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Legalizing marijuana not expected to boost tourism in Colorado ski towns

Steps to legalization have been on-going for years



In the wake of the vote legalizing possession of marijuana in Colorado last Tuesday, newspapers in the state's ski towns wondered about the effect on tourism. After all, people go to Costa Rico to get root canals and chip in a round or two of golf on the side. Why not a ski vacation and a few bong hits, too?

But tourism promoters said they doubt easy availability will mean much to most people. "I really don't see it as a plus or a minus," said Tom Kern, chief executive of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association. "I just see it as fact," he told Steamboat Today.

Colorado has been edging toward legalization of marijuana for some years. In 2000, state voters authorized use of marijuana for medical purposes, in defiance of federal law prohibiting marijuana. Then, in 2009, the Obama administration signalled it would not prosecute medical marijuana patients and caregivers who were in "clear and unambiguous" compliance with state law. By 2010, Colorado lawmakers had adopted legislation governing the burgeoning medical dispensaries.

"I've never before seen so many 21 year olds with neck pain," wise-cracked John Minor, sheriff of Summit County, shortly after the new laws went into effect.

In fact, some clinics advertised having doctors on call 24 hours a day.

In 2009, Breckenridge blazed the path further, legalizing possession of the drug that some people call 420, a nod to the date and time (4:20 p.m. on April 20) when cannabis users gather to light up.

There was some confusion in Breckenridge, however. Some thought the town had allowed marijuana use in public. Not so. And town officials were careful to restrict marijuana dispensaries, to avoid ground-floor locations along the town's retail core.

Wendy Wolfe, a member of the Breckenridge Town Council, said that the legalization drew some visitors and caused others to stay away. "It's probably a wash," she told Steamboat Today.

The impact of the vote in ski towns is a moot point in other ways as well. Sheriffs in Aspen, Telluride and Breckenridge have all said at various times that prosecution of marijuana laws was not a high priority.

"It was never a priority for us, really, unless you brought attention to yourself," Minor told the Summit Daily News.

In fact, marijuana use in Colorado is still restricted to people with doctor's authorization. State officials expect implementation of the law to take a year.

"Don't break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly," said Gov. John Hickenlooper, alluding to the well-known effect of smoking marijuana to make people hungry.

In San Miguel County, where Telluride is located, 79 per cent of voters favored legalization of marijuana, the largest margin in the state. It was followed by 75 per cent in Pitkin County (Aspen), then Summit (Breckenridge) 70 per cent), Gunnison (Crested Butte) at 67 per cent, and Eagle (Vail) at 66 per cent. Routt County (Steamboat) wasn't far behind at 63 per cent. The constitutional amendment won 55 per cent of statewide votes.

In both Aspen and Telluride, the margins of support for marijuana were higher than for the reelection of President Barack Obama. That's saying something, as neither ski community has voted for a Republican for president since... Well, they probably did at one time.

Meanwhile in the mountain valleys of Colorado dominated by ski towns, there was slippage in the vote for President Barack Obama, but they remain more liberal and Democratic than the state or general averages.

Telluride and San Miguel remains the most reliably Democratic enclave in the state, but even so, the support for Obama slipped in this election. The 77 per cent majority there from four years ago slipped to 70 per cent his year. The margin also slipped in Routt County (Steamboat), from 62 four years ago to 57 per cent this year.

In Colorado's Grand County (Winter Park), Mitt Romney actually won. He also won in Utah's Summit County, where he owned a home in Park City until just a few years ago