fences, guests routinely partake in pot smoking, she said.
“It’s been happening for years, and there’s a huge market for out-of-state tourism coming in,” Bernhardt said. “Shutting down any of it is stupid. This is like being at the forefront of a movement.”