Pot Legalization And The Future Of Colorado Tourism

Though the legal ramifications of pot legalization in tourism-dependent Colorado remain hazy in light of the federal government’s continued ban on possession and distribution, there is little reason to believe that cannatourism will either take the state by storm or empty out the ski resorts. Prior experience shows that the public’s mixed reaction to drug availability will likely cancel itself out.

Prior to the passage of Amendment 64, which allows for the possession of an ounce of marijuana within Colorado’s borders, the ski resort of Breckenridge had already begun a bold experiment in legalization. The city’s voters passed an ordinance decriminalizing the possession of small amount of marijuana and the police there changed focus accordingly.

The results were, according to Police Department Spokesperson Kim Green, less than stunning.

“We have found no significant increase in arrests of non-residents versus residents," says Green, who points out that this might be partially attributed to the fact that local weed dispensaries are only allowed to sell to people holding Colorado IDs.

Still, there was a reaction after the city relaxed its stance: Potential visitors threatened to take their business elsewhere.

“Town officials did receive a fair amount of communication from tourists saying they would no longer choose Breckenridge as a vacation destination,” says Green. “I’m sure some in the community felt as though it did affect the nature of the town.”

Figuring out which complaints were genuine and which were sanctimonious would be as difficult as ferretting out the number of snowboarders headed to Breckenridge specifically because of the ordinance, but this story illustrates the potential pitfalls of adjusting pot laws and perhaps justifies state officials' difficult-to-parse statements on the issue.

"Federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don’t break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly," Governor John Hickenlooper said, shortly before snackies were delivered to his office by a pro-legalization lawyer. Striking a similarly ambivalent chord, the Colorado Tourism Office released the following statement to Huffington Post Travel:

“There are many uncertainties and issues to be resolved surrounding Amendment 64. Therefore it is impossible for the Colorado Tourism Office to make any comments or predictions on how this issue will ultimately impact Colorado’s tourism industry. Regardless of Amendment 64, the Colorado Tourism Office will continue to market and position Colorado as a premier four-season convention and tourism destination.”

The concern, as articulated by the Denver Travel CEO Richard Scharf in a public statement is that “Colorado’s brand will be damaged and we may attract few conventions and see a decline in leisure travel.”

But the most prominent experiment in drug tourism, Amsterdam’s embrace of both weed and its smokers, has done little to decrease that city’s appeal. As Rick Steves, a proponent of Washington state’s legalization law, has pointed out on this site, current efforts to crack down on the legal weed trade have only helped the illegal trade, driving customers into the back alleys the Dutch had so badly wanted to clean up.

That may point to the future tourism effects of pot legalization in Colorado. The new normal will bring some and scare off others, but legalization will likely become associated strongly enough with the state that the amount of weed being smoked will cease to be correlated with the laws that have seen so many thrown in prison.

For now, pot legalization is more theory than reality, but the states have made a strong statement about what they want their “brand” to be. If politics could influence the brochures, the state’s new pamphlets would probably read: “Come to The Mile High City and make yourself at home however you see fit.”

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