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Pot votes in Colorado, Washington raise specter of weed tourism

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Friday, November 9, 2012 - 8:04 am

DENVER — Hit the slopes — and then a bong?

Marijuana legalization votes this week in Colorado and Washington state don't just set up an epic state-federal showdown on drug law for residents. The measures also open the door for marijuana tourism.

Both marijuana measures make marijuana possession in small amounts OK for all adults over 21 — not just state residents but visitors, too. Tourists may not be able to pack their bowls along with their bags, but as long as out-of-state tourists purchase and use the drug while in Colorado or Washington, they wouldn't violate the marijuana measures.

Of course, that's assuming the recreational marijuana measures take effect at all. That was very much in doubt Friday as the states awaited word on possible lawsuits from the U.S. Department of Justice asserting federal supremacy over drug law.

So the future of marijuana tourism in Colorado and Washington is hazy. But that hasn't stopped rampant speculation, especially in Colorado, where tourism is the No. 2 industry thanks to the Rocky Mountains and a vibrant ski industry.

The day after Colorado approved recreational marijuana by a wide margin, the headline in the Aspen Times asked, "Aspendam?" referring to Amsterdam's marijuana cafes.

Colorado's tourism director, Al White, tried to downplay the prospect of a new marijuana tourism boom.

"It won't be as big a deal as either side hopes or fears," White said.

Maybe not. But many are asking about marijuana tourism.

Ski resorts are "certainly watching it closely," said Jennifer Rudolph of Colorado Ski Country USA, a trade association that represents 21 Colorado resorts.

Any plans for an adults-only après lounge where skiers could get more than an Irish coffee to numb their aches?

"There's a lot that remains to be seen," Rudolph said with a chuckle. "I guess you could say we're waiting for the smoke to clear."

The Colorado counties where big ski resorts are located seem to have made up their minds. The marijuana measure passed by overwhelming margins, with more support than in less visited areas.

The home county of Aspen approved the marijuana measure more than 3-to-1. More than two-thirds approved marijuana in the home county of Colorado's largest ski resort, Vail. The home county of Telluride ski resort gave marijuana legalization its most lopsided victory, nearly 8 in 10 favoring the measure.

"Some folks might come to Colorado to enjoy some marijuana as will be their right. So what?" said Betty Aldworth, advocacy director for the Colorado marijuana campaign.

Washington state already sees a version of marijuana tourism.

Every summer on the shores of the Puget Sound, Seattle is host to "Hempfest," which according to organizers attracted around 250,000 people over three days this year. For those three days, people are largely left alone to smoke publically at a local park, even as police stand by.

"People travel to Seattle from other states and countries to attend Seattle Hempfest every year to experience the limited freedom that happens at the event," said executive director Vivian McPeak. "It's reasonable to assume that people will travel to Washington assuming that the federal government doesn't interfere."

McPeak draw parallels to Amsterdam where an annual "Cannabis Cup" attracts tourists from all over the world and Vancouver, British Columbia, which has lax marijuana rules that have borne marijuana cafes drawing travelers.

Amsterdam's marijuana tourism in a hazy spot these days, though. The incoming Dutch government suggested a national "weed pass" that would have been available only to residents and that would have effectively banned tourists from Amsterdam's marijuana cafes. The "weed pass" idea was scrapped, but under a provisional governing pact unveiled this week, Dutch cities can bar foreigners from weed shops if they choose.

Should the American laws stand, McPeak foresees the same happening to Seattle.

Marijuana "has been an emerging market in some states. It's reasonable to assume that entrepreneurs will try to take advantage of this in a new way."

In Denver, some feared that Colorado marijuana vote could deter tourists, not to mention business visitors.

"Colorado's brand will be damaged, and we may attract fewer conventions and see a decline in leisure travel," Visit Denver CEO Richard Scharf said in a statement before the vote.

Colorado's governor opposed the measure but said after its passage that he didn't envision marijuana tourism materializing.

"I don't think that's going to happen," Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper said.

"They're going to flock here to buy marijuana as if they're going to take it back? On an airplane? That seems unlikely to me. I think those kinds of fears are overblown."

Colorado's measure specifically bans public use of the drug. But guidelines for commercial sales are still to be worked out. The state's 536 medical marijuana dispensaries are banned from allowing on-site consumption, meaning patients have to take the drug home with them. But lawmakers could set different rules for recreational marijuana shops, including the possibility of marijuana cafes.

Marijuana backers downplayed the impact on tourism. Aldworth pointed out that pot-smoking tourists wouldn't exactly be new. Colorado ski slopes already are dotted with "smoke shacks," old mining cabins that have been illicitly repurposed as places to smoke pot out of the cold. And the ski resort town of Breckenridge dropped criminal penalties for marijuana use two years ago.

"Some folks come to Colorado and enjoy some marijuana while they are here today," Aldworth said.

The sheriff of the county including Aspen was sanguine about the prospects of pot-smoking visitors.

"For me, it's going to be live and let live. If people want to come to Colorado because pot is legal — and that's the sole reason — it's up to them," Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo told The Aspen Times. "I am not the lifestyle police."