As we approach our favorite unofficial holiday on April 20, it's nearly impossible to know the immediate future of Colorado's cannabis industry, with numerous regulatory and societal changes (and un-changes) surrounding the plant less than a month into the pandemic. But weeds are tough plants — and essential ones, too, according to the State of Colorado. To get more perspective, we caught up with a half-dozen cannabis trailblazers and OGs, all of whom were here before retail was legalized and the money quickly followed. Some have adapted to the evolving culture, others have refused to compromise, but all play a role in how we view the plant now — and how 4/20s of the future might look. Here's the fourth in our "Rolling With the Punches" series.
Just about every aspect of Colorado cannabis has evolved since recreational sales began in 2014, but public consumption has been stuck in the dark ages. It looked like Colorado had finally seen the light last year, when the legislature passed a law allowing restaurants, hotels, music venues, tour companies and other businesses to apply for social pot-use permits and dispensaries to apply for tasting-room licenses — though their respective town or county must opt into the program first. Since then, only one local government, that of Glendale, has opted in; moves by other municipalities toward allowing social use came to a halt during the coronavirus pandemic.
Still, the wheels are turning. Danny Schaefer has been driving travelers and tokers to organized outings in pot-friendly tour buses since 2013, battling with Colorado and Denver officials at various times over legal definitions concerning social pot use while keeping the engines going.
Westword: What about Colorado cannabis has changed the most since 2012?
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Danny Schaefer: The streamlining and effects of cannabis going mainstream — but with the exception of social consumption. That stigma still exists within the powers-that-be, whether it's at events or smaller social gatherings with social consumption. I think part of that is from Denver's city leadership trying to keep this in a tight box. But after this pandemic, I hope they finally come to terms with the fact that people want to socially consume cannabis like alcohol — with proper sanitization, of course.
So in regard to social cannabis use, it sounds like not much has changed.
Other than legal fees, not really. There's definitely larger interest and more significant demand for social use, but we still don't have local support in Colorado. We're still not on Visit Denver's or the Colorado Tourism Office's websites, despite that recent report that showed marijuana tourism statistics were very close to alcohol tourism. There's demand for it, and we're getting a wide range of customers. We have people who want to host cannabis-friendly weddings, corporate retreats with cannabis and these kinds of things. We have an opportunity to take advantage of it, but the cities don't view it as a reality.
It's choking out a market. Travelers and tourists are overlooked. It's unfortunate, because we can't advertise much. We are seeing more venues opening that are 4/20 friendly, but it's still a gray-area dance.
A lot of cannabis hospitality pertains to tourism. What about the locals? How are Coloradans supposed to enjoy this?
You're seeing it more predominantly, but just more discreetly, too. Everyone has a vape pen or something in their pockets now, and they can enjoy the alternatives to alcohol. It's pretty cool to watch, and we're seeing it take hold in demographics you wouldn't otherwise think. Parents partaking in a 4/20 happy hour is inspiring, for sure.
No one's officially doing these big regulated events or social consumption businesses in Colorado yet, but it's common to see someone smoking a joint downtown in the proximity of a police officer and the officer doesn't really care. You'll see people smoking joints at shows or in smoking sessions now, and that's not uncommon, either. The public part is cheeky, but more lackadaisical and unenforced. Music venues aren't going to take the risk of officially approaching consumption areas, because they run the risk of breaking alcohol laws and losing their liquor licenses. It's still a hush-hush scenario. The penalties for breaking the smoking laws are pretty minute for people, so it's just easier for establishments to take that route right now.
On the social side, it's still kind of clique-y. Cannabis events tend to cater to the same kind of industry members and profiled consumers, but there is an untapped potential here. To do that and do it well, though, it needs to be blessed by the regulatory powers-that-be. It can't be something that is hush-hush or invite-only, which is pretty much the way we've been forced to operate, but there is huge opportunity to bring all walks of life together.
How far away are we from a music venue or other business allowing both cannabis and alcohol use? Do you think it could ever happen?
After this pandemic, we're going to have to stimulate the economy. Operators who are willing to step into a gray area and make it not so gray anymore will help make it more widely accepted, as long as it's done well and done right. If there's no unforeseen catastrophic event around social consumption, I think it can be done. The statistics are in our favor as far as the people coming to Colorado for cannabis — unlike in 2012, when people could pretend like that didn't exist.
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Until there are some federal shifts and changes, though, I don't see the two mixing as long as the feds think cannabis is a Schedule I narcotic.
We all know how much fun it is to eat or hike after smoking weed. What are some underrated activities to do stoned that you've discovered?
A lot of cannabis and arts couplings are fun. Taking people on a RiNo graffiti art tour after they get nice and stoned is always really popular. The culinary arts aspect is very fun, as well. We've been able to have a culinary class with CBD flower at Cook Street Market for hemp cooking classes, and they've created some great stuff. There's a lot of at-home stuff, too. Extraction — we've been giving away some rosin presses — and infused cooking and all the cannabis contraptions and accessories at home are fun stoned activities.
Compare your customer demographics from 2014 to now.
We get people from all walks of life and interests on the tourism side, and they use cannabis all sorts of ways, whether for medical or lifestyle purposes. The stereotypes do not apply in the social side of cannabis anymore. It's always interesting to see the Dabbing Granny [a 65-year-old social-media star made famous for her large hash hits], or people like her who are just the exact opposite of the stereotype. Almost daily, we get surprised by people's interest levels and education surrounding cannabis. It's cool to see how they adapt to it and how they choose to share it with others. We're reaching the general mainstream now, and our customers reflect that.