Pubdate: Sun, 17 Apr 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company
Author: Alan Feuer


We were somewhere north of Denver, not far from the pot farm, when my 
neighbor on the party bus pulled hard on his pipe and said: "Know 
what it is I love about this country? Everyone gets stoned."

He was a big, bearded fellow who had come up from his cattle ranch in 
Kansas, and though he didn't seem like the usual type for a cannabis 
foodie tour, I felt that he was right. After all, with us on the bus 
that afternoon was a Whitmanesque array of stoned Americans. There 
they were, puffing blunts beneath the blinking purple lights: a gay 
couple from Rhode Island, some multiethnic techies from Atlanta, a 
rowdy group of white dudes who'd just flown in from Houston for a 
bachelor party and a 60-year-old Boston mother with a beach house in 
the Hamptons. Everyone gets stoned.

For purely professional reasons, I was myself at that point something 
slightly less than wholly sober and shouldn't have been surprised 
that our tour that day - from farm to head shop to post-smoke 
munchies meal - had attracted such a rich assortment of potheads. 
Then again, there isn't much surprising about Colorado's marijuana 
tourist boom.

Imagine visiting Napa Valley - but with weed instead of wine. The 
state's "green rush," as everybody calls it, is a billion-dollar 
enterprise of hydroponic grow labs and artisanal dispensaries, but 
the tourist infrastructure that's emerged to stoke you up and squire 
you around to see it all operates on a fairly simple principle: 
Everything is better when you're high.

As I began my exploration of Colorado's marijuana tourist trade, it 
occurred to me that a certain amount of lethargy was, well, baked 
into the notion from the start. So I went looking for something more 
extensive than a two-hour suds and buds tour, but nothing quite so 
much as a fully immersive Ganja Yoga Retreat.

I found the options dizzying: In the two years since the state first 
permitted the sale of weed to recreational users, an intricate 
economy has rapidly sprung up. Dope-smoking ski buffs can ride to the 
slopes in weed-friendly charter S.U.V.s, and arriving potheads can 
schedule pickups from the airport through dedicated livery services 
like THC Limo. There are stoner painting classes, stoner mountain 
treks and stoner chefs who will cook you a four-course marijuana 
dinner. Visitors can avail themselves of mobile apps like Leafly and 
Weedmaps to track down nearby vendors or book their 
bud-and-breakfasts through websites like TravelTHC.

In the end, I elected a three-day sampler tour of Denver offered at 
the price of $1,295, not including airfare, by one of Colorado's most 
popular pot tourist firms, My 420 Tours. A cannabis concierge helped 
me plan my weekend, mellowly insisting on the foodie tour and the 
private massage with medicinal marijuana oil.

After I booked the trip, I spent a few hours browsing through the 
online Colorado Pot Guide (bong-blowing courses, vaporizer rentals) 
and reading up on the relevant regulations. (Smoking in public? No. 
In a licensed commercial vehicle? Light up.) But then, for a period 
of weeks, I didn't hear a word from My 420. Just as I began to wonder 
if the whole thing was for real, an email arrived with my itinerary. 
"High Alan," the little note addressed me - at which point I was 
totally reassured.

I should note from the start that I'm not much of a smoker. While 
bourbon doesn't last long on my shelf, I get high, at most, a few 
times a year. That's why I appreciated the weekend's first event: an 
orientation with a cannabis sommelier. I had by then already checked 
into my hotel downtown, the Crowne Plaza Denver, where a winking desk 
clerk handed me a large metal vaporizer, my so-called in-room unit. 
Alone, upstairs, I took it for a shakedown run. It was only 9 a.m.

Having thus obtained the proper frame of mind, I went back down to 
meet a man named Mike Metoyer, who, as I'd been told, would serve 
throughout the weekend as my cannabis spirit guide. I found Mr. 
Metoyer in the lobby, waiting for me in a My 420 T-shirt with its 
buds-beneath-the-mountains corporate logo. He introduced himself and 
handed me a swag bag. This, I saw, contained a smaller vaporizer for 
use outside my room, a recent copy of Dope Magazine and - because of 
Denver's potent homegrown - a bottle of lavender oil designed to 
bring me down if I suffered a panicky high.

Like almost everyone I met in the local pot trade, Mr. Metoyer, who 
is 22 and grew up in a Pentecostal church, had come to marijuana only 
recently. A few years ago, he told me as we made our way into a 
ballroom, he'd been working as a docent at a silver mine in the 
mountains when J.J. Walker, founder of My 420, went on one of his 
trips. Mr. Walker was apparently impressed and offered Mr. Metoyer a 
job. "I didn't believe at first that 'pot tour guide' was, you know, 
an actual position," he said. "But as you can see, it obviously is."

Waiting for us in the ballroom was our sommelier, Michael Pyatt, the 
director of training at Native Roots - "the Gucci of dispensaries," 
Mr. Metoyer whispered as we sat down at a table. Mr. Pyatt is a tall, 
thin man of 27, formerly employed in sales at Best Buy. His knowledge 
of the product, accumulated over years of personal research, was 
exhaustive and, within a few minutes, he had filled our table with 
little plastic canisters of weed.

"You a smoker?" Mr. Pyatt asked. I told him not so much. And so, in 
an almost oenological language, he started to describe for me the 
qualities of the Native Roots proprietary brands: Harlequin, for 
instance ("a mix of three sativas") and Sour Kush ("musky, sweet, 
cerebral with a nice tight nug structure").

As Mr. Pyatt peered into his goody bag for another strain to show, I 
turned to Mr. Metoyer and asked what kinds of people usually sign up 
for his tours. "I get everyone," he told me, "men, women, young, old, 
but 60 percent of my clients are from Texas." ("It's a weed-repressed 
society," Mr. Pyatt said.) Then Mr. Metoyer added: "Most of our 
customers are blown away the first time they start smoking on the 
party bus. They're like, 'Wait a sec, you're sure this is legal?' 
When I tell them it is, then they're like, 'Whoa, dude, I've been 
waiting my whole life for this!'"

Last year, tens of thousands of people came to Denver for the High 
Times Cannabis Cup, a marijuana trade show with competitive events 
(best edible or best sativa flower), and an equally enormous crowd is 
expected at this year's gathering, which takes place in Broomfield, 
Colo., on April 19. "You walk around the state these days and you 
actually smell the cannabis right out on the street," Mr. Pyatt said. 
"It's just like, dude, game on."

By that point, he had found a package of his favorite brand, 
Jellybean, and told me, with a little thirsty lick of his lips, "This 
one's got a great head high - it's the perfect daytime smoke." My 420 
doesn't have a marijuana vendor's license and can't give samples to 
its customers, but a workaround was hastily arranged. Mr. Metoyer 
asked if I had had a chance to test the small vaporizer in my swag 
bag. When I told him I hadn't, Mr. Pyatt plucked a frosty bud of 
Jellybean and offered his assistance: "I could, um, demonstrate it 
for you - if you like."

One perk of a My 420 all-inclusive cannabis vacation was a livery car 
and driver. When I'd arrived the day before at Denver International 
Airport, a huge black Chevrolet Suburban had been waiting at the 
curb. Climbing inside, I discovered leather seats, a lingering smell 
of skunk weed and, behind the wheel, a man named Tariq Williams. Mr. 
Williams became my escort for the weekend, driving me to various 
events, including the next one: a cannabis cooking class.

A couple of years ago, Mr. Williams had been driving for the airport 
service Super Shuttle when he came to the conclusion that 
recreational pot was about to take Denver's economy by storm. So he 
quit his job, bought the Suburban used (for $28,000) and hasn't 
looked back since.

"I saw it coming," he told me that first day, "and I had to get my 
feet in at an early stage." While he isn't yet making what he once 
made at the airport, he expects he will be soon. At any rate, 
everyone he knows works in marijuana these days. His brother, who 
owns a security company, now has contracts with various dispensaries, 
and one of his friends does waste removal for a cultivation plant. 
Other friends work as budtenders, or as hash extractors, or as 
couriers moving plants from farm to store.

I noticed a similar phenomenon at the Stir Cooking School in the 
Highlands area, a very Martha Stewart-looking outfit - exposed brick 
walls, wide-wale wooden floors - that had recently embarked on a 
sideline teaching tourists to cook with marijuana oil. Our class that 
morning was led by a graduate of the Johnson & Wales culinary school, 
Travis French, who instructed us in the preparation of weed chicken 
tacos, weed guacamole and weed-infused jicama slaw. The students were 
another motley crew - in an upmarket, foodie sort of way: a husband 
and wife who owned a weed dispensary in California, a pot-loving 
lesbian couple from Fort Lauderdale and some married academics on a 
secret holiday from their small Catholic college in the Midwest.

I found myself at a work station with two more couples: Jason Lewis, 
a 43-year-old chef, and Holly Gulbranson, 36, a hair stylist, who had 
come in from Atlanta to celebrate her birthday; and Scottie and 
Lauren Long, a young musician and insurance-saleswomen pair, who were 
on their honeymoon from Orlando. All of them said that they had come 
to Colorado for the pot. "Scottie doesn't drink so we wanted to go 
somewhere we could both enjoy ourselves," Ms. Long told me. "The 
wedding was for everybody else, but the honeymoon's for us."

This winter, a study commissioned by the Colorado Tourism Office 
found that nearly half of the people polled said that the state's 
loose marijuana laws had influenced their decision to visit. While 
state officials have themselves argued that the poll was misleading - 
it never asked whether the influence was positive or negative - if 
the cooking class was any measure, then weed has now joined skiing 
and microbreweries as one of Colorado's tourist draws.

Mr. Lewis and Ms. Gulbranson had already made the rounds of several 
Denver restaurants and planned to travel to Pagosa Springs, but the 
common denominator in their movement through the state was marijuana. 
Mr. Lewis, a longtime pot enthusiast, told me it was simply nice to 
be someplace where he didn't really have to hide his habit. "We do 
live in Georgia," Ms. Gulbranson said.

It was the same thing with the Longs. In Florida, they explained, 
they worried all the time about smoking on the street or getting 
caught with a joint inside their glovebox, but in Denver they could 
sit on the patio of their pot-friendly rental and pass a bowl in 
plain sight of the neighbors. "It was a little weird at first because 
we're so used to hiding it," Ms. Long went on. "But when we came in 
from the airport, they let us smoke in the car. We were both like: 
'Holy cow, the car!' "

Maybe I just like drinking, but I have to say, I didn't get it. I 
mean, I got it: It was cool getting high without fear of being 
hassled by the cops. But was that really something around which you 
could plan a whole vacation? I understand that people go on wine 
trips, but generally speaking, they're not popping bottles of shiraz 
the minute they leave the baggage claim. When I thought about it 
later, it occurred to me that what I might have been reacting to was 
the hard sell that Denver's ganja-preneurial class was putting on 
these poor, weed-repressed out-of-towners, the way in which their 
stifled desire for pot was being commodified.

The longer I stayed in Denver, the more I noticed it. Everywhere you 
looked there were shrewd little business deals: spend $20 at 
Dispensary A and you got a coupon for a free drink at Restaurant B; 
spend $20 at Restaurant B and you got a voucher for a $1 joint at 
Dispensary A. It was even more ubiquitous online. Click onto and the bargains all but grabbed you by the throat: 50 
percent off Red Dot Edibles! Buy two vaping cartridges and get a free battery!

At a certain point, I started to suspect that the city's reefer 
tourist moguls were getting their clients high mainly for the purpose 
of relieving them of their money. "Feel free to load those pipes, 
guys - someone roll a fatty!," our guide aboard the party bus 
encouraged us, as we climbed on for the tour. This was only hours 
after the cooking class, and those taking part in both events were by 
that point wasted. But the exhortation to smoke more pot - not least, 
on the way to a pot lab - was simply too enticing to pass up.

When we reached the lab, my tour mates stumbled off the bus and stood 
for a moment in the parking lot gazing at the 40,000-square-foot 
structure as though it were the Vatican. "Oh yeah, dude," the cattle 
rancher murmured with a slow-motion nod as we stepped inside. There, 
we met Meg Sanders, the chief executive of Mindful, the company that 
runs the lab. Ms. Sanders, knowing her audience, told us that the 
site housed 8,000 individual plants of 50 different strains. This 
elicited an awe-struck silence from the potheads, into which she 
added, waving us on, "All right, let's head back to Disneyland."

The technical aspects of the lab were pretty interesting: cryogenic 
freezers, low-temp ovens, lots of fluorescent lights - like something 
you might find at a pharmaceutical plant or in crime scene photos. 
Ms. Sanders informed us that every seedling in the building had been 
tagged at birth with an RFID chip so that the state could monitor its 
progress from cultivation to retail sale. She was pretty interesting 
herself: a former financial compliance officer who, like many others, 
saw an opportunity in pot. "I had a passion for the plant," she said 
as we made our way past a giant indoor copse of marijuana, "and" - 
this seemed especially important - "there was no glass ceiling."

Things became a bit less interesting as the lab tour ended and, back 
onboard the bus - joints and pipes ablaze again - we took a ride to a 
Mindful dispensary, the pot vacation version of a museum gift shop. 
The transformation from tourist to consumer was immediate, if only 
because our options were so numerous. There, on the shelves before 
the spellbound heads, was Mindful's entire product line: transdermal 
pot patches, marijuana taffy, pot bacon brittle, all-natural vegan 
pot capsules, Incredible Affogato pot candy bars, CannaPunch cannabis 
drinks, a Bubba Kush strain of root beer, Wake and Shake canna 
coffee, Lip Buzz lip balm, Apothecanna pain creams, and, of course, a 
wide variety of hashes, extracts and smokeables.

Next morning, after visiting the hotel gym, I had brunch with Danny 
Schaefer, the chief executive of Pioneer Industries, parent of My 
420. Wanting me to get "the full experience," Mr. Schaefer urged me 
to "consume" before our meal - if I missed any reportorial details, 
he'd make sure I got them later.

While that was kind, I kept to the restaurant's menu, listening as he 
talked about the growth of My 420's business. In 2015, its second 
year of operation, the company handled 300 to 600 customers a week, 
he said, with an average ticket price of $650. This year, he added, 
ticket sales were already up by 35 percent.

Mr. Schafer went on to say that "taboo tourism" was only one part of 
the local pot economy, which, he added, also included packaging, 
labeling and lighting companies, not to mention law firms, 
consultants and - because the industry uses only cash - heavily armed 
security firms. It was then that he told me that the ultimate goal of 
Pioneer Industries was to unite these businesses into a single vocal 
lobby, and thus turn Colorado into the country's premier pot vacation 
destination. "We've got skiing, hiking, microbreweries," he said, 
"and we're already the Mile High City."

But to seize that throne will require competing with states like 
Washington, which legalized recreational weed in 2012, and Oregon, 
which did the same on a slightly more restrictive basis in 2014. It 
will also require the cooperation of state tourism officials who, at 
least so far, have failed to embrace the vision of Colorado as the 
Promised Land of pot.

"For most travelers, marijuana is a ho-hum issue," said Cathy Ritter, 
the director of the Colorado Tourism Office. "It's a very small 
segment of our travel population." When I spoke with her by phone, 
Ms. Ritter acknowledged that she hadn't used state money to promote 
pot tourism because most of the funds would, by definition, be spent 
outside of Colorado and, as she explained, "It's pretty clear that 
that's a federal offense."

Recently, the Colorado Cannabis Chamber of Commerce pushed a bill in 
the state that would allow producers and sellers to open tasting 
rooms, as wineries and breweries have, and yet the real work of 
turning Denver into a pot Napa Valley may in the end rest with people 
on the ground like Mr. Schaefer or like Pepe Breton, whose greenhouse 
lab we visited after brunch. Mr. Breton's story was, by then, 
familiar: He was a former stockbroker who had gone in search of 
profit as a marijuana farmer.

But it seemed to me that he had a different - and slightly darker - 
take on the future of the industry. "The big boys are coming," Mr. 
Breton said as we walked through his lab. "And when that happens, I 
won't be able to compete anymore. I just hope I can sell at the right 
time and get a good price."

That evening, after my massage (no, you don't get high), I went for a 
long walk through the city. In the twilight, set against the 
mountains, Denver was changing. You could see it - in the 
construction cranes, in the old brick buildings giving way to boxy 
condominiums, in the faces of the tourists on the 16th Street pedestrian mall.

What would happen, I wondered, when, like Mr. Breton suggested, 
Philip Morris and Pfizer - the big boys - arrived, and the quirky, 
prepubescent marijuana trade suddenly grew up and then went 
corporate? It was already grasping now, but then?

By that point I had crossed the South Platte River to the Highlands 
again. In the neighborhood of quiet streets, I came across a burger 
joint and went inside for dinner. The room was warm, college 
basketball was playing on TV, and I took a seat among the large crowd 
at the bar. Ordering a beer, it occurred to me that I was very glad 
to have visited Denver when I did.

Alan Feuer is a metro reporter for The New York Times.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom