Marijuana legalization wasn't the reason for record ski season, industry rep says

At the start of the 2013-2014 ski season, marijuana seemed like it might be a bigger story than moguls, what with some snowbirds threatening to stay away from Colorado if they were subjected to legal pot, a ski-area executive pledging to yank lift tickets from public tokers, a Forest Service rep saying pot enforcement at resorts on federal land was a priority and the destruction of a venerable smoke shack after it was featured on Inside Edition.

In the end, though, Colorado experienced a record ski season -- and one industry rep doubts that weed had anything to do with it.

"The effect of the new marijuana law on the ski industry was the PR event of the season and the operational non-event of the season," says Jennifer Rudolph, spokeswoman for Colorado Ski Country USA, which represents the majority of ski resorts in the state -- 21 at last count. "There was a lot of talk about it, but the ski areas didn't really see much in terms of action."

They were busy places otherwise. The organization estimates that 12.6 million skiers took to the slopes during the most recent season -- the best number ever recorded in Colorado. This number, which includes 7.1 million folks at CSCUSA resorts, represents a 10 percent boost over last season's total and an 8 percent increase when measured against the average during the past five years.

The Rocky Mountain area in general did well this season, growing by 6.4 percent -- an improvement likely fueled in part to sub-par conditions in the Pacific region, portions of which were impacted by drought. But Colorado's pace was quicker. "We saw a bump in California visitation," Rudolph points out. "Colorado has always been a market for Californians to come and ski, and we saw a bit of an increase in that this year. But it was a very positive season in a variety of categories, from in-state to out-of-state."

Once tourists got here, they didn't cause many pot-related problems, Rudolph notes. In her words, "It was very much business as usual, because people were really focused on the snow. That's what the story of the season was really all about."

The snowfall amounts didn't set any new marks, but they represented a significant improvement over the past couple of years and may have fueled pent-up demand. "Snow is certainly the biggest driver of skier visits," Rudolph acknowledges. "It trumps a bad economy, it trumps war, it trumps gas prices."

What about the January 1 legalization of limited marijuana use and possession by adults age 21 and over?

"We don't know if that had an impact or not," Rudolph says -- and there are no current plans to conduct surveys designed to find out the answer.

Rudolph observed the hubbub over Leo's Smoke Shack, a complex that had been around for years before the aforementioned Inside Edition report prompted its dismantling. But the incident took place at Breckenridge, which isn't a CSCUSA resort, and she's unaware of anything similar happening at ski areas that are members of her organization.

She admits that "we honestly didn't know what to expect" in regard to weed when the season got underway, "but we were prepared to educate skiers and visitors about what they should expect -- and we think the education effort played out, because there weren't many incidents involving marijuana happening at our resorts."

In regard to next year, Rudolph says resort managers "are being flexible to see how this plays out. We're watching what the marijuana industry is doing and how it's figuring things out. And we'll be ready to address them when the next ski season rolls around."

Otherwise, she thinks the impact of marijuana on ski areas "didn't live up to the hype."

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

More from our Marijuana archive circa February 26: "Photos: Leo's Smoke Shack at Breckenridge destroyed after Inside Edition report."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts