The forty-foot-high Willie Nelson statue has yet to appear on the edge of Colorado Boulevard — but that could only be a matter of time.
Because otherwise, the construction crew is putting the finishing touches on what promises to soon become one of metro Denver’s top tourist attractions: The Smokin’ Gun.
Yes, it’s a recreational marijuana store — but not just any recreational marijuana store.
For starters, this store is in Glendale, which means it can stay open until midnight — unlike Denver pot shops just across the street, which must close at 7 p.m.
The store’s design lives up to its name: Two pillars in front are designed as spliffs, with red lights on top and smoke machines inside; the structure itself is shaped like a MAC-10 (though you’ll need to use Google Earth to see that), with the gun barrel pointed at Colorado Boulevard; below that, an LED projector will share photos from the Reefer Madness era with passing traffic.
Just to the east of the Gun's grip is Shotgun Willie’s, a major attraction in its own right; the club once stood on the spot where the dispensary will be, before a shiny new Shotgun was built next door. And the folks pulling the trigger on this project are Debbie Matthews, owner of the strip club; manager Lindsey Mintz, who also runs the T-bar at Shotgun, the adjunct bar that stays open until 4 a.m.; and Mike Dunafon, Matthews’s husband, who doesn’t actually own any of the Smokin' Gun but owns a lot of the ideas behind it and happens to be the mayor of Glendale. That helps explain his confidence that there won’t be any problem with the store’s more innovative features.
Dunafon is also a former Colorado gubernatorial candidate who campaigned on an anti-drug war platform — and that helps explain the Smokin’ Gun’s interior. The cigar-chomping, libertarian pol has more fun in a day than most people do in a year, and he's really let his imagination take off here.
Tourism officials deny that marijuana has been a major factor in convincing visitors to come to Colorado, and they’ve got studies to back up that assertion. “It’s not the main reason that people come to visit this state,” says Cathy Ritter, the new director of the Colorado Tourism Office. “Those reasons have remained essentially unchanged for many years — the chance to go outdoors, to see historic sights, see scenic byways.”
But once tourists get to Colorado, there’s no question that many also want to see the first legalized marijuana stores in the country. I regularly send visitors on the Tumbleweed Tour, which takes them to the 1600 block of Wazee Street, where they can see the Old West at Rockmount Ranch Wear, and then the Very New West at LoDo Wellness right across the street.
For more contemporary commercial action, they can head to 1644 Evans Avenue, where they can visit the very first Chipotle in the country, which opened in 1993; right next door is Starbuds, a rec store that thumbs its nose at the Starbucks across the street.
And soon tourists will discover a smokin’ deal with the Glendale twofer of Shotgun Willie’s and the Smokin’ Gun.
When you enter the building — and you should be able to do that in mid-February, or even earlier if you're a Shotgun Willie's customer who wins a lottery to visit the store next door — you’ll step into the approximation of a speakeasy, with Victorian-style wallpaper sporting state-of-the-art electronics. On one side will be fairly standard instructions for pot-shop customers. On the other, a three-part screen will serve as an “awareness piece,” with a memorial to those law enforcement officers who “lost their lives to the stupid War on Drugs, an absolute disaster worldwide,” says Dunafon. Another section will be dedicated to those who lost their freedom and possessions to the War on Drugs, and the third will show that war’s history, with an RSS feed offering updates.
Beyond all this is a closed door, with a sign advising that you are about to enter the Bank of Hibernia. And that’s no joke: The partners bought the interior of a bank outside of New Orleans, one that dated back to 1870 — when the first drug law in the country was passed, one directed at the Chinese consumption of opium, which set the tone for other racist drug legislation to follow, Dunafon notes.
The bud room is spacious, with a giant seal of an American eagle on the floor — the bird holding hemp rather than olive branches in its claws.
To the back is a mural painted by Daniel Chavez that chronicles the Denver arrests of Moses Baca and Samuel Caldwell, the first people to be convicted of violating the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act. And around the room will be state-of-the-art displays of all the Smokin’ Gun’s wares, including a wide range of marijuana; Matthews says the selection will be a veritable supermarket of pot that features the “best from everywhere.”
Punch a button and you’ll get a ticket for what you want, which you then place in a Mason jar that can later be redeemed for a free beer at Shotgun’s.
The history lesson continues in one corner of the room, where you can buy the maximum amount of marijuana allowed in Colorado — an ounce for residents, a quarter-ounce for visitors — but first you must venture into the facsimile of a Mississippi jail cell in 1941, past a sign that notes: “For what you’re about to buy, you’d get life in prison.”
For a less harrowing buying experience, you can step up to one of the teller windows beside the cell, where cashiers will replace all your tickets with product — much of it packaged in shotgun shells.
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Upstairs are offices, a humidor where special bud will be kept for regular visitors, and a deck with a beautiful view of the Rockies. But you don’t need to look far to see that the Smokin’ Gun is right on target to become a major tourist attraction. As Willie Nelson wrote in “Denver”:
The bright lights of Denver
Were shining like diamonds
Like ten thousand jewels in the sky
And it’s nobody’s business
Where you’re goin’ or where you come from
And you’re judged by the look in your eye.
For more on pot in Colorado, go to westword.com/marijuana. E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.