DENVER — Inside a neon-lit party bus bumping along a pothole-riddled Denver street, Andre Henriquez packs a glass pipe with pungent local bud. The 31-year-old restaurant manager and his wife Ryann travelled from straight-laced Fayetteville, N.C., to experience Colorado’s legendary legal weed scene.
"No one from where we’re from has ever done anything like this. It’s very taboo," says a grinning Ryann, 26, over thumping dance music. "It’ll be a really cool story to tell later."
The couple joined fellow pot enthusiasts on a recent smoke-fuelled pilgrimage, hosted by My 420 Tours, to a greenhouse grow-op and gleaming dispensary that looked more like an Apple store than a weed shop. Giddy visitors from Texas - where possession still carries the risk of lengthy jail sentences - spent US$200 on edibles, extracts and dried marijuana.
Welcome to Colorado, where the cannabis-consuming tourist can enjoy a sushi-and-joint rolling class, a buds-and-suds tour combining dispensaries with micro-breweries or get a cannabis-infused massage at a "4-20-friendly" hotel - a reference to annual marijuana celebrations on April 20.
Just don’t expect to pick up a brochure at the airport.
Since legalizing recreational weed in 2012 and becoming the first state in the country to allow storefront sales in 2014, Colorado has seen a boom in marijuana-themed visitor experiences. But the Colorado Tourism Office and local organization Visit Denver say they can’t promote the industry because marijuana is illegal federally.
"As an entrepreneur, it’s unfortunate. I think it’s an advantage they could exploit," said Danny Schaefer, CEO of My 420 Tours. "If they don’t, other states and other markets absolutely will, and we’re actively having conversations with those markets."
As Canada prepares for legal cannabis on July 1, 2018, industry members in Colorado are urging federal and provincial governments to embrace the potential of marijuana tourism. North of the border, groups including the Cannabis Growers of Canada have also called for the country to support small "craft" growers that would draw visitors similar to winery or brewery tourists.
Colorado has broken tourism records multiple times since 2014, but officials say cannabis has had a minimal impact. The tourism office conducted research last year that says legal marijuana played a role in 23 per cent of visitors’ trips to the state, but only about four per cent came to Colorado specifically to buy marijuana products. That marked a drop from seven per cent in 2015.
"[Legal] marijuana is new but what brings people to Colorado is not new. It’s the mountains, it’s the national parks, it’s the arts and culture, it’s the fine dining," said Dan Rowland, communications adviser with the city and county of Denver. "Now we just have a little bit of ancillary spending going on."
The industry begs to differ. Mike Eymer, CEO of Colorado Cannabis Tours, said tourists buy the majority of recreational cannabis from dispensaries and the city’s hotel occupancy rates have hit all−time highs. His company did US$1.8 million in gross sales in 2016 and is set to beat that by 66 per cent this year, he said.
"Wherever you have oppressed cannabis consumers is where my guests wind up coming from. We get a lot from Texas, Florida, the entire south," he said. "I’ve seen people moved to tears because they never thought they would see this in their lifetime."
For officials, the greater concern is educating tourists on Colorado’s laws. When an out-of-state visitor searches "cannabis" on the tourism office’s website, they’re redirected to Colorado’s Good to Know campaign, which aims to teach outsiders about the perils of public consumption and drug−impaired driving.
Visitors typically visit a location for more than one reason. Someone who wants to go on a ski trip might choose Colorado over Utah if they want to smoke a joint after a long day on the mountain, said journalist Ricardo Baca, a columnist for The Daily Beast who founded The Cannabist website for The Denver Post.
Baca said no U.S. state with legal weed openly promotes cannabis tourism, but the one that could change that is Nevada, which is setting up its first recreational dispensaries.
He pointed out that Colorado promotes its wine country and its trendy craft beer scene.
"When you see them promoting a substance that’s killing 90,000 people a year in America and you see them doing everything they can to not promote a non-lethal substance...you do have to call that into question."
Back inside the party bus, attendees eagerly cracked open their bags of goodies from the dispensary and began filling up pipes and rolling joints to share with one another. Antonio Segovia of Dallas said his decision to travel to Denver was 50-per-cent to visit family and friends, 50-per-cent to smoke weed.
After the vehicle pulled back into the lot and people dazedly shuffled off, driver Matt Lapoehn remarked that he also often transports rowdy drunk people.
"I’d take the stoners any day of the week," he said.