Some hesitate to market pot to tourists

Staff writerApril 20, 2013 

DENVER — As marijuana users prepared for their unofficial national holiday today, Denver got a head start, with local promoters trying to showcase Colorado as a state that welcomes pot-smoking tourists after voters there legalized the drug in November.

At Ganja Gourmet on South Broadway, where pot-laced Mountain High suckers sell for $6 and an ounce of top-shelf weed goes for $280, owner Steve Horowitz made plans for his entry in Saturday’s Cannabis Cup competition: a triple-threat cheesecake made with hash oil, hash and marijuana butter.

For now, his pot is available only with a doctor’s note, as recreational marijuana hasn’t formally begun in the state. Still, he’s looking forward to getting a license and expanding his market, including by welcoming out-of-state tourists.

“This is a big week. … The phone’s ringing a lot, with people who want to come to Colorado and pretend they’re in Amsterdam,” Horowitz said.

And at a cooking school on Zuni Street, chef Blaine Hein showed out-of-state tourists how to use marijuana to make a gluten-free trail mix and other food as part of a private event called World Cannabis Week, which sold out quickly. It drew more than 200 visitors for four days of activities, including daily happy hours, hash-making labs, tours, parties, concerts and films, along with “legal sampling, tasting and sharing.”

“This is showing off all the things that make Colorado great,” said Matt Brown, one of two entrepreneurs organizing the event.

The highlight comes today, in what organizers say will be the world’s largest marijuana rally. Tens of thousands are expected in Denver’s Civic Center park, across the street from the state Capitol, which serves as an open-air marketplace for pot dealers.

While many of Colorado’s pot aficionados relish the thought of more tourism, others — including the official tourism office — say it could backfire and hurt the state’s image as a place where families can ski and hike and enjoy more than 300 days of sunshine a year.

“Our office is not going to use legalized cannabis for any marketing purposes,” said Al White, director of the Colorado state tourism office. “We feel that there’s too much to see and do in the state without having to bang that drum. And in fact, it kind of works counter to the branding effort that we’re going for to get people to recognize the healthy aspects of the state.”

He said his phone has been ringing, too, with calls from both sides, including parents who don’t want to visit the state because of its pro-marijuana culture.

“It sounded like the kind of people who would come and spend maybe $5,000 in a week on their family vacation, with Mom, Dad and the two kids — as opposed to the guy who … would bring a hundred-dollar bill and spend a week and leave with $20 in change,” White said.

Marijuana backers say that state officials are guilty of a double standard, all too eager to use taxpayer money to promote the annual Great American Beer Festival.

“They celebrate alcohol tourism and are now acting as if marijuana tourism may somehow be a bad thing — I don’t get it,” said Steve Fox, who worked to pass the new Colorado law and now is the national political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group in Washington.

As soon as Colorado and Washington state voted to approve the recreational use of pot for adults 21 and older, Arthur Frommer, founder of the popular Frommer’s Travel Guides, said that Denver and Seattle could “expect a torrent of new tourism” and that they’d become among a handful of the world’s hottest new destinations.

After spending his career battling drugs, Tom Gorman wants nothing to do with it.

“I don’t think this is the kind of reputation that Colorado really wants, to be the pot capital — or the Netherlands — of the United States,” said Gorman, director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program — which coordinates federal, state and local law enforcement efforts — and the former head of California’s anti-narcotics operations. “Now we are Rocky Mountain high for real.”

Gorman predicted that it would take only four to six years before state voters scrap the legalized system as they watch drug use rise in both adults and teens. “How many more people getting killed on the interstates are we willing to accept before we say enough is enough and this was not a good idea?” he asked.

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