Is the Pot Tourism Scene in Denver Half Baked?

Denver is ground zero for the new pot tourism scene, but it still has a long way to go. (Photo: iStock)

I arrived at my hotel, the Crowne Plaza, Denver, having just bought some “Grandpa” pot at LiveGreen Cannabis on Sheridan Boulevard. I was excited to get back to the hotel and smoke my old-guy weed by the pool, having read about the cool scene there. I imagined myself chilling under the stars, getting high with fellow travelers who were there to do the same.

As I walked into the lobby, I saw an employee; I pulled him aside and politely asked about the (wink wink) smoking situation. “Everyone smokes in the parking garage,” the employee told me. “The pool thing is a just a rumor.”

So there I was, hiding out on the fourth floor of a parking garage in downtown Denver, smoking pot like a sneaky teenager, hoping nobody would see me.

Turns out, it’s hard to smoke pot in Denver.

The Denver skyline. (Photo: iStock)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I went on this trip, I had been fantasizing about going to Colorado, where recreational marijuana became legal on January 1, 2014. I envisioned Denver as a perfect utopian society, filled with Willy Wonka-style dispensaries, cool cafés, and parks frequented by pleasantly high people, you know, somewhere between a Grateful Dead show and Amsterdam. 

Related: Think Before You Smoke: 7 Things to Know About Marijuana Tourism

The iPod loaded with classic 60’s and 70’s rock and lots of snacks in hand, I packed up my car in Tulsa, where I live, and headed for weed country. On the drive, I mused about the fact that when I was younger, I could never in my wildest dreams have imagined this would ever happen; a place where, not only is weed legal, it’s readily available. Back in the 1980’s in suburban Long Island, there were bong stores (a.k.a. head shops) everywhere, even at my local mall; I remember all the cool pipes in different colors and shapes and all the psychedelic black light posters. In some ways, it was just a tease because the culture it was all built around was illegal. 

Well, in Denver it’s there — the posters, the pipes — and this time, it is legal and includes copious amounts of cannabis in candy jars!

The selection at LiveGreen Cannabis, a pot dispensary in Denver. (Photo: Adam Forgash)

At LiveGreen, the displays are filled with impressively and inventively named weed — Sleestack Skunk, Blueberry Headband, Strawberry Diesel — as well as edible treats. As with all dispensaries in Denver, I had to present my driver’s license in the front of the house­. (They take a copy of your information and “file” it.) I then took a seat alongside other happy customers in a waiting area. 

Pretty quickly, my name was called, and I excitedly went to the back of the store, trying not to giggle like a teenager. There, I had a one-on-one consultation with a well-informed pot counselor/Budtender named Kyle. (The women who work here are called Budtendresses.)

Related: It’s 420! The Best Pot Tourism Spots Around the Globe

Since I’m 47, not really a pot-smoker, and I can’t handle any of the new strains of weed, Kyle suggested “Grandpa” as the mellowest option — closer to the crappy weed I grew up on. Kyle placed my weed and rolling paper in a stink-proof Mylar bag that seals up super tight, and I headed back to my hotel to unwind.

The exterior of the Nativ Hotel. (Photo: Adam Forgash)

I had tried to make a last-minute reservation at the stylish Nativ Hotel, which has been widely rumored as “the place to smoke” with “vaporizers in every room.” But the hotel was booked solid. Turns out, you can’t actually smoke pot at Nativ — not in the rooms, not in the public areas. Which is a total bummer for the owners of Nativ.We were hoping to be the first hotel in the state were you could smoke cannabis,” said Ashton Alvarado, who runs events and marketing for the hotel.” But we couldn’t keep our liquor license if we allowed people to smoke pot. The city, state, and federal laws saw to that.”  

Instead, Nativ has become a hot spot for Pourtions, its bar and restaurant; its nightclub Stereo Lounge; and Monsieur, a robotic bartender system that can mix over 300 different drinks, 24/7. Monsieur is located in two hotel suites and one of the common areas.

Alvarado explained that there are still lots of people against pot in the state. “On the other hand, political cannabis activists were very angry about this decision because it would be great for tourism,” she said, predicting that it won’t be legal to smoke or consume in hotels in Denver until “it’s legal nationwide.”

The front bar at the Nativ. (Photo: Adam Forgash)

And yet, Denver has become ground zero for the emerging pot tourism industry. Tourists flock here from as far away as Italy, Japan, and New York, hoping for an Amsterdam-style experience of coffee shops, clubs, and lounges. There are hundreds of dispensaries selling every kind of cannabis, in many forms, for every kind of mood. Dispensaries have customer loyalty cards and cannabis maps. 

But even though it’s legal to buy, it’s still illegal to use pot in public or in hotels. And herein lies the dichotomy in recreational pot tourism. There’s a disconnect between where to buy it and where to smoke it. You can’t smoke pot and drink alcohol in the same establishment. Since most hotels and bars serve alcohol — they can’t have guests smoking pot, too.

Related: In Aspen, Even the Weed is Luxurious

That’s where Joel Schneider, CEO and president of the Mary Jane Group, comes in. On the way to his office on 16th Street in Denver, Joel smells pot in the air, everywhere. “There are 90 to 100 dispensary stores in the city of Denver — more than the rest of the state — but no place to smoke pot,” he says. “Many lounges, clubs, bars, and other businesses were shuttered by the city of Denver for allowing cannabis consumption.”

Bud + Breakfast, a new hotel concept in Denver. (Photo: Bud + Breakfast) 

Schneider, a New York transplant, came to Denver as a cannabis tourist a few years ago and ended up hiding in a hotel bathroom, smoking with towels shoved under the door. That’s when he saw an opportunity. Schneider moved to Colorado and immersed himself in the marijuana culture, selling paraphernalia online for awhile, and later helping start a now-defunct magazine called Mile High Times. Schneider’s group owns Bud + Breakfast, a pot-friendly hotel chain with three locations in Colorado.

Bud + Breakfast doesn’t sell marijuana in any form, though it will supply discount coupons for local dispensaries. It’s BYOM (bring your own marijuana), and guests can leave their surplus stash behind for the next guests. Schneider encourages “wake and bakes” in the morning and smoking in the communal living room, complete with snacks. Schneider wants people to chill and smoke together, any time of the day or night. He discourages smoking in the rooms, unless you vape (use a Vapor pen), but he also refuses to charge a fine if you do. 

The sales floor at Euflora, a modern dispensary in Denver. (Photo: Adam Forgash)

Down the block from Nativ hotel, business is brisk at Euflora. Designed for Colorado’s growing marijuana tourist trade, Euflora opened in April 2014 and is run by Jamie Perino and Pepe Brenton. It is the hippest and most high-tech of the Denver dispensaries, with an open floor plan, very much like an Apple store. Little jars of buds sit on long tables next to small digital screens, displaying all the information about that particular plant or product, the name of the strain, the THC content, and how much you can legally buy. 

Related: Where’s the Weed? Amsterdam’s New Breed of Coffeehouses

As you enter Euflora, you’re given a cell phone-sized scanner, which can scan each display and jar for information, then be used as a shopping cart to buy your products. The shop also has a plethora of edibles, like marijuana-infused chocolate bars, truffles, and gummies, as well as infused drinks and cannabis flowers.

Perino said she designed Euflora to appeal to consumers who like the “Starbucks, Apple store-kind of feeling.” She opened it on the 16th Street Mall, which is probably the most visited tourist destination in Colorado, with 2.3 million visitors a year. “We decided,” said Perino “that since recreational cannabis is more of a tourist industry, this would be the ideal location for it.”  

At Euflora, customers use scanners to purchase weed. (Photo: Adam Forgash)

Perino was initially intimidated by the pot industry because she was far from a connoisseur. Though she is not a pot smoker, she saw a burgeoning market and wanted in. Her customers are 80 percent tourists, lots of 21st birthdays, girls-night-out groups, college kids, businessmen, senior citizens, and even grandma, mom, and grandchild buying their first joints together.

Given that marijuana remains illegal under federal law, Colorado’s regulated cannabis business is struggling with the product’s outlaw and underground reputation. Many entrepreneurs are working to dispel that image. One of those people is Adam Curtis, who started the Giving Tree. Established in 2009, the Giving Tree specializes in medicinal marijuana. “We’re very medical focused. We went aggressively toward the care of patients’” says Curtis, who realized the healing properties of marijuana in 1994. “What genuinely affects me is when I see people in pain or suffering, and their belief system gets in the way of healing themselves.”

The Giving Tree also boasts that it has Denver’s largest edible selection. It feels like a candy store for adults, with counters packed (neatly) with edibles, pipes, and beautiful buds. Owner Adam Curtis regularly works with cancer patients and HIV/AIDS patients; fittingly, he has a doctor’s bedside manner and takes much care with each customer. 

Helping a customer at the Giving Tree. (Photo: Adam Forgash)

Bec Koop of Buds & Blossoms and Cannabis Concierge Events is seriously trying to take the Reefer Madness stigma out of the cannabis scene in Denver. Her unique wedding- and event-planning business offers many services — from booking events and lodging at weed-friendly venues to arranging vaporizer rentals. 

The company will help you shop for hemp and natural fiber wedding dresses, arrange meetings with executive pastry chefs to decide on the edibles to offer your guests, and even create floral arrangements with cannabis highlights. Want to take your guests on a dispensary tour? They can book a pot-friendly limo. Imagine if your work holiday party came complete with a Budtender or Budtendress and a cannabis edibles counselor. 

Related: Best Vacation Ever! A Pot Tour of Washington and Oregon

Some of Koop’s favorite slogans are: “straight from your bouquet to your bowl” or “bringing the cannabis theme to any scene.” She said she decided to create Cannabis Concierge Events because of the dichotomy between buying and consumption. In 2011, Koop lived just outside Breckenridge, Colo., working as a traditional florist and at a medical cannabis dispensary. Just before pot was legalized in Colorado, she had the ah-ha moment to mix the two together and moved to Denver to build her cannabis florist business.

Like every one in the business, Koop endured a thorough background check to make sure she was felony-free before receiving her badge. To give you an idea of the growth of this industry: her badge number from 2013 is 7,041, when pot was medicinal only. On Jan. 1, 2014, recreational pot became legal. In 2015, there were more than 21,000 badges.

A marijuana boutonnière at a wedding hosted by Cannabis Concierge Events. (Photo: Cannabis Concierge Events)

Still, Keep struggles to get around some of the challenges of the industry. For instance, it’s not legal to accept money for cannabis at an event, so it’s an open bar — just like a wedding. The cannabis is bought legally at a dispensary and then donated to the event. 

Another forward-thinking entrepreneur is Greg Drinkwater, co-founder of Travel THC, a new Airbnb-style resource for cannabis-friendly and marijuana-friendly vacation rentals. TravelTHC was launched in 2012 on “420” (April 20th), the pot smoker’s equivalent of St. Patrick’s Day. TravelTHC helps tourists find safe, private rental properties for a weed-friendly experience in Colorado and Washington State (soon Alaska). The company is extremely picky about its properties — vetting each individually. Their first clients were honeymooners from New Zealand.

Unlike AirBnB, THC provides private, non-communal rentals. “We only do private vacation rentals,” says Drinkwater. The company connects tourists with property owners who are cannabis friendly. The clientele is not the rowdy college crowd — more thirtysomething professionals, families, young married couples, and honeymooners.

Cannabis paraphernalia in Denver. (Photo: Adam Forgash)

I asked Drinkwater what his three-year plan is for THC. “Multiple properties in every legal state; helping states legalize pot tourism; promoting more activism and proactive change.”

Drinkwater and his colleagues at TravelTHC are also activists. Their goal is to eventually change the public view of the pot tourism industry. Unlike everyone else in this gold-rush environment, they’re not in a hurry to make money in Colorado. Drinkwater says what’s most important is that legalization works and to get people to enjoy and do it the right way: “Don’t destroy what took years to make.”

Weed-themed souvenir hats. (Photo: Adam Forgash)

Here are some facts about marijuana use in Denver:

• You have to be 21 or older to buy, posses, or use retail marijuana.

• You can only pay cash for cannabis.

• You cannot smoke or ingest inside a dispensary.

• You cannot smoke on the street or in public.

• You can only smoke pot on your own property.

• You can have cannabis in a car if it’s in a sealed bag or receptacle.

• You cannot take pot across state boundaries (you can’t take it on a plane).

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