Colorado sprinkles its tourism market with cannabis. Is there a lesson for Michigan?

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It’s late afternoon on board the Buds & Beers party bus, where black shades cover the windows, neon lights spiral and pot smoke swirls. Taylor Butterfield, 24, of Arlington, Texas, spies the time.

“It’s four-twenty, boys!” Butterfield crows as he tears into a bag holding the pot he just bought at The Green Solutions retail shop. “Four-twenty” is code in pot culture for a time of day or a day — April 20 — to use weed.

Butterfield’s ready to pack a pipe in honor of the hour, but really the guys have been puffing ever since they got on the bus about 2 p.m. The bus is filled with nearly 20 twenty-somethings come to party from Texas and Louisiana, even a guy from Brazil by way of North Dakota. Some of them are part of a bachelor’s party.

Butterfield’s group did touristy things in the region, visiting Garden of the Gods park in Colorado Springs, riding scooters in Boulder, hiking, taking the Buds & Beers tour in Denver. The tour lets people experience Denver’s legal marijuana scene, see a cannabis growing operation, two different types of dispensaries (a mom-and-pop shop and a larger, slicker retailer), and a craft brewery.

Mateus Abreu, a 23-year-old agronomy student from Brazil who’s working an eight-month internship in North Dakota, wanted to see how cannabis is grown. He also wanted to smoke it where it’s legal. “I’ve been to a lot of places in the world,” Abreu said. “This the first place I’ve been to in the world that has legal marijuana. “But everyone has marijuana,” he added with a smile.

Cannabis pastime

Curious users like Abreu could find their way to Michigan, too, if voters in November approve Proposal I to legalize cannabis.

Michigan has hiking, fishing, golfing, tours of vineyards and sunset sails on the Great Lakes. Just take those activities, combine with visits to marijuana grow operations and dispensaries, and you have a new tourism market, Danny Schaefer, chief executive officer of Denver marijuana tourism company My 420 Tours, said.

Chris Heugel, president of the Cornerstone Chamber of Commerce in St. Joseph, said he hasn’t heard much talk about the prospect of cannabis tourism in southwest Michigan. But Heugel said he could imagine cannabis tourism joining wine tourism and agri-tourism in the area if Proposal I passes.

“I could certainly see somewhere in the future that being a hot topic,” he said. Schaefer thinks a business such as his can translate to any state where adult-use marijuana is legal. He’s eyeing emerging pot tourism markets in California, Nevada and Massachusetts.

“Just to sprinkle cannabis on the existing tourism market is really the strategy,” Schaefer said. Colorado tourism has grown annually over the past eight years. In 2017, the state attracted 86 million out-of-state visitors who spent $21 billion.

An estimated 6.5 million out-of-state visitors came to Colorado because of legal marijuana in 2016, and that number was expected to grow by 6 percent in 2017. Recreational marijuana sales also have flourished in Colorado, rising from more than $300 million in 2014, the first year of retail sales, to more than $1 billion last year.

All those sales translated to more than $247 million in retail marijuana tax revenue for Colorado in 2017. The state levies a 15 percent excise tax on retail pot purchases, and communities can add their own taxes. In Denver, for example, retail pot is taxed at around 25 percent. The ballot measure in Michigan proposes a 10 percent state excise tax, in addition to the 6 percent state sales tax, and that, similar to Colorado, tax money would be divvied up for regulation, enforcement, local governments, schools and roads.

Although it’s unclear exactly how much money Colorado tourists spent just on pot, one study estimated that in 2017 visitors consumed 19 metric tons of marijuana, while Colorado residents consumed nearly 190 metric tons. Colorado tourism officials have said that marijuana’s influence is small in the state’s growing tourism industry, and that they don’t market cannabis tourism because marijuana remains illegal at the federal level.

Schaefer thinks it’s a shame the state doesn’t promote legal marijuana. He said his company has shown “there is such a thing as a cannabis tourist,” and that business has grown, despite some pains, including summer raids by police who issued consumption citations. Schaefer maintains consumption on the private bus is legal and is disputing violations.

“These travelers are like any other,” Schaefer said. “They just enjoy a different recreational pastime, which is cannabis, that really elevates their experience. So whether it’s food or destinations, our guests feel like it’s more enjoyable stoned.


Zack Davis and Alex Mikulec, both of Arlington, Texas, look at marijuana plants at a recreational cannabis grow operation during an August cannabis tour in Denver.

Tours and more

Buds & Beers is one of several types of cannabis tours his company offers in Denver. The company has more sedate tours, too, to educate people about marijuana’s purported health benefits, or to show the cannabis industry to municipal leaders or investors.

Different types of consumption-friendly limo bus tours run from about $49 to $99 per person. Newly added $29 walking tours — such as Blaze & Gaze to enjoy the graffiti in Denver’s River North Arts District — include stops at a dispensary and private cannabis consumption lounge. The company offers classes, too, on how to use marijuana concentrates or how to roll sushi and joints, billed as a great date night activity.

The company can arrange private tours, 420-friendly hotel accommodations and complete cannabis getaways. Schaefer said his business serves about 40,000 clients each year, from millennials to baby boomers, about half of them from out of state.

Marijuana tourists come to the Denver area for all kinds of cannabis-themed experiences, whether aided by Schaefer or other tour operators, or just striking out on their own. There’s cannabis-fueled picture painting and pottery making, and cannabis-derived spa treatments. There are “toasted” submarine sandwiches at Cheba Hut, a chain whose menu plays off pot culture (no actual marijuana involved). Resorts like Bud & Breakfast and private rentals offer pot-friendly places to stay. Tetra 9 is a private cannabis consumption lounge where you can buy a membership for a day or a month.

Recreational pot shops attract many a curious tourist, and there’s a concentration of stores — at least 15 or so — along the “Green Mile” on South Broadway in Denver. They’re just some of the 170 or so recreational dispensaries in the city.

A “cannabis adviser” at Lucy Sky, one Green Mile pot boutique, said out-of-state visitors are constantly amazed they can walk in and “see jars of weed and no cops.” Anyone 21 or older, from anywhere, with the proper ID to prove their age, can buy an ounce of cannabis each day in Colorado. For tourists, though, using it could be a problem.

My 420 Tour
Tour guide manager Alyse Morgan talks about marijuana plants during a My 420 Tours Buds & Brews tour Aug. 11 in Denver.

Consumption conundrum

Colorado law says consuming cannabis must be done in private, such as in a residence, and Michigan’s proposal says the same. Some places and spaces in Colorado can meet conditions to allow it behind curtains and doors, too.

The Cherry Creek Hampton Inn in Denver, for instance, is a 420-friendly hotel across the street from a retail marijuana shop. For about $30, you can rent a vaporizer at the front desk to use in the privacy of your room. The device lets you heat marijuana and inhale a vapor — rather than setting the weed on fire and puffing smoke — and keeps the hotel in compliance with clean indoor air rules.

A front desk clerk said the 420-friendly feature is popular, but he thinks the novelty is wearing off. Most of the hotel’s rooms, he said, are rented by patients receiving respiratory treatment at the renowned National Jewish Health center.

Consumption clubs — places where adults can gather to legally consume marijuana — are harder to come by because of indoor smoking bans and other concerns that make them difficult to license and operate. Oddly, Colorado Springs, Colo., has two of the few consumption lounges around even though the city doesn’t allow recreational marijuana sales.

Ambur Racek, co-owner of Studio A64, one of the consumption clubs in Colorado Springs, said the lounge is a “90 percent tourist type of business.” Any adult can walk in, show ID and pay $5 for daylong access to the lounge, where they can legally use cannabis, but they have to bring their own.

On a recent afternoon, for instance, one local man stopped in briefly for a smoke in the middle of his day, and a young couple from Ohio who were in the region for a family event sought out the lounge for a place to smoke pot.

Racek recalled a couple in their 60s who recently were visiting Colorado and on a lark came in to smoke dope. The man had a bad reaction, which Racek chalked up to the marijuana’s being too potent for him. She talked him through his anxiety and had the couple stay several hours until heads cleared.

Schaefer says businesses like his and Racek’s offer necessary support and education to curious and inexperienced tourists. Back on the bus, the Buds & Beers tour is a hit with the guys.

Guides Alyse and Curt shepherd the group through a grow operation where everyone learns how the cannabis plants are cloned to ensure consistency of the strain, and how male plants are weeded out because it’s females that produce the flowers. The growing cycle, harvesting and drying are explained.

They see the nursery where slender cuttings from mother plants are rooted in red plastic Solo cups, then they walk through other rooms where tall cannabis plants are yielding fat, hairy flower buds. The guys cradle bags of potent kief powder — fine crystals sifted from loose, dry cannabis flowers — labeled with names like Blue Dream and Vanilla Kush.

Stops at two dispensaries let them chat with “bud tenders” and eye dozens of strains of cannabis, concentrates, edibles and paraphernalia. They shop and take their goods back to the party bus. “I was a blank slate,” Zack Davis, 28, of Arlington, Texas, said. “The tour’s way more in-depth and fun than I expected.”

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