Vail’s caution about cannabis

While 60 percent of Vail residents voted in 2012 to legalize cannabis sales in Colorado, there are  great concern about impacts to the resort town's brand. As a practical matter, three cannabis stores are located just outside of the town limits, about a 10-minute drive from  Vail Village. Photo/Allen Best

While 60 percent of Vail residents voted in 2012 to legalize cannabis sales in Colorado, there are great concern about impacts to the resort town’s brand. As a practical matter, three cannabis stores are located just outside of the town limits, about a 10-minute drive from Vail Village. Photo/Allen Best

Cannabis, caution & Vail’s (tentative) decision to say no—at least for awhile

Elected officials worried about damaging the resort brand

by Allen Best

You can buy a Budweiser in Vail. You can smoke a bud, as in the flowering portion of a marijuana plant, in the privacy of your home.

But buy a bud, shatter, wax or chocolate chip cookies infused with THC, the psychoactive agent in cannabis?

Not yet. And perhaps not ever. Vail, like several other ski towns in Colorado, continues to wait for more evidence about the effects of legalization of marijuana, also called cannabis, as well as more consensus about what is right for Vail.

Since statewide states began in 2014, the town has had a moratorium on growing and sales. The town council on Tuesday night voted 6-1 to formally ban growing and sales. But in an unusual twist, the council agreed to review the situation in three years. This is just the first of three votes required to adopt the measure.

Attitudes toward cannabis use have obviously changed, and many people would agree that it’s for the better that the economy has been brought at least partly above ground.

But what is the effect on the “brand” of Vail? That’s been the question this summer as elected officials mulled whether to allow sales. It’s a question that other mountain towns outside Colorado, including Jackson, Wyo., and Whistler, B.C., have begun to ask themselves, given the trend toward legalization in North America.

Colorado voters, with a 55 percent plurality in the November 2012, launched what Gov. John Hickenloooper called the “great social experiment of the 21st century.” The constitutional amendment authorizes growing of marijuana as well as sales and use for purely recreational purposes.

In Vail, the margin was even larger, 60 percent. And among that majority was Andy Daly, the silver-haired mayor of Vail. He’s been in Colorado 46 years, working first as a ski patroller at Aspen before moving into management jobs. He’s overseen several ski areas and for a time was president of Vail Resorts, the ski and real estate company.

 Breckenridge does not allow sales of recreational cannabis on Main Street, but this T-shirt is in the racks.

Breckenridge does not allow sales of recreational cannabis on Main Street, but this T-shirt is in the racks.

Daly says he voted for legalization in the hope that bringing the marijuana economy above ground would reduce the power of drug cartels in Mexico and the United States. It’s probably too soon to know whether this has succeeded, in part because Colorado is responsible for such a relatively small part of the market for cannabis.

But wanting to legalize cannabis sales is not the same as wanting stores on your main street or, in the case of Vail, Bridge Street. Colorado’s law allows the towns, cities and counties to allow sales—or not.

About three-quarters of Colorado’s 227 cities and towns and 64 counties so far have chosen against allowing sales. However, the constitutional amendment allows use in all jurisdictions, but nowhere in public, such as along streets or parks.

In an interview in early June, Daly indicated he wouldn’t support sales. He cited the community survey, which is distributed not only to residents but also second-home owners and others with a deep interest in Vail affairs. In that survey, 57 percent of respondents indicated they had no interest in allowing cannabis stores in Vail while 37 percent said they did favor sales.

Age mattered greatly in how people viewed the issue. Of those 35 and under, 68 percent supported sales, but support dropped sharply among older age cohorts. Among those 65 and older, support for sales plummeted to just 14 percent. Year-round residents were twice as likely as part-timers to support sales. Somewhat surprisingly, 46 percent of non-resident owners of businesses and commercial properties supported sales.

Daly also said he was concerned about the impact to the brand, partly because of what he has heard in Aspen and Breckenridge. Legalized sales “would be extraordinarily disadvantageous to the brand we’ve tried to develop in Vail and protect and extend.”

Testimony of Mexican visitors influenced Daly. Wealthy Mexicans have been drawn to Vail for decades, and the town last week established a sister-city relationship with San Miguel Allende, a resort along the Atlantic coast. As Brazil has prospered, Portuguese has also become a commonly heard language in Vail, too. Latin Americas are drawn to Vail because of its sense of security.

“They feel it’s a very safe environment for their children, and at least anecdotally, they are not in favor of marijuana for sale in downtown Vail,” says Daly. “They don’t want their kids to see it. They think it would be detrimental to the overall experience. They feel the same as (our) business owners, that it would be inconsistent with our brand.”

Still easy enough to score

Vail is not entirely prim and proper. Alcohol has often flown freely, sometimes during holidays producing exuberance bordering mayhem. Marijuana use has been ample, too. In 1985, when a quad lift with a sliding canopy to protect riders from snow and wind debuted, it was formally called the Vista Bahn. With a knowing smirk, locals called it the Rasta Bahn, a reference to the marijuana culture of reggae music then popular

That’s not to say that you can’t buy marijuana now when visiting Vail. It’s harder than ordering a pizza, but still easy enough. Three stores selling cannabis products can be found in a strip that locals call the Green Mile. It’s located in Eagle-Vail, the unincorporated community between Vail and Beaver Creek. From Vail Village, it’s a 10-minute ride. Some hotels dispatch vans to take their guests to the cannabis stores.

Budtender at Roots Rx stores in Eagle-Vail displays edibles.

Budtender at Roots Rx stores in Eagle-Vail displays edibles.

The one I visited during mid-June is called Roots Rx, and it’s located in a suburban office building with an engineering company upstairs and a packaging business next door. It will dispatch a limo to customers who call in, and a “budtender” named Sara told me that the limo has stayed plenty busy since the store opened last October.

Small by standards of those in Denver, it still has the full range of goods: joints, bud for smoking in bowls, plus the concentrates: shatter, pie crust and wax.

It also has edibles: various candies and cookies infused with THC, the psychoactive agent in cannabis. To seemingly everybody’s surprise in Colorado, edibles have been responsible for 40 percent of product sold since recreational sales began in January 2014 and the concentrates another 19 percent.

Edibles have had unintended consequences, most famously the catatonic night that New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd spent on a high-priced hotel bed in downtown Denver soon after sales began in 2014. She wrote about her frightening over-indulgence some months later. Unlike smoking, which quickly produces a sensation, eating or drinking THC-infused products has a more delayed impact. Feeling nothing at first, some have gobbled several portions.

“An overdose on marijuana is called a nap,” one “budtender” assured me with a smile when I visited a Denver-area store selling recreational marijuana last winter. But the evidence suggests a more unwieldy set of reactions. One college student jumped from a hotel balcony in Denver after wolfing down too many edibles. There have been reports, limited in data and strong on anecdote, of increased visits to emergency rooms.

Colorado regulators in February responded with new rules that mandate identification of THC contents in portions. A chocolate bar may have 100 milligrams of THC, but the bar must be broken into chunks of no more than 10 milligrams per serving. In most of the stores I have visited across Colorado since December, customers are advised to start low and go slow. In other words, wait an hour or two to see what 5 grams will do.

A substantial number of marijuana buyers have been tourists. One study conducted a year ago, six months after sales began, found that visitors were responsible for 50 percent of purchases in metro Denver and up to 90 percent in ski towns.

Aspen and Telluride both allowed sales as soon as the state’s rope was dropped in January 2014. They twitch liberal to Vail’s innate conservatism. They draw the billionaires and the movie stars. At Vail, it’s better to know Wall Street than Hollywood if you want to pick out the rich and kind of famous.

One of the cannabis stores in Aspen is within a block of city hall and across the street from one of the highest-end hotels, the Jerome. Photo/Allen Best

One of the cannabis stores in Aspen is within a block of city hall and across the street from one of the highest-end hotels, the Jerome. Photo/Allen Best

Both Aspen and Telluride treat cannabis much the same as alcohol, at least in determining location of outlets. Like bars, they must be a respectful distance from schools, for example. Both towns also chose to let the market regulate the number of stores. There is no quota. The market itself has capped, for the time being, four stores in Telluride and five in Aspen.

Steamboat Springs was more slow to open the door—and only partially so. Elected officials there carefully created zoning that precludes cannabis stores near the base of the ski area or in the historic downtown area. The stores—capped at three—are all out on the edge of town, with the likes of auto-body shops and plumbing offices.

Other ski communities are split. Most of the world thinks of Crested Butte as one place. It’s really two places. The original mining town tilts liberal, but a newer municipality at the base of the ski area called Mt. Crested Butte trends conservative. One allows cannabis sales, but the other one? Forget about it. You see that same dynamic in many other joined-at-the hip ski towns, including Aspen and Snowmass Village, Telluride and Mountain Village, Winter Park and Fraser.

But here’s something more perverse. Those places more inclined toward conservatism also are distrustful of the free market. Big-government Aspen lets the free-market govern how many cannabis stores operate, but trust-the-free-market Steamboat believes in central planning.

Breckenridge worried about its brand among families, which are much in evidence during summer. Photo/Allen Best

Breckenridge worried about its brand among families, which are much in evidence during summer. Photo/Allen Best

Breck’s story

Breckenridge offers arguably Colorado’s most interesting story (and well documented in a CNN special called “High Profits.”) The town calls itself “genuine Colorado,” a reference to its roots in the gold rush of 1859. One relic of that mining era is architecture along the town’s Main Street with the Queen Anne’s touches of the Victorian era.

It’s a cute place for families to stroll, stopping at stores that sell T-shirts, candy and clothing. One store is called the “Joy of Sox.”

And when recreational sales began in 2014, visitors could also shop for Sour Diesel and other strains of indica and sativa at a store located on the second floor of an old yellow-sided house on Main Street. That’s where the Breckenridge Cannabis Club was located, and on opening day it had lines of customers up the narrow stairs and out the door and onto the snowy sidewalk along Main Street.

Breckenridge had a history of being ahead of the Colorado curve in legalization. The town was quick to allow sales of marijuana for medicinal uses after it was authorized by state voters. They could even be on Main Street, if only in second-floor locations. In 2009, town voters went one step further, with 73 percent of voters allowing possession of up to one ounce. It was the first municipality in Colorado to do so. When 55 percent of Colorado voters approved full legalization, Vail came in at 60 percent and Breckenridge at 70 percent.

As time went on, Breckenridge’s embrace became less broad. Many people saw medical marijuana as a sham. It was supposed to be for people in genuine need, and the Colorado law spells out the conditions: cancer, glaucoma, AIDs, and others. But there was also a provision for “severe pain,” and medical dispensaries in Denver and elsewhere found physicians, on call, who could diagnose that severe pain— wink-wink—in short order. No need to get an appointment weeks in advance. Rather, the script was minutes away. “I’ve never seen so many 21-year-olds with severe neck pain,” the Summit County sheriff said soon after medical legalization.

The Breckenridge Town Council decided that recreational sales needed to be treated differently than medical sales. The Breckenridge Cannabis Club could still operate out of its second-floor location on Main Street if it sold medical marijuana, but recreational sales could only be done in certain zones. One of those zones is a service district called Airport Road. Several cannabis stores had located there. Locals dubbed it Airpot Road.

The Breckenridge Cannabis Club fought to stay on Main Street and sell recreational pot. But 70 percent of town residents said no. Risk was the central axis for the debate. “Big risk, little upside,” warned three former mayors with a combined tenure of 16 years. “When marijuana goes mainstream,” added the former majors, “our Main Street may then be ready. But not now, not yet.”

In March, a survey commissioned by the Breckenridge Tourism Office probed how visitors saw the community in light of the availability of marijuana. Overall, 75 percent said it was neither positive nor negative. But more thought it was very positive than thought it very negative. In the overnight visitors not from Colorado, i.e. the destination guests, reviews were even stronger, 20 percent finding marijuana as positive compared to 7 percent who saw it as a negative.

Breckenridge also collects a local sales tax on marijuana sales. But the tax is responsible for only 1.5 percent of the total sales conducted in the municipality. In comparison, groceries and liquor are responsible for 10 percent, while bars and restaurants yield 22.5 percent of the town’s sales, and short-term lodging 31 percent.

Still easy enough to score

In Vail, legalization has been a curiosity to most people. One person I know, a long-time consumer of marijuana, has started buying his stash from the Green Mile stores. The explanation: Why wouldn’t you instead of buying from somebody you barely know?

Make no mistake: it’s still illegal to consume marijuana in public. People can buy edibles, and no one will know. But smoking a joint or a bowl? Colorado law prohibits smoking in public places, including the ski area and on Bridge Street. Indoor smoking is also banned in hotel rooms. Those people smoking—whether tobacco or cannabis—are commonly fined $250 to $300, for the cost of removing the scent.

Native Roots is a chain cannabis store in Colorado with outlets in both Frisco, above, and in Eagle-Vail. Photo/Allen Best

Native Roots is a chain cannabis store in Colorado with outlets in both Frisco, above, and in Eagle-Vail. Photo/Allen Best

A hotel valet named Geno, who I used to play basketball with in Vail, reports that he doesn’t get asked about where to buy cannabis all that often. Everybody has an iPhone, and the information is at their finger tips, he says. “If somebody does ask, I explain that it’s not as legal as some people think,” he said. It is, for example, illegal to drive while under the influence.

As the Vail council started discussion options in early June, Greg Moffet was one of the more outspoken members. He tends toward florid Hawaiian shirts and sandals, even at council meetings. But he didn’t argue for legalizing sales. However, he did declare that Vail needs to respond to a new reality.

“We have people coming to town anyway, with their shopping bags from Eagle-Vail or Denver,” he said. “I am most concerned about creating an environment where a percentage of our guests—and we need to make peace with this fact—that a percentage of our guests want to consume this product. I think it is incumbent on us to not put our heads in the sand as to what is going on here. The status quo is broken.”

Moffet said that Vail needed to provide a place for people to consume cannabis, no matter where they’ve purchased it. Daly observed that Moffet was talking about marijuana clubs. Only one such place seems to exist in Colorado, at the gambling town of Black Hawk, although legalizing of clubs in Denver and elsewhere has been discussed.

Later, in an interview, Moffet said that in his ideal model, cannabis would be consumed where it is sold. “But that model does not exist today,” he added.

Moffet said he didn’t think the town was ready to accept sales, and he was right—as evident at Tuesday night’s meeting. Even Margaret Rogers, who said she personally favored treating cannabis like alcohol, said she was compelled by the wishes of her constituents to impose a more permanent ban. The town currently has a moratorium.

Moffet, however, argued strongly—and perhaps successfully—against a permanent ban. “It’s moving too fast,” he says.

On Tuesday night, he sort of prevailed, as the motion approved loosely suggests another review after three years.

“It’s in there. We spent as long as two minutes talking about it. It’s not a mandate. It’s a statement of intent,” Moffet said afterward.

In its coverage, the Vail Daily chose to highlight the comments of Bob Armour, a former mayor, who argued that Vail should carve out a brand as a non-cannabis resort.

“Some of these places advertise they don’t have an interstate running through their towns,” Armour said. “Well, we can advertise that we don’t have any marijuana shops.”

That’s true—but, in a practical sense, marijuana availability is little different in Vail than in Steamboat or Breckenridge. In fact, cannabis shops are closer to the base of Vail’s ski slopes already than they are in Steamboat.

Still easy enough to score

Where will this all end? High Times Magazine sponsored the Cannabis Cup on April 18-20 in Denver.

The event drew some 50,000 to 75,000 people. Bill Kreutzmann, the drummer for the Grateful Dead, was there to promote his book, Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams and Drugs. Some of the 300-plus vendors were hawking pipes, LED lights for more energy efficient grow operations, and T-shirts: Denver: Center of the Cannaverse,” said one.

At precisely 4:20 on April 20, a haze of smoke went up at the Cannabis Cup in Denver. Photo/Allen Best

At precisely 4:20 on April 20, a haze of smoke went up at the Cannabis Cup in Denver. Photo/Allen Best

There was a sense of triumph as thousands of people drew on cannabis cigars, called blunts, and a collective puff at 4:20 p.m. on April 20 produced a haze of smoke. Before, in conference rooms, speakers had discussed everything from how to cook organically and healthily with cannabis (“cut out the refined sugar!”) to political implications.

Already, 23 states and the District of Columbia now allow medical use of cannabis. Now, Oregon, Alaska and Washington D.C. have joined Washington state and Colorado in full legalization.

Ballot issues are being readied in Arizona, California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts. Legislators in some other states are working up proposed legalization laws. Even Wyoming is talking about legalization.

“If California legalizes it, it’s over,” said Russ Belville, who does a daily two-hour show on 420 Radio, which calls itself the NPR of THC.

What’s all over? The national policy of prohibition. The U.S. government took the first steps to ban marijuana in 1937, just a few years after legalizing alcohol, and then stepped up the ban in 1970 by making it a Schedule 2 controlled substance under federal laws. Belville showed a chart illustrating that more than two million people have been imprisoned under the laws. “Mostly black and Latino men,” he said.

Keith Stroup, an attorney who in 1970 founded NORML, the advocacy organization, said that in 1969, polls showed just 12 percent of Americans favored legalization. Now, polls show between 53 and 58 percent for legalization. They can see the failure of prohibition, he said, but two-thirds of Americans also have an unfavorable opinion of marijuana users. “They see us as slackers, people without ambition who spend our days on the sofa,” he said. “We have passed the tipping point, but marijuana smokers must be responsible in how they pursue it and how they present it.”

And after the United States? Other countries took their cues from the U.S. in making marijuana illegal, speakers said, and the reverse will be true, too. Might that include Canada?

Edibles have a majority of the market share, but some people still like to inhale. Photo/Allen Best

Edibles have a majority of the market share, but some people still like to inhale. Photo/Allen Best

Colorado is the petri dish for the experiment. Washington state was slower to move forward. Overall, Colorado’s experiment has gone well so far. But it has been more complex than many expected. The popularity of edibles surprised everybody. Police are still trying to get a handle on how to judge the influence of THC on one’s ability to drive safely and how to test for that influence. There is no THC equivalent to the blood-analysis test used to measure alcohol content of a driver. And there are still large, unanswered questions, including the impact of greater availability on the formation of adolescent minds.

Five and 10 years from now, there will probably still be questions. Keep in mind that the prohibition of alcohol in the United States ended in 1933. If prohibition was considered a massive failure, Americans are still coming grappling with the effects of legalization 82 years.

With cannabis, much the same is likely to be true, too. But Colorado is already one toke over the line.

After carefully examining experience of others, Gunnison finally allows pot

GUNNISON, Colo. – Gunnison has taken its time, but now it has opened the door to the sale of cannabis for recreational purposes.

The Crested Butte News reports that the college town, located 27 miles down-valley from Crested Butte, decided to take its time to see how other communities handled sales.

“One of my original concerns was that allowing legal marijuana establishments would change the reputation or tenor of our community,” said Mayor Richard Hagan. “But asking around in other places that have done it, they didn’t feel that was the case.”

Unlike Crested Butte, which capped the number of stores at four, Gunnison decided to let the free market sort it out. Early on, city officials thought the stores should be tucked into an industrial area. But Hagan says that he remembers somebody saying that any 14-year-old with a cell phone could find a store, no matter where it is.

“That plus the fact that keeping young people away would more likely be accomplished if the (stores) were in a higher profile setting as opposed to tucked away in an industrial zone made me sort of change my mind in some respects.”

But Gunnison does have rules: no pot leaves are allowed on business signs. And stores near churches cannot be open on Sunday mornings.


About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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