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Marijuana tourism booms in Colorado, though officials remain skeptical
First Published Apr 20 2014 11:51 am • Last Updated Apr 20 2014 11:51 am

Marla Cooley isn’t exactly being discreet when she advertises the marijuana friendliness of her vacation rental home near Lyons.

She calls the rental "High in the Hills."

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"I’m in a spot where I can enjoy life at its highest, and I’m welcoming people to share the experience up here," said Cooley, who hopes to expand with extra cabins for guests. "I’m an entrepreneur. There’s opportunity here."

This is the new world of Colorado marijuana tourism, where the past year’s winks and nods have been replaced increasingly by an open embrace of cannabis-seeking vacationers. Lodging choices — especially at bed and breakfasts or independent rentals — have opened up for toking tourists. Marijuana tour operators say their businesses are booming. Pot shops reported being packed on Friday.

And advocates say this weekend — surrounding the April 20 marijuana holiday known as 4/20 — is poised to reveal just how much out-of-state interest has been generated by marijuana legalization in Colorado. The largest 4/20 celebration in Denver history will feature dozens of concerts, conventions, trade shows, product launches and symposiums around the city, capped by the now-familiar April 20 smoke-out in Civic Center. J.J. Walker, one of the owners of the marijuana tourism company My 420 Tours, likened it to a pot-centric version of the wildly popular South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

"Besides the DNC (Democratic National Convention), I can’t picture anything bigger that people have really all come together for," Walker said. "It’s going to be massive. ... The amount of money coming into town this weekend is astronomical."

The city’s tourism establishment, meanwhile, remains skeptical of the events’ impact and the interest in marijuana vacationing. At Denver International Airport, a spokesman says passenger traffic was expected to be about average through the weekend, with Thursday and Friday the heaviest days. Rich Grant, a spokesman for Visit Denver, said hotel rooms are still widely available downtown and at good rates.

"You’re not seeing compression like you would if there was a major convention," Grant said. "You see some of these articles touting these huge numbers, and we just have no idea if any of that’s true."

Here’s one of those numbers: 80,000. It’s the record number of people that organizer Miguel Lopez expects at this year’s 4/20 rally in Civic Center — although tracking attendance at such free events is difficult.

Not only has his event this year expanded to two days, it will for the first time include street closures around the park, security checks at entry points and an amped-up musical lineup that includes Wyclef Jean and rapper B.o.B.. Lopez said he hopes to use the rally’s newly elevated profile to continue advocating for the rally’s original purpose: changing anti-marijuana laws.

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"We have a strong political course and direction," he said.

Marijuana-linked businesses, though, also see a marketing opportunity in the rally, which will feature dozens of vendor booths and a big tent sponsored by My 420 Tours.

It’s that kind of commercial ambition that most worries critics of Colorado’s marijuana system, who have likened the growth of the marijuana industry to the rise of Big Tobacco. Increase in youth marijuana use and addiction, as well as concerns over stoned driving and unsafe product packaging, are all driven by the same kind of commercialization that attracts marijuana tourists, they say.

"This is something that’s not working," said Ben Cort, with the Center for Dependency, Addiction and Rehabilitation. "And it’s not working because of the level of commercialization."

Graham McBain, owner of the marijuana tourism company So Mile High, said investment opportunities lure some marijuana tourists who want to get an inside look at the industry before they put down money. But he said people wanting to have a good time — such as a recent bachelor party of seven guys from New York who McBain estimates spent $2,000 among them at recreational marijuana stores — also make up a sizable chunk.

This year, McBain is even offering a $38,000-for-two-people "signature tour," which combines a private jet, fine dining, spa treatments and a luxury hotel room.

For most marijuana tourists, though, lodging remains the biggest challenge. Grant, from Visit Denver, said he knows of no hotels in Denver allowing people to smoke pot in their rooms. My 420 Tours says it negotiated with its downtown hotel to allow tourists to use marijuana vaporizers in their rooms — but Walker wouldn’t name the hotel.

Instead, McBain said the best option appears to be bed and breakfasts or through private rental services online such as Airbnb.com or VRBO.com.

"There are people who want to come here, and it’s something they want to do and they need a safe place where they can do it," said Denise Murray, who promotes her vacation rental home in Manitou Springs with a private outdoor space for smoking.

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