(Seth McConnell, Denver Post file)

Denver’s 2016 RNC bid and the elephant in the room

There’s no escaping Colorado’s status as the poster child for legal recreational marijuana when visitors come to town, even — or especially — when Denver is trying to sell itself as the perfect site for a national political convention.

Take the initial site visit by Republican National Committee staffers in April, a precursor to a larger three-day scouting mission that starts Monday.

Over lunch, the topic turned to marijuana. The GOP visitors had plenty to ask.

But the questions didn’t leave bid boosters worried that legal pot might hurt Denver’s chances, even if Republicans are least likely to support such laws.

“They’re more curious about how this is going to play out in other places around the country,” said Pete Coors, chairman of the Denver bid committee. “We’re the first state, and we’re learning how to do it.”

Join us: Industry leaders, Denver Post editorial writers to talk pot at panel June 17

2016 RNC bid: Is legal marijuana Denver's elephant in the room?
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, center, former Rep. Bob Beauprez, left, and Colorado Republican Committee Chairman Ryan Call at a February 2014 news conference regarding Denver’s bid to host the 2016 Republican National Convention. (Brennan Linsley, Associated Press file)

Still, Colorado’s marijuana reputation isn’t the kind of international exposure Republican officials are hyping as they seek the party’s convention in 2016. Also in the running are Cleveland and Kansas City, Mo., which RNC officials and the Site Selection Committee visited last week, and Dallas, where they’ll head Wednesday after Denver.

Two years from now, it remains to be seen whether marijuana will be such a big issue. Would Jimmy Fallon or Stephen Colbert make jokes on late-night TV about wayward or lost Republicans wandering into pot shops on the 16th Street Mall?

But interest from RNC scouts has been inescapable, even if Denver boosters, echoed by a national political analyst, think cannabis won’t play much of a factor in the RNC’s host city decision, to be made later this summer or fall.

“You can’t run from it, and we haven’t,” said Angela Lieurance, the bid committee’s executive director. “You cannot pretend that it’s not an issue or challenge for us.”

Their message: It’s the will of the people, and “we have very thoughtful, smart people dealing with this.”

Besides, other states are lining up to try the legal pot experiment. Washington state’s voter-legalized recreational marijuana sales start July 1.

Related: GOP members “will want to see how (legal pot is) working” said former Rep. Bob Beauprez, chair of the Denver RNC 2016 bid committee, when Denver submitted its official RNC bid earlier this year

“In 2014, it’ll probably be on the ballot in Oregon again and in Alaska,” said Sam Kamin, a University of Denver law professor who has tracked marijuana laws for years. “In 2016, it’ll probably be on the ballot in California and Nevada, and possibly other states.”

Meanwhile, even some conservative-leaning states have been taking a look at medical marijuana, which is legal in states where more than half of Americans live. Last week, 49 Republicans joined a bipartisan majority in the U.S. House to protect state-licensed medical marijuana businesses from federal busts.

Full legalization “is definitely moving a lot nationally, and it’s moving a lot generationally,” Kamin said, with only people in their 50s and older hesitating to support it.

National polls for the first time recently put overall support for the idea at more than 50 percent.

Still, among Republicans, a CNN poll in January found only 36 percent supported legalization, compared with 62 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of independents.

Polls: 75 percent of Americans think national legalization is inevitable, plus surveys on Coloradans’ views on marijuana, pot vs. gambling and more

As the national GOP considers where to nominate its next presidential ticket, “I’m sure (marijuana is) going to be a topic for discussion,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of The Cook Political Report, which analyzes politics across the country.

That said, she pointed out that some Republican delegates may view it as a feather in Denver’s cap

“When you’re talking about convention delegates,” she said, “they tend to be party activists. So you’ve got a fairly decent libertarian contingent who will be fine with it.” And party leaders, she said, likely realize that marijuana’s hot-button status diminishes every year.

Even so, most states that advocates see as offering the best chances at legalization via voter initiative may not put it on the ballot until 2016, a prospect that could force the issue to the forefront of national politics that year.

That’s not a concern for Denver boosters.

And, asked about the effect of Colorado’s legal marijuana on bid considerations, RNC spokesman Ryan Mahoney said, “This is not something the committee is focused on at this time.”

Jon Murray: 303-954-1405, jmurray@denverpost.com or twitter.com/JonMurray

This story was first published on DenverPost.com