Watch Out, Wine Country: The Coming Boom in Weed Tourism

Inside Colorado's marijuana economy.
Jan. 8 2014 11:47 PM

New Amsterdam

Is Colorado—and its pot supply—ready for weed tourism?

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Then there’s the big question of where, exactly, Colorado tourists are going to partake in the marijuana they’re here to sample. Amendment 64, which legalized possession and sale of pot in Colorado, stipulated that marijuana cannot be smoked openly and publicly. That’s not a problem for those who have private residences in the state to which they can retreat, but what about those who don’t? Bars, restaurants, and venues like concert halls are technically out of the question, since the state’s 2006 Clean Indoor Air Act was amended this year to include marijuana in its smoking ban. (It’s the opposite of the situation in Vancouver, where people aren’t allowed to officially buy marijuana, but there are legal venues where adults can smoke it.)

This is why Brown is planning to rent a lot of private, covered facilities for his tour groups, and he’s partnering with hotels where most rooms have balconies, since guests can toke on them without running afoul of no-smoking rules. (The last-minute cancellation of a big “Cannabition” New Year’s Day event Brown had scheduled at a major downtown Denver venue suggests his plan to throw private-event pot-smoking parties might still be a flashpoint.) The ban on public smoking is also one of the reasons why portable pot vaporizers, or vape pens, are becoming a hot commodity in Colorado. The discreet, pen-sized devices, similar to e-cigarettes, electronically heat marijuana, producing minimal smoke or aroma. That means it’s easier for folks to use them in public without attracting attention.

An Open Vape pen.
An Open Vape pen

Courtesy of Ry Prichard/CannabisEncyclopedia.com

Naturally, Colorado’s vape industry is actively courting marijuana tourists. Open Vape, a major local vaporizer company, recently named as executive vice president of corporate development Todd Mitchem, who formerly worked as an “experience manager” at Universal Studios. Open Vape is building a visitor-friendly “dream room” in its new downtown offices explicitly modeled after Microsoft’s “Home of the Future,” an interactive concept home on the computer company’s Redmond, Wash., campus.

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“There is certainly a stealthy aspect to it, but we don’t want people doing anything that would put others in danger,” says Mitchem of Open Vape’s $25 devices. That discretion comes at a premium—the 250-milligram cartridge of marijuana concentrate Open Vape produces at its licensed grow facilities for use with its “O.pen” retails for $25, compared to the $10 people might pay for 250 milligrams of marijuana concentrate at most Colorado dispensaries.

But the biggest question facing Colorado’s cannabis tourism industry could put a damper on all these vaporizer dream rooms, grow-facility tours, and marijuana-friendly concierge desks: Will there be enough pot to go around? There’s good reason to be skeptical. Lines around the block typified the first week of retail sales, and headlines warned potential recreational consumers that stock on hand was growing increasingly scarce.

State regulators have been pondering the question of supply and demand since Amendment 64 passed in November 2012. Since the amendment didn’t make provision for growing recreational pot prior to Jan. 1, 2014, the industry faced the specter of having to wait several months into 2014 until the first commercial crop could be grown, dried, and prepped for market. To avoid this mellow-harshing, state regulators came up with a rule that would allow medical marijuana businesses that were entering the recreational market to designate some or all of their medical crop for recreational sale. In theory, then, there should be plenty of reclassified pot to go around now that legalization has taken effect.

But is that how it is actually working in practice? For the first nine months of 2014, the only Colorado businesses that will be selling recreational pot are those that were previously medical marijuana operations. But far from the weed rush many people predicted, only 136 of the 517 dispensaries currently operating in Colorado applied for a recreational sales license. Why the lukewarm response? Likely because the recreational marijuana system is so untested that many operations were worried about the impact on their already thriving businesses. The medical marijuana industry in Colorado has been rolling along, and many operators find themselves able to sell all the weed they can grow in a medical dispensary. To compound the problem, there doesn’t seem to be any way to move the marijuana back to the medical system if the recreational system hits snags; this is a one-time, one-direction transfer.

So for the time being, many dispensary owners are hedging their bets, biding their time in the stable medical marijuana market, and growing new product for the recreational market. As a result, prices are high in the few recreational stores that have opened, and no one is sure just how long the pot will hold out.

So what happens if Colorado throws the nation a weed party, but there’s not enough weed to sell to our guests? It’s possible that all these wrinkles will be ironed out before the first My420Tours group rolls through the state. Brown, after all, won’t be launching any of his tours until the end of January. That’s because most Denver hotels are already booked for the month for the National Western Stock Show, the 108-year-old Western extravaganza—featuring rodeos, livestock exhibits, and kid-friendly events like mutton bustin’—that has long been one of the state’s biggest events. For the time being, in other words, Colorado’s new tourist attraction will need to play second fiddle to its old one.

Next up: Colorado’s recreational pot industry is open for business. Will those involved be rolling in profits? To find out, we found a local dispensary willing to let us go through all their books.

Correction, Jan. 10, 2014: This article originally stated that the state of Colorado made $329 million in sales-tax revenue from medical marijuana during the past fiscal year. Colorado dispenaries, not the state, made $329 million in revenue.

Sam Kamin is professor and director of the Constitutional Rights and Remedies program at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

Joel Warner is a former Westword staff writer.