Colorado has been on a Rocky Mountain high since recreational marijuana was legalized there on January 1, 2014. I’m not talking about consuming cannabis, though that may contribute, but about the tourist dollars pot supporters say it brings.
In the first quarter of the year, Denver International Airport saw record traffic, online searches for Denver hotels were up 25 percent, the real estate market has boomed, and the nation’s first cannabis-themed tour operator has sold out all its tours. That’s a lot to cheer about going into the 420 Rally this weekend, itself newly expanded and set to bring in record numbers of visitors.
Here’s the thing, though: not everyone agrees it’s due to pot. “We hate to be the buzz kill, but the facts don’t really support it,” says Rich Grant, spokesperson for Visit Denver, the city’s tourism authority. “The idea that this weekend is Woodstock 2? We’re not seeing it.”
Searching for hotel rooms, for example, isn’t the same as selling them. “We’re not feeling the compression you feel when there’s a convention in town. Hotels have availability at very reasonable rates everywhere,” Grant says. Actual numbers aren’t calculated until after the fact.
Those record stats at the airport (over 4 million passengers in January alone)? They also happened to coincide with two playoff games for the Denver Broncos football team and a strong snow season for skiing and snowboarding, so it’s hard to break out how much was due to visitors coming for substances illicit elsewhere.
Within the marijuana industry, though, the excitement is unmistakable. For one, the state’s leading newspaper, the Denver Post, now has a marijuana editor, Ricardo Baca; he also runs thecannabist.co for enthusiasts to get pot news, culture and advice on safe use.
People may have come to Denver for football, he says, but “they partook.” On game days, the marijuana dispensary across from Mile High Stadium was “just slammed.”
Outside of Denver, dispensaries in ski resort towns like Breckenridge, Silverthorne, Empire and Fraser are seeing “lots of customers with out-of-state IDs,” Baca says. “One visitor told me ‘I go snowboarding once a year. Usually it’s been to Vancouver, but there’s no doubt in my mind that I will come back to Colorado, specifically for the marijuana.’”
Cannabis tour operator My 420 Tours has sold out all six of its tours so far this year, at rates of $1,399 to $1,699 for 5 days. CEO and founder J. J. Walker says that the tours let visitors “see the industry from inside and out” with visits to dispensaries and growers, cannabis cooking classes, hashish-preparing lessons and plenty of product samples. Oh, yes, and snacks.
The highlight of Colorado’s marijuana year is this weekend, April 20 (4:20 being another nickname for marijuana). Walker says one of his goals is “to turn [the multi-event] World Cannabis Week into the South by Southwest of the industry.”
It’s certainly expanded since last year. The High Times Cannabis Cup (which judges the world’s best marijuana-based products) moved to a new, larger venue and sold out all of its 40,000 tickets. Other events around town include a two day rally headlined by performers Wyclef Jean and B.O.B. (estimated attendance up to 100,000) and a concert at the famous Red Rocks amphitheater.
All that said, there are still many restrictions on the use of marijuana. “It’s illegal to consume marijuana in any public space,” says Visit Denver’s Grant. “People can’t smoke it on streets, in bars, restaurants, cafes or parks. It’s illegal to take it inside the airport or consume it on ski slopes, which are on national forest land.” And, it’s illegal to take marijuana purchased in Colorado into surrounding states, where it’s not legal.
Experts also caution to know your limits before partaking. Some highly publicized deaths since legalization have been attributed to people overindulging, particularly in edible marijuana, the effects of which the body takes longer to recognize.
Grant also says there are no 420-friendly hotels in the city, though My 420 Tours has found ways around this for its guests. According to Grant, 67 percent of visitors to Denver stay with friends of family, where, presumably, it’s OK to consume pot – though it’s probably a nice gesture to ask your hosts’ permission. In the ski resort towns, condo rentals are prevalent.
Baca and Walker also credit pot with new real estate construction, sales and rentals. “There’s tons and tons of construction starting and apartments being built,” Walker says.
Baca has heard from apartment search services that there’s been a huge influx of people, especially those in their twenties, moving to the state for the marijuana. “They don’t want to have to be looking over their shoulder or for it to be illegal just to have some in their refrigerator.”
Meanwhile, Walker says, commercial rental rates for potential dispensaries or growers’ warehouses have skyrocketed.
“People are moving here for the industry and the opportunity and freedom it represents,” Walker says. Talk about all-American values.
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