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Colorado is yet to fully embrace its cannabis tourism industry

As one of the few states in the US to have legalised recreational marijuana, Colorado has an opportunity to place itself at the forefront of the legal cannabis tourism industry

A worker tends to hemp plants in Kittredge, Colorado. Colorado is one of few US states to have legalised the use of recreational marijuana  

Tourism in the US state of Colorado has long been associated with the breathtaking mountain views and rugged natural plains. Straddled by the Rocky Mountains, the state has drawn tourists wanting to marvel at natural wonders such as Estes Park, which is located over 7,000ft above sea level. Now, however, a new breed of tourism is attracting visitors to the area: marijuana tourism.

The US is famous for its ill-fated decision to ban the production, distribution and consumption of alcohol in the 1920s. What became known as the Prohibition Era has been regarded almost universally as a bad decision, having merely encouraged smuggling and empowered organised crime. Now, many in the US are beginning to see the country’s long criminalisation of marijuana in similar terms. However, the dramatic and iconic images of near-immune mobsters and corrupt government officials that have come to characterise popular historical memories of the folly of alcohol prohibition have so far failed to accompany the criminalisation of marijuana in the US.

Nonetheless, the US’ (and much of the world’s) long ban on marijuana has itself cost untold numbers of lives, with criminal organisations battling over segments of the billion-dollar black market industry. Based on this – and, of course, the sheer popularity of the drug within the US – many states have started to push for various degrees of legalisation or decriminalisation of the drug. Colorado has been one of the first to do so, and it appears the move may be behind a great boost to tourism in the state.

The sale and production of legal marijuana in Colorado is now estimated to be worth more
than $1bn

Long road to legality
Marijuana was first criminalised in Colorado in 1917, with the use and cultivation of the drug becoming an offence. These were the US’ first state-specific laws against cannabis. Further criminalisation of the substance continued throughout the 20th century, before the first serious change to the legal status of marijuana came in the year 2000: in November, over half of Colorado voters approved Amendment 20, which allowed the use of marijuana in the case of state-approved patients with medical consent from a doctor.

Gradually, the number of dispensaries began to build up as the laws surrounding medical marijuana distribution were relaxed. By 2009, the city of Denver had tens of so-called ‘pot clinics’ – although a further boom in usage saw additional legislation authorising some new state-wide regulations in 2010. Finally, full legalisation came in 2012 with the passing of Amendment 64. Colorado’s constitution thereafter guaranteed the “personal use and regulation of marijuana”, setting the ground for Colorado’s now-booming marijuana industry. The sale and production of legal marijuana in the state is now estimated to be worth more than $1bn, with many of the arguments from the pro-cannabis legalisation camp in other parts of the world – aside from the libertarian ‘live and let live’ arguments – hinging on the economic benefits of the industry and the potential tax revenue it would bring.

One additional side effect – perhaps unanticipated by many – has been a surge in tourism related to the drug. Surrounded by states in which the drug remains fully or at least partially prohibited, Colorado has become the perfect holiday destination for those wishing to partake in the use of marijuana without any legal risk. According to Mike Elliott, Executive Director of the Marijuana Industry Group, the oldest and largest marijuana industry association in Colorado, marijuana legalisation has undoubtedly had a positive impact on the state. Speaking to Business Destinations, he said: “Colorado has experienced record tourism since marijuana was legalised in 2012.” Elliot has seen this first-hand, noting that members of his organisation have “heard from customers time and time again that one of the reasons they chose to visit Colorado is the legalisation of marijuana. State studies also show that legalised marijuana is bringing more people to Colorado”.

Every incoming tourist is a boost not just to the industry, but also to the wider state. Tourists need to book hotels and pay for food and drink, and as Elliott noted, “every additional tourist has a positive impact. Not only do tourists visit marijuana shops, but they explore all the great amenities Colorado has to offer”. Likewise, while these ‘pot tourists’ are exclusively visiting the state in order to experience the drug, during their stay they are likely to visit many of the other tourist attractions that the area has to offer.

Drawbacks to the law
There are, however, a few problems that could be holding the industry back. One major issue is the fissure between state and federal law: although marijuana is legal in Colorado, it still remains illegal under federal law. This means shops selling the substance have often found financial institutions reluctant to work with them, lest they be pursued by federal law officials for carrying out transactions for the sale of what is still technically a section I banned substance. This has meant that, other than through a few loopholes, cash is the only form of payment accepted in ‘pot shops’ in the state.

Similarly, whereas places such as Amsterdam have cultivated a relaxed café culture, where visitors who are interested in benefiting from the Netherlands’ liberal marijuana laws can enjoy publically smoking the drug, such a culture is not possible in Colorado. As Elliott told Business Destinations: “It’s important for people to understand that open and public consumption of marijuana remains illegal.” With people therefore compelled to use the drug indoors, the appeal of pot tourism may be hindered.

The Denver 420 Rally is the world's largest celebration of cannabis culture
The Denver 420 Rally is the world’s largest celebration of cannabis culture

However, attempts are being made to try and work around this cumbersome rule. According to Elliott: “Entrepreneurs are stepping up to answer the needs of tourists who want to use cannabis.” For instance: “There is a discussion about allowing social clubs where it will be legal to use cannabis.” Various people in the industry have been vocal in their advocation of this. Business Destinations also spoke to Michael Eymer, CEO and Founder of Colorado Cannabis Tours. He argued: “The state could allow for ‘420-friendly’ clubs, restaurants and other brick and mortar establishments to open, as well as removing restrictions on where dispensaries can advertise.”

Another issue has been that many hotels are hostile towards those who smoke cannabis. Unwitting tourists may easily book themselves into a hotel that does not tolerate the now-legal drug. However, according to Elliott, an increasing number of establishments are specifically catering to those who want to smoke marijuana during their stay. Eymer pointed out that his company helps tourists find suitable accommodation: “Our guests book 420-friendly hotel rooms through us, as well as taking our various activities to consume legally and safely.”

Marketing the state
Despite these regulatory problems, the marijuana tourism trade in Colorado is thriving. However, how far this will develop and continue at such a pace seems unclear: the state itself seems reluctant to market itself as a destination for tourists to smoke cannabis legally. Business Destinations reached out to a number of regional tourism boards for towns in Colorado to discuss the growing marijuana tourism trade, yet none responded. According to Elliott, the state is not yet ready to market itself as a pot tourism destination, despite the potential it has for increasing the existing tourism boom.

“If the state chose to do so, it could actively market the fact that marijuana is legal here”, he said. “I don’t think they are ready to go there yet, but as more states legalise marijuana I think that is more likely to happen.” But Colorado, it would appear, is still uneasy about pushing itself in such a manner.

It is worth pointing out that, in the referendum on marijuana legalisation, while the pro-legalisation side won a clear majority, the opposition was not insignificant. Many Coloradans are still uncomfortable with the legalisation, perhaps not wishing to gain the reputation of being ‘the Amsterdam of the Rockies’.

However, if marijuana tourism is going to continue to boom, this title should be snatched up as soon as possible. Competition is growing: across the US there is a continued push for marijuana legalisation. With more of the 50 states in the union likely to join the legalisation club soon, Colorado could soon lose its draw as a pot tourism destination, with it no longer being a place of legal consumption in a desert of prohibition.

As Eymer told Business Destinations, “by far the largest amounts of tourists come from illegal states in the US, such as Texas, Florida, Ohio [and] New York”. Yet if these states were to make marijuana legal, Colorado’s draw would be gone – unless, of course, Colorado managed to market itself as the place for marijuana consumption. Many states now allow gambling, yet Las Vegas is still widely considered to be the place to go for casinos and gaming. Likewise, nightclubs and alcohol are prevalent across the nation, but anyone seeking the best of American nightlife will venture to Miami. While Colorado is one of the few legal states for marijuana, it has the potential to position itself – or perhaps just one city within the state, such as Boulder or Denver – as the place to go to enjoy legal marijuana, before it becomes just one of a handful of similar destinations.

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