Mike Goldstein of New York photographs himself with plants at a grow facility in December 2014. (Craig F. Walker, Denver Post file)

Pot tourism grows in Colorado even as officials refuse to endorse it

Look all you want, and you’ll find nary a marijuana tourism brochure at kiosks operated by Colorado’s official travel bureaus.

Yet that institutional prohibition hasn’t stopped thousands of cannabis tourists from visiting Colorado to experience the phenomenon of legal marijuana.

“This is just awesome,” said Mike Goldstein of Staten Island, N.Y., who visited Denver with three friends in early December. “I think it should be legal everywhere. You raise taxes, and you take it out of the hands of organized crime.”

Goldstein said the reason for his visit was “49 percent weed and 51 percent Broncos,” as his group prepared to go to the Denver vs. Buffalo Bills game.

The day before the game, the Goldstein contingent met at a downtown Denver hotel for an organized bus tour of marijuana dispensaries and cultivation facilities.

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Pot tourism grows in Colo. even as officials refuse to endorse it
Mike Goldstein of New York photographs himself with plants at a grow facility. (Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post)

“It’s been quite a year,” said JJ Walker, CEO of Denver-based My 420 Tours, which claims to be North America’s first cannabis tour company.

“We get the 60-year-old business executive who comes here to do something different, and we get the 28-year-old who just wants to have fun,” Walker said.

Government-sponsored tourism agencies such as the Colorado Tourism Office and Visit Denver are agnostic toward the concept. They neither criticize nor endorse the industry.

As such, no reliable statistics are compiled to show the depth and economic impact of the market.

However, Walker said his firm has provided tours to between 4,000 and 5,000 customers since recreational cannabis sales began Jan. 1.

The company’s main offering is a $99, five-hour bus tour that includes stops at two dispensaries, a grow and a head shop. Smoking pot on the private luxury bus is allowed — and encouraged.

At least 18 companies market similar versions of marijuana touring and transportation.

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Tourists also can purchase multi-day packages that include stays at cannabis-friendly hotels. Walker said he uses three unnamed hotels — two in Denver and one in Vail — that allow in-room use of cannabis vaporizers and have private outdoor areas for smoking.

In central Denver, The Adagio Bed and Breakfast at 1430 Race St. now bills itself as a “bud and breakfast” that caters to marijuana-oriented travelers. The lodge offers a morning “wake and bake” and an afternoon happy hour — starting at 4:20 p.m. — with beverages, snacks and three varieties of cannabis. Rates start at $249 per night.

Colorado and Denver tourism officials say they have no interest in promoting pot tourism.

“We will not use the legalization of marijuana to market the state of Colorado,” said Al White, director of the Colorado Tourism Office.

White said that engaging in promotions could put Colorado at risk of violating federal and state laws.

Besides, he said, it makes little sense to endorse legal marijuana for tourists when Colorado’s regulations give them few options for places to legally smoke it.

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White questions the potential depth of the market.

“If you’ve been smoking pot all your adult life in Columbus, Ohio, and you buy it from the guy on the corner, I really don’t think you’re going to feel a need to go and buy it in Colorado,” he said.

Richard Scharf, president and CEO of Visit Denver, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, said the market for marijuana tourism is tiny compared to Colorado’s overall stature as a travel destination.

“We just don’t have any research at all that says (marijuana) is driving demand,” he said. “When you have 14 million annual visitors, we just don’t see pot as a significant driver in that market.”

Steve Raabe: 303-954-1948, sraabe@denverpost.com or twitter.com/steveraabedp

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This story was first published on DenverPost.com