Usually when I talk to people about Colorado, the discussion revolves around my home state’s stunning mountain ranges and superb hiking, skiing, and camping.
This year, it’s all about pot.
In January, Colorado became the first state in the nation to legalize sales of recreational marijuana, so when I went home to visit my mom this summer, I decided to investigate this new tourist attraction — a purely professional curiosity, of course.
I grew up in a small town on the western side of the state, Paonia, population 1,450, located in a fertile valley known for its low-sulfur coal, fruit orchards, and plentiful marijuana crops, including the legendary Paonia Purple Paralyzer.
There aren’t any pot shops in Paonia, although the question of whether that should change is on the ballot this fall, along with allowing large-scale cultivation and manufacturing. But several ski towns nearby now sell cannabis, so I created an herb holiday of sorts, with three day trips to check out the state’s newly sanctioned Rocky Mountain high.
My first retail reefer expedition was to Telluride, an old mining town in southwestern Colorado located in a box canyon — you have to drive out the same way you drove in, past lush green meadows, slender aspen trees, and spectacular spiky peaks streaked with snow.
It was a surprisingly family-friendly affair, with plenty of designated drivers: me, my cousin, my mom, my best friend, Teresa, and her husband. After lunch at the aptly named Baked in Telluride, a few of us went to scout out the town’s four recreational marijuana stores, located alongside real estate agencies listing multimillion-dollar homes and shops selling $166 sweaters.
We ducked into the Telluride Green Room, a small shop reeking of sweet, stinky weed, with an extensive menu of products. There were dozens of edibles – sour gummy bears, red fish, cherry bombs; massage oils and body lotions and lip balm, which don’t get you stoned but offer topical pain relief; concentrates and oils for vaporizers; and two strains of smokable buds: sativa, which promises an “energetic and uplifting” high, and indica, which gives a “strong physical body high that will make you sleepy or couch locked.”
An employee of the liquor store down the street came in to buy a package of gummy bears. “It helps with my work ethic,” he said. We saw him later at the liquor store and can report that his work ethic was indeed quite satisfactory.
I bought a gram of the innocent-sounding Blackberry sativa and another of Afghani indica, each enough to fill a small prescription bottle for $16.89 apiece (plus a hefty 18 percent tax), along with a small glass pipe and lighter. It’s illegal to consume pot “openly and publicly” in Colorado, which makes it difficult for tourists to indulge. Indoor clean air regulations prevent Amsterdam-style “coffee shops,” although a handful of private cannabis clubs have popped up.
The phrase I heard over and over: “Be discreet.”
“I tell people to take a walk down by the river,” said Green Room employee Rebecca Lang.
And so we did — passing the town marshal on the way, who couldn’t have cared less that we were carrying a bag of pot.
After sampling the Blackberry, we floated along in a happy bubble, our senses heightened. We located an ice cream parlor via Yelp, only to find that it had become a weed shop (hilarious). We did finally find some ice cream (delicious), and then took the gondola up to the ski area to survey the rocky peaks and colorful buildings tucked into the valley below (gorgeous).
On the way home, a few of us stopped at Orvis Hot Springs, a clothing-optional resort in Ridgway. It’s a beautiful place, with pools of varying temperatures set into the rocks, all with stunning views of the jagged San Juans — and less stunning views of middle-aged naked people.
Orvis has the dubious distinction of being located on the last piece of land taken from the Ute Indians. The great-grandson of Chief Ouray still comes to Orvis for a soak, apparently, and yes, he gets in for free — as do all Utes.
Dope is not allowed at Orvis — a sign posted by the front desk spells out the law against public consumption. But, once again, apparently that means “Don’t do it where we can see you.” “I like to tell people there’s nothing to stop you from walking down the road and getting baked,” said Bob Lavouix, the employee manning the front desk.
Something did stop me, though: the need to clear my hazy head.
Colorado has already seen a big economic boost from legalizing marijuana. Taxes from retail and medical marijuana sales are expected to generate $48 million this fiscal year. Denver, where more than half of the state’s 212 retail pot shops are located, was the third-most-popular college spring break destination this year, according to priceline.com , beating out every city in Florida, California, even Mexico.
But that doesn’t mean the tourism industry is embracing it. The Colorado Tourism Office and other local agencies are officially ignoring the fact that visitors can puff in peace. Before the 2012 election, Visit Denver put out a statement stating that “Colorado’s brand will be damaged, and we may attract fewer conventions and see a decline in leisure travel”; the agency has since taken a neutral position, reporting no negative impact on convention business so far, but no evidence of a “green rush” either.
In a TripAdvisor poll released in January, 21 percent of respondents said they would be less likely to visit Colorado now that marijuana has been legalized — and 17 percent said they would be more likely to travel to the state.
My cousin, Jennifer, who grew up next door to me and was visiting from Baltimore with her 9-year-old daughter, said people had one of two reactions when she told them she was going to Colorado: “You better be careful,” and “Are you going to get high?” — neither of which is bound to please tourism officials.
Peter Maxwell, a steakhouse owner in Crested Butte, strongly opposed allowing more than a handful of weed shops in town. “Our customer base is from the Bible Belt,” he said. But with the number of retail licenses capped at five, and the busiest Fourth of July he’s had in six years, Maxwell isn’t complaining.
The founder of Colorado Green Tours in Denver, which offers visitors tours of dispensaries and shops in a “cannabis-friendly vehicle” said worries about unsavory visitors flooding the state are unfounded. “A lot of people have a stereotype of a quote, unquote stoner as some dreadlocked hippie — lazy, not really contributing that much to society,” Peter Johnson said. “But in my experience, by and large, the vast majority of cannabis users are very productive people.”
The ganja-loving tourists I talked to certainly were. A doctor and his nurse practitioner wife from Oklahoma. An innkeeper from Oregon. A firefighter, an airplane mechanic, and a social media director. All of them — many in their 40s and 50s — said they regularly vacationed in Colorado, and being able to buy marijuana just made the trip more enjoyable.
The average age of customers in the first two months of the year, according to one pot shop owner: 52.
My second pot-buying excursion was to Crested Butte, a wildflower and mountain biking mecca, on the other side of a dirt pass dotted with red, yellow, and purple blooms. At the Soma Wellness Lounge, a store with reggae on the stereo and Oriental rugs on the floor, rows of weed-infused cherry drops and raspberry jellies hung beside packets of similarly supercharged packets of hot chocolate, bottles of brightly colored sodas, and jars of buds. A tourist from Oklahoma compared the rush of buying pot legally to watching his first porn movie; another, from Arkansas, asked for the weed that “makes you laugh your ass off.”
Owners Chuck Reynolds and Lee Olesen said they had recorded visitors from all 50 states since opening in April. Among their regular customers: senior citizens and veterans who didn’t sign up for medical marijuana cards for fear of losing their federal health benefits.
Unlike many pot shops, Soma accepts credit cards — an issue caused by the fact many banks won’t do business with cannabis retailers — forcing them to go cash only. Marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 drug — the kind most subject to abuse, on the same plane as heroin, more dangerous than cocaine or meth — although the FDA is currently conducting a scientific review of marijuana that may result in it being knocked down in classification.
Most people aren’t coming to the high country just for weed, of course; they are there to soak in the small-town, big-mountain, thoroughly gentrified beauty, which in Crested Butte includes an oxygen bar, art galleries, yoga studios, and an organic bakery. On the deck of the Sunflower deli, two couples in their 70s soaked up the sun. Pat and Mike Levins, from Vienna, Va., were traveling around the state with friends from Littleton. Smoking pot was not on the itinerary, but they didn’t seem offended by the state’s embrace of it. “I think it should be legal everywhere,” said Mike, a former National Transportation Safety Board employee.
Armed with a $26 child-proof bottle of lemon drops, I rejoined my friends to camp at Lost Lake, a sliver of blue ringed by pine trees, rocky ridges, and wildlife galore. During the course of the evening, a silvery fox, a spiney porcupine, and a deer walked by our campsite.
The recommended edible dosage, clearly labeled on every package I saw, was 10 milligrams, or one lemon drop, and we were advised to see how it hit us before taking more. (Are you listening, Maureen Dowd?) We all took one, waited an hour, then had another. This was a heavier, more all-encompassing high than the first day, and, judging by several bouts of uncontrollable laughter around the campfire, it was definitely of the “laugh your ass off” variety.
The next morning, Teresa and I went to check out the marijuana selection in Aspen, where stores sell fur chaps with bedazzled bullets and the women all seemed to be wearing spandex or carrying tiny dogs, or both. Teresa and I, on the other hand, smelled like smoke and were dressed in day-old clothes.
At the Green Dragon Cannabis Co., an Oregon man marveled at the ability to walk into a clean, well-lighted store to buy weed “instead of waiting for some guy to pull up in a car in an alley.” An Arizona couple and a 20-something guy peered into a jar of buds as the manager described the different kinds of high they provide. “We’re watching our son buy pot,” the woman explained.
At home later that night, I tried out my Aspen purchase, caramels made with cannabis-infused butter, and my mom had two lemon drops. We lighted some candles and sat on the porch swing under a blanket, listening to Tanya Tucker and drinking wine. You know, your typical mother-daughter evening, enhanced by a federally banned substance.
(My mom had the sole remaining lemon drop after I left. It didn’t leave her feeling stoned, she told me, just hungry.)
I’m happy to report that, at least where I traveled, Colorado does not seem to have been transformed into a stoner paradise. I didn’t see anyone getting high (except the people I was with). The locals and visitors I came across were the wholesome, outdoorsy types I usually encounter: a man from Utah using a hovercraft-like camera to film his son on a mountain bike; a preteen girl in a “Been there, skied that” T-shirt; a panhandler asking, “Spare a tomato?” A bartender in Telluride reported that there hadn’t been any bar fights during spring break, an unusual occurrence that he suspected was due to mellowed-out patrons.
Legalization is bound to spread. Retail sales have begun in Washington state, and nearly half the states in the country have either decriminalized marijuana or allow the medical variety. In fact, a recent Boston Globe survey found that almost half of Massachusetts voters would approve retail marijuana. The legal right to be couch-locked in our own state might not be far behind.