pot

'Like a Napa Valley wine tour': Pot tourism ready to light up in Colorado

Jan. 1, 2014 at 7:05 AM ET

Employees roll joints behind the sales counter at Medicine Man marijuana dispensary, which is among the first batch of Denver businesses to receive their licenses allowing them to legally sell recreational marijuana beginning Jan. 1. 2014.
Brennan Linsley / AP
Employees roll joints behind the sales counter at Medicine Man marijuana dispensary, which is among the first batch of Denver businesses to receive their licenses allowing them to legally sell recreational marijuana beginning Jan. 1. 2014.

As Colorado becomes the first state in the nation to allow recreational marijuana sales beginning Jan. 1, a budding pool of "potrepreneurs" have high hopes for an influx of out-of-town pot tourists.

Colorado Highlife Tours, which promises “fun, affordable and discreet” cannabis-centered excursions, is expanding its private and public limo and bus tours.

“You’ll be able to buy a little pot here and there, see a commercial grow, visit iconic Colorado landmarks and take lots of pictures,” said company owner Timothy Vee. “It will be like a Napa Valley wine tour.”

Cannabis-friendly guides, activities and tours in Colorado are already available. As of Dec. 31, 18 retail marijuana stores in Denver had received licenses to open on the first of the year and two dozen other marijuana-related businesses that had met the city's licensing requirements were awaiting approval. Beyond the Mile High City, more than 25 other towns and cities will allow medical marijuana businesses to start adding or transitioning to retail marijuana sales on Jan. 1.

Unlike Napa Valley wine tours, however, out-of-states tourists to Colorado’s pot retail stores won’t be able to take home most products they purchase. “It remains illegal to take marijuana out of the state,” said Michael Elliott of the Medical Marijuana Industry Group. And because marijuana also remains on the Transportation Security Administrations's list of prohibited items, Denver International Airport will enforce a new policy that bans pot throughout the airport.

"Previously, a visitor to the airport could have less than one ounce of pot as long as they were over 21 and did not pass through security," said airport spokeswoman Stacey Stegman. Now, to ensure that passengers don’t mistakenly violate the rules of the airport and air travel, "we have prohibited the possession, use, and consumption of marijuana for everyone on airport property."

Related: 8 things to know about buying and smoking pot in Colorado

Travelers also won’t find much information about pot tours alongside official city and state tourism brochures, vacation guides and websites promoting Colorado's skiing, hiking and cultural activities.

“We have a fiduciary responsibility to get the best return on our marketing efforts,” said Rich Grant, spokesman for Visit Denver, the city's travel and visitor bureau. “There is no research yet on the benefits of marijuana tourism, so for at least the first year we’re not going to market that in any way."

Pamphlets created by a coalition of marijuana industry organizations seek to fill in the gaps, informing tourists of what they can and cannot do while in Colorado and offering such advice as "Do not eat the whole brownie” and “Remember, Uncle Sam says ‘Stay off federal lands with that devil’s lettuce.’”

“There may be a line out the door and we expect our budtenders will be dealing with people who have a myriad of questions. So we wanted to offer information about the laws and about safe consumption,” said Elan Nelson, a business strategy consultant for Medicine Man in Denver.

In south Denver the staff at Evergreen Apothecary, located about an hour and a half from the Wyoming border, is ready for an influx of first-day retail pot shoppers with rented propane heaters, red velvet ropes and a security staff that will be on duty starting at 8 a.m.

“We’ll be giving out special T-shirts,” said shop co-owner Tim Cullen, “and my parents have volunteered to hand out coffee, juice and snacks to the people standing in line.”

Long-time travel expert Arthur Frommer has predicted that pot tourism will make Colorado a new hot spot. But despite the fact that this sort of tourism has been lucrative for shop owners in Amsterdam, his daughter, Pauline Frommer, the editorial director of Frommer Media, said she’s taking a “wait-and-see approach.”

Leafly, an online database with thousands of user reviews of medical marijuana strains and dispensaries around the country, expects that starting Jan.1 there will be a large number of reviews written about the retail pot stores and recreational marijuana strains available in Colorado.

“It will help tourists in new locations find the right strain for the experience they’re looking for. And once people fine the right strains, we can tell them which retail stores have it and which retail stores are top-rated,” said Leafly CEO Brendan Kennedy.

Prior to Jan. 1, Colorado Highlife Tours has mixed sightseeing with stops at glass-blowing shops, marijuana grow centers and has offered customers “free samples” — because buying pot was not yet legal. 

“You live and learn,” said Vee. “On our tours, we’re getting a lot of empty nesters that haven’t smoked pot in 20 years. We’ve also had people who have never smoked pot take our tours and had one couple get high and so paranoid that we had to interrupt the tour and take them back to their hotel.” 

Harriet Baskas is the author of "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can’t or Won’t Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas.

Video: Colorado is preparing to make history as it becomes the first state to sell recreational marijuana – but the change is not without controversy. NBC’s Gabe Gutierrez reports.

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