By Joel Warner
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The state's mascots gathered around the steps of the State Capitol two weeks ago for the Discover Colorado Rally, a Colorado Tourism Office event celebrating National Travel and Tourism Week. There was Spike, the symbol of the Colorado Railroad Museum; Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill, loaded for bear; Miles, apparently recovered from the Denver Broncos' embarrassing Super Bowl performance; and Dinger, in a new Rockies uniform that didn't seem to require the usual vacuuming. Just about every state symbol was on hand except for Little Buddy, Colorado's most popular — if most unofficial — mascot of the moment. The segment of the tourism industry that he represents is smokin' — even if it wasn't mentioned at the rally.
In fact, the closest Colorado boosters came to mentioning marijuana was when Governor John Hickenlooper, cradling a baby Nubian goat (representing Haystack Farms and Colorado's potential for culinary and agri-tourism), touted this state's tourism success story. The industry employs nearly 145,000 people in Colorado, who collected more than $16.7 billion from visitors here in 2012, a 5.7 percent increase over 2011, and all this despite the fact that "some other states even take pot shots at us for one reason or another," Hickenlooper said.
The unnamed shooter would be New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who just a few days earlier had vowed that he never wanted to see marijuana legalized in his state. "Go to Colorado and see if you wanna live there," Christie proclaimed. "Head shops popping up on every corner and people flying in just to get high."
Instead of firing back at Christie, Hickenlooper focused on the rough year behind us — drought, fires and floods — and the possibilities ahead. "That's what really defines Colorado in so many ways — the fact that when a natural disaster, something out of your control, comes out of left field, we fight back," Hickenlooper told the crowd while the baby goat snoozed on. "There's a resiliency here you don't see in the rest of the country."
Not to mention an entrepreneurial spirit that is taking full advantage of Colorado's status as the only state (so far) to sell recreational marijuana, staking a claim on a new, green gold rush. While there may not be planeloads of people flying to Colorado just to get high — unless they're fleeing New Jersey at the same time — pot has proved a definite tourist attraction. But you wouldn't know that from looking at Colorado.com, the state's official tourism site, which has no information on marijuana (instead, the site suggests an alternative search for "mariana") or cannabis (try "canvas," it helpfully offers). So when the national media descended on Colorado for the first day of sales, it focused on stories about nude bud-and-breakfast joints rather than more sober businesses.
And the state has yet to really speak up. Colorado purchased a pricy insert in this month's United Airlines' Hemispheres magazine, but in those 44 glossy pages that sing the praises of this state — "seriously smart" residents, breweries, skiing — you don't find a single mention of marijuana, although there is a reference to welcoming "risk-takers." This past winter, Colorado Ski Country was equally silent on the subject. Although you wouldn't expect the trade association to list all the best smoke shacks on the mountain, the virtual white-out on any marijuana information did a disservice to skiers who headed for the hills expecting to find pot growing on trees, and instead discovered that retail shops were few and far between in the mountains.
But all that is changing, and changing fast. So when the rally ended with a cry to "Go out and discover Colorado!," I did just that, descending from that Capitol step adorned with the plaque indicating you're at 5280 feet and descending into the real mile-high city.
A week earlier, two college friends had visited from New York City. One was here for a big insurance convention, racking up restaurant bills that will almost certainly be reflected soon in rate increases, and the other to shop for pot, bringing her nearly-thirty-year-old daughter along to discover the marvels of the new marijuana frontier. Over the course of a weekend, I toured one or the other or all three through a dozen recreational shops, starting at 3D, the first spot to make a retail pot sale on January 1. And it was still doing big business four months later, attracting regulars and tourists alike, browsers and big buyers, male and female, young and old. "You're never too old to par-tay!" proclaimed the fellow who exited right after us. "Baby boomers, let's get down!"
We took a trip down Broadway — "Broadsterdam," as it's now known. And along the way, we kept encountering tourists eager to experience this brave new world — and very helpful, friendly tour guides, every one of whom was careful to caution consumers to be careful if they were trying edibles. We stopped at the Kind Room, which lived up to its name. We shopped at LivWell Broadway, part of a chain of spa-like stores, which politely urged us not to park in the Girl Scouts parking lot next door. When the munchies hit, one friend urged me to pull into the next place where she could eat — a raw, vegan cafe, it turned out. And while vegan cheese is really no match for Cheetos when you are in this condition, my friend kept stuffing in arugula while she engaged a staffer in a half-hour-long conversation on the meaning of fermentation. "I must be high," she finally admitted.