Colorado's budding marijuana tourism

Crested Butte, Colorado's wildflower capital, nestles in the Elk Mountain Range of west-central Colorado, where lupine, aster, mule's ear and a host of other dazzlers dot the fields. But currently the hottest tourist attraction is weed.

The resort town, population 1,600, supports four marijuana shops.

The sale of medical marijuana has been legal in the state for 14 years, but since Colorado sanctioned recreational marijuana for adults in January, the cannabis shop's stubby green cross insignia has become as recognizable as a striped barber's pole — and in some towns, more common. Meanwhile, the number of visitors coming to partake has grown like a weed.

Crested Butte — once a silver mining hotbed, now a hub for mountain bike and ski enthusiasts — radiates a laid-back vibe. Free shuttle buses, whimsically decorated by local artists, ferry passengers from the cozy downtown to condos and hotels on the slopes. On Elk Avenue, the main boulevard, a string of 1880s blacksmith shops, dry goods stores and saloons (Butch Cassidy allegedly drank here) have been reborn as trendy pizza parlors, sushi lounges and boutiques. The posted speed limit is a leisurely 15 miles an hour. As one pot tourist observed, "If you're stoned, 15 is fast."

Four blocks south, past miners' shacks in various stages of decay and rehab, another shopping strip along sunswept Belleview Avenue includes three pot dispensaries. Modest signage is the only clue to the cannabis stores' existence. Prohibited by law from displaying their wares in storefront windows, they present themselves in plain brown wrappers of anonymous stucco and clapboard.

A small group entered one of them, Soma Wellness Lounge, and were greeted by Elizabeth Langanki, a Minnesota native with the easygoing manner and studious eyeglasses of a friendly librarian. She asked to see photo IDs (legal age begins at 21) and then invited the visitors to relax on sofas with a coffee or tea and have a get-to-know-you chat before proceeding to the sales area. Putting potentially nervous newcomers at ease is an essential part of the business, she said.

The shop's retail space, behind a locked door, is a spotless earth-toned showroom that could pass for a tastefully appointed gourmet tea store. Gleaming glass shelves line the walls, displaying rainbow-colored cannabis oil gummi sweets, pot brownies, hash candies and squeeze bottles of THC-infused massage lotions. Humidors full of gray-green buds the size of a baby's fist decorate the wall behind the sales counter. Display cases house sheaves of precisely crafted, individual machine-rolled joints. Beside the checkout are bottles of Clear Eyes Redness Relief Eye Drops.

The store's prices, including state taxes of 21 percent, are around $360 an ounce for high-quality strains. That's about one-third above the black market street price, but seniors, active-duty military and veterans receive a 5 percent discount.

Soma, open since April, has found that educating its customers is crucial. "It's a lot older demographic than we would have expected, a lot of people from 45 to 70," Langanki said.

Such shoppers require a fair amount of advice, since today's strains of marijuana aim for maximum potency.

As with beer or wine, there are many different qualities and styles of pot available, bearing names such as Durban Poison, Super Lemon Haza and Afghan Dream. There are sativas that produce a heady, energetic response; relaxing indicas; and hybrids that blend both experiences.

"We can't just tell people, 'This is going to get you high.' We have to explain this is how you will feel with this particular product," said Langanki, who graduated from the University of Minnesota with a horticulture degree, and oversees Soma's greenhouse operations. "The nutrients they're on are like steroids," she said.

If the store's oversized guest book is any indication, Soma has satisfied quite a few customers.

"Awesome, after 49 years I am finally a law-abiding citizen," wrote one visitor. Another asked, "When are you guys coming to Texas?"

Many pages feature loopy amateur cartoons of blissed-out smokers.

It's boom times for post-prohibition pot, a new silver rush linked closely to tourism. Washington state got in on the act in July, after legislators there legalized recreational marijuana.

In Colorado, some $70 million worth of recreational cannabis was sold legally in the first four months of 2014, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue. During that time retail sales in most tourist destinations more than doubled. Telluride's San Miguel County saw pot sales rise 174 percent in the first four months of 2014. In Denver, with a lower visitor-to-resident ratio, sales rose only 19 percent. Though out-of-staters are limited to quarter-ounce purchases and bringing it home is prohibited, about 90 percent of sales in some counties is likely to be from visitors.

Inevitably, there's an iPhone app: Weedmaps displays all the dispensaries in commuting distance, with consumer comments.

Not everyone in the tourism industry embraces the budding entrepreneurs. Some businesspeople believe that branding Colorado a weed wonderland could sully its wholesome heritage as a hiking, biking and skiing family destination.

A search of the state's visitors bureau website for marijuana or cannabis produces no hits. ("Did you mean 'canvas'?") The boosterish Denver Convention & Visitors Bureau website omits mention of dispensaries, as well.

Colorado's laws are designed to keep pot smoking secretive, behind private, closed doors. Indulging in public is prohibited, theoretically. On two recent weekday afternoons, unmistakable whiffs of acrid smoke wafted down Denver's tree-lined 16th Street pedestrian mall.

With no Amsterdam-style public venues and private lounges where smoking pot is permitted, My420Tours has created a niche, skirting the technicalities of the state's hotel smoking ban. For $229 a night, the firm will book a room in downtown Denver's slick corporate Crowne Plaza hotel and drop off a hookah-style pot vaporizer for overnight use.

Small independent hotel owners are stepping up to serve pot tourists as well. Denver's Adagio Bed & Breakfast not only welcomes users, but shares its own in-house stash.

The pink wedding cake Victorian in the shadow of the state capitol styles itself a "bud-and-breakfast," offering guests a buffet of pot at every meal.

A stay at the Adagio is a one-stop hemp festival. There's a "Wake-n-Bake" continental breakfast and pot spread; midday snacks, mimosas and marijuana; happy hour appetizers and pot treats; and nightly cannabis, cookies and milk.

The service isn't really restricted to posted mealtimes, either. When I checked in, staff "budtender" Dan Siegel said, "Well, it's not actually happy hour, but we're the only ones here, so why not?" (Full disclosure: I don't partake.)

To keep the party spirit going, the Adagio also organizes bus and limo excursions to pot stores and head shops, a new category of tours that is becoming a fixture of Denver's entertainment scene.

Titan Steel, visiting from the East Coast, had planned to stay two days, but found the setting so agreeable he extended his visit a week.

"It's awesome," he said as Washington-Duke rolled him a joint in the walled garden. "I want to move here and get into this industry myself."

The dope on pot in Colorado

Colorado is not a wide-open cannabis mecca. The state is a regulatory checkerboard, with counties and municipalities banning or permitting recreational sale according to local preference. Check the laws for the localities you visit. Here are five more things to know before you go.

Size matters. Residents 21 and over may possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana, but out-of-state visitors are restricted to a quarter-ounce.

Go inside. It's illegal to consume marijuana outdoors, and Colorado's Clean Air Act outlaws smoking of any kind in most indoor public spaces, including hotels.

No hits on hikes. It's a crime to consume or possess marijuana on federal and public lands, home to most of the state's ski hills and outdoor activities.

You are what you eat. With edible products, study the labels, start small and ask questions. Depending on your body type, edibles can take up to two hours to fully take effect and can remain in your system for hours longer. Take special care to keep edibles (which may resemble candies) away from children and pets.

Souvenirs not allowed. Taking pot out of the state is illegal, as are sales between unlicensed individuals.

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