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The Fun I Had Buying Marijuana as a Tourist in the Legal Pot Paradise of Colorado

Colorado, where you can buy legal cannabis in America for the first time in 77 years.
 
 
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Photo Credit: David Downs

 
 
 
 

Confession: I am a Colorado cannabis tourist.

I was always on the fence about Colorado. All my friends told me what a cool trip it was, how much fun they had. But I had never gotten around to it, I guess.

Yeah, I knew Kerouac endorsed Denver in On The Road.I knew there was amazing skiing, incredible mountains and a big sky. It was relatively close to my home of San Francisco, and cheap. A college buddy had moved to Denver in the spring with his wife, bought a house, and renovated it. I could stay for free.

But that wasn’t enough. It took the first legal sale of weed in America in 77 years for me to visit. As we lay in the dark, drifting off to sleep before Christmas, I whispered to my wife, “I think I have to go to Colorado." 

A long pause. On the baby monitor, our infant did not stir.

“Let’s talk about it in the morning,” she said.

The plane ticket proved dirt-cheap, and the two-hour flight was nonstop.

Judging from three days on the ground in Denver interviewing experts and reviewing the latest tourism data, Colorado could make anywhere from $100 million to $500 million in extra tourism in the first year alone of newly legal weed.

Over 50 stores are selling pot to any adult over 21, and hundreds more will open. The first weeks saw an almost-religious pilgrimage of thousands of sick people, persecuted potheads and media members who came to make history. But in their wake will be legions more former smokers hitting retirement as well as curious newbies who were already thinking about a Colorado trip. Pot just tipped the scales.

“It’s going to be part of an aggregate effect that’s already drawing in millions of people to the state,” said Norton Arbelaez, a Colorado-based attorney and expert with the Medical Marijuana Industry Group.

“You have a lot of these individuals who are coming anyway—this is just one more reason,” said pot tour operator Chris Leonard with Colorado Green Adventures, the self-proclaimed “world’s first cannabis-friendly eco tourism company.”

Thousands upon thousands of people either drove or flew into the swing state for the first week of legal weed in America, not counting the hundreds of members of the press.

The temperature was 23 degrees when the line in front of 3D Cannabis Center in industrial north Denver started before dawn on Wednesday, Jan. 1. Even though it snowed that morning, the line kept growing, to several hundred throughout the day; a mix of half-locals and half out-of-towners.

Long lines on day one of weed sales in Denver. Photo by David Downs.

The weed shop had started a list the night before the opening, so folks had been walking up to the door adding their names, then going back to their tents or their cars to wait. Some women served fried mini-donuts and coffee in a tent next to the one-story, brick warehouse. Generators blared as news vans charged TV network equipment.

Two documentary filmmakers from Florida were the first names on 3D Cannabis Center’s list. They had flown in on the 31st and had spent all day filming at the pot shop, which was a medical dispensary up until legalization.

“We didn’t fly across the country to be ninth,” said Adam Hartle, 34, of Jacksonville. “I’m really excited. It’s awesome. This is a major moment in American history.”

Behind them was Bob, a single 46-year-old. Bob drove 16 hours from Michigan, and didn’t want to give his last name or his specific city. He said he could lose his job if his boss knew he was down here.

“My friends at work probably would say, ‘That’s awesome!’ and give me a high five,” he said. “But I can’t tell anyone.”

Bob has neuropathy in his feet, a type of chronic nerve pain, and said he had been considering amputation. Clinical trials show that smoking cannabis diminishes or removes neuropathic pain, and is a common indication for the drug. 

“I have illness,” Bob said. “It’s the only thing that’ll actually help me.”

Tourists and locals alike wait in line in the snow, to buy legal pot on New Year's Day 2014. Photo by David Downs.

Colorado is surrounded by states without medical marijuana, yet filled with people like Bob for whom its use is literally a matter of life and death. Whether the Nebraska and Iowa state patrollers like it or not, an ad hoc Denver Buyer’s Club is open for business and will grow to include hundreds of thousands of unofficial members.

Behind Bob, I met a party animal from Virginia named Jacob Elliott, who was wearing white animal print pants and a huge fuzzy beanie. Elliott had been doing it big with a hotel room downtown for the last few days and was ready to smoke some history.

“I can’t believe it. After all these years!” he said.

He told me he was tired of Virginia’s backward drug laws, so he sold his house and is moving to Seattle.

Behind Jacob Elliott, two young guys from Ohio also said they’d had it with their home state, so they were here for good. Colorado is ranked eighth in the country in terms of in-bound migration, according to one survey conducted by a moving van company.

“I’m tired of buying shitty weed and funding the cartels,” said Brandon Harris, who drove 20 hours to get to Colorado on December 30. “We’re not going back. I’m staying at a friend’s house and I’m hoping to get a job as a trimmer.”

It’s not Harris’ first visit to Denver, either. He first came April 20, for the first-ever U.S. Cannabis Cup. “We went and had an amazing time.”

Over the longer term, legal weed is going to amplify existing Colorado tourism revenues, which were already up 2 percent to record levels in 2012, prior to legalization.

According to the Colorado Tourism Office, the state that is home to five million souls hosted 29.5 million tourism trips in 2012, the last year for which there is data. Colorado is the number-one ski destination in the country.

Trips to Denver were already up 13 percent in 2012, and the state capital will have the vast majority of legal pot shops in Colorado in 2014.

The state also saw anywhere from $11.2 billion to $16.6 billion in direct travel spending in 2012, according to different analyses. Millions of people visit each year, mainly from California, followed by Texas, Arizona and Florida to shop, sight-see, hike, and gamble.

They’re going to keep doing all that, andbuy legal weed, said Chris Leonard of Colorado Green Adventures. In fact, it’s already started to happen. Before sales even began, the U.S. Cannabis Cup in Denver in April sold out every hotel room in the city, he said.

“You don’t see the mayor or the governor issuing a press release like if it was a dentists’ convention that sold the town out,” he said. “But it did.”

Leonard’s two-person company has been “very, very busy,” since mid-December.

“We’ve had inquiries every day saying they’re planning on booking travel and coming out in the spring, asking what’s going to be going on,” he said. “We’re about to release our new concert packages.”

“We are maxed out,” said Peter Johnson, head of Colorado Green Tours. “We’re a private company but I can tell you that in the first few days of January we did more than we did in all of December.”

About 7 percent of Americans are regular weed users, according to the National Survey of Drug Use and Health. Marijuana was the most commonly used illicit drug in 2013, and in 2012, there were 18.9 million past month users. Between 2007 and 2012, the rate of current use increased from 5.8 to 7.3 percent, and the number of users increased from 14.5 million to 18.9 million.

“I think probably the percentage of people that make dedicated pilgrimages strictly for cannabis tourism is going to be very small,” said Chris Leonard. “It’s far more likely that we’re going to see an ancillary effect. People will go, ‘Hey, we’re in Colorado. They sell pot here now. Let’s find out what’s going on’. … My guess it’s greater than 2 percent [boost to tourism] over the course of the year.”

Legal weed is already contributing to the market for rental cars, hotel rooms, shopping, meals, and entertainment—though just how much is anyone’s guess.

“We think 2014 will see a significant amount of growth [in tourism] because of Amendment 64, but who knows if it’s going to be one percent or two or five year over year,” said Johnson.

A one percent increase to $11.2 billion in annual Colorado tourism revenue would add $112 million to the state. If pot brought a five percent increase to $11.2 billion in existing tourism it would add $560 million in extra travel-related revenue.

Over at LoDo Wellness Center on Wazee St. near downtown Denver on January 1, businesses felt the aggregator effect of legal sales immediately. A line of several hundred people stretched down the sidewalk to the intersection, and it never thinned out. By 3pm, LoDo Wellness staff had to ask people to stop lining up, because there was no way customers at the back could be served by closing time.

A quick chat with the staff of LoDo’s neighboring sandwich shop, Backcountry Delicatessen, confirmed the obvious. They were slammed with food orders from people waiting in the five-hour line.

Several ongoing factors will mute Colorado’s surging pot tourism over time, however. For one, don’t expect major state-run marketing campaigns. The Colorado Tourism Office has no projections on legal pot’s economic bump because they’re not touching the topic with a 10-foot pole. Marijuana remains a federally illegal Schedule I drug, on par with heroin or LSD in the eyes of Uncle Sam. Colorado’s legal weed regime only exists at the discretion of a wary federal government.

Denver marijuana policy coordinator Ashley Kilroy. Photo by David Downs.

There are also very few legal places for tourists to get stony in Colorado, because the law requires people to toke up only within private dwellings. Smoking weed in public in Colorado remains illegal. On January 1 the mayor and police chief of Denver issued public statements commending the crowds for the fact that not a single plume of public weed smoke was spotted all day in the city.

My hosts had their own bubbler, but 70 percent of tourists in Colorado stay in hotels, motels, inns and B&Bs where the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act applies, prohibiting smoking of any kind within designated spaces. At least 75 percent of rentable rooms are non-smoking, and in many parts of the state it’s 100 percent, Johnson said.

“It’s a problem,” he said. “There’s only so many [smoking rooms].”

But it’s also an opportunity.  A search on AirBnB reveals a smattering of “420 friendly” listings in Denver and beyond. Johnson said he’s scrambling to line up his own private condos to rent out pot-friendly.

Otherwise, veteran tokers will do what they aways do — bend the rules. If they get caught they’ll pay a hefty room cleaning fee, or receive a pot ticket. Denver cites approximately one person a day for smoking weed in public.

Weed also remains prohibited on federal land, where the vast majority of the ski resorts are located. Resorts are marketing "zero tolerance" to weed-smoking visitors, and are already pulling passes—worth hundreds of dollars— for infractions.

“Unfortunately, there’s going to be some sacrificial lambs caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and they’re going to be made an example of,” attorney Norton Arbelaez said.

The majority of Colorado towns have also banned pot shops, which isn’t that big of a deal, because Denver isn’t that far away from anywhere in Colorado. Except that in Denver, supplies appear spotty. The state’s first licensed commercial weed growers are vegetating their first legal crops, which won’t be finished until late winter. Meanwhile, lines will remain long, supplies limited and prices high.

Leonard said even the most conservative estimates show current demand is going to be about 200-300 percent more than the current system is able to supply.

“We’re heading toward shortages,” he said.

Amid a full-on media circus, the first sale at 3D Cannabis Center at 8am January 1 went to Iraq war veteran and PTSD sufferer Sean Azzariti. Then the reporters in the room began to buy the weed.

Iraq war veteran Sean Azzariti purchases the first legal weed in Colorado. Photo by David Downs.

I went over to Bob and Jacob Elliot standing outside.

“The media’s in there jumping the line,” I said.

“Well, what the hell are you waiting for?” Bob said and gave me a nod.

I showed my driver’s license and paid $40 plus 21.22 percent tax in cash, out the door, for an eighth-ounce of very nice Blue Dream. Jimmy Cliff’s “I Can See Clearly Now” played on Denver’s Kool Classic Hits FM 105.1 as I drove back to home base to take a shower, smoke one of America’s first legal bowls and eat some brunch.

In the afternoon, we cruised around beneath the town’s legendary big blue sky. Off in the distance, the Rocky Mountains looked cinematic. The snowy slopes beckoned.

I had finally tried some Colorado, and I liked it.

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David Downs is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Wired, Rolling Stone, the Onion, and the New York Times. He writes the syndicated weekly column "Legalization Nation" and edits pot blog Smell the Truth on SFGate.com.