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Colorado ski resorts wary of marijuana tourists; others chase them

Danielle Hackett prepares marijuana buds for sale at BotanaCare in Northglenn, Colorado December 31, 2013. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Danielle Hackett prepares marijuana buds for sale at BotanaCare in Northglenn, Colorado December 31, 2013. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) - Colorado ski resorts and the state Tourism Office have chosen not to embrace out-of-state visitors who have come to buy legalized cannabis, creating an opportunity for a handful of small firms that are catering to marijuana tourists.

When legalized marijuana became available for sale with the New Year, out-of-state tourists joined Coloradans in lining up at authorized retailers, despite the federal ban on the substance.

Colorado, under a 2012 voter-approved referendum, allowed the world's first state-licensed marijuana retailers to open for business on New Year's Day and legally sell pot for recreational use. At a number of the roughly three dozen former medical marijuana dispensaries cleared by state regulators to sell the drug, lines of customers formed outside the door.

An estimated $1 million in pot sales took place in Colorado on New Year's Day, said Betty Aldworth, deputy director of National Cannabis Industry Association.

Despite this potential customer base, the state's world-renowned ski resorts remain wary.

"There has been a law on the books since the 1970s in Colorado that makes it illegal to ski, board or even get on a ski lift if under the influence," said Jennifer Rudolph, spokeswoman for Colorado Ski Country USA, an industry trade group that counts most of Colorado's 26 ski resorts as members.

Like the ski resorts, state tourism officials are also keeping a distance.

The Colorado Tourism Office "has no plans to use the legalization to promote the state," it said in a statement.

Moreover, it was impossible to forecast how the law may impact tourism, which generated an estimated $16.7 billion in direct travel spending in 2012, the office said.

'SKI ACCESSORY'?

Whatever the size of the market, companies such as Colorado Green Tours want a piece of it.

The firm bills itself as a "full-service cannabis friendly" travel agency and has organized ski vacation trips, said Peter Johnson, the company's founder. The company encourages use of the drug after skiing, not before, he said.

"Colorado is obviously well known for world-class skiing," Johnson said. "Now with cannabis being legal, that's kind of a fashionable ski accessory if you will."

Matt Brown, co-founder of the Colorado-based firm My 420 Tours, said his company has more than 4,000 people on the waiting list for upcoming tours, which he compared to a jaunt through California's Napa Valley wine country.

"We're that friend who lives in Colorado who can help introduce you and really show you things that just don't exist outside of our state," Brown said.

At legal marijuana stores in the Denver area on Wednesday, a number of customers said they came from other states, including Virginia, Ohio and Illinois.

Massachusetts visitor Nicole, 24, a legal assistant who declined to give her last name, said in a phone interview on Thursday she and her boyfriend planned a trip to Colorado a month in advance to buy marijuana, and they purchased a gram of the strain "sour diesel."

"We wanted to be part of this," she said. "It was largely symbolic."

Possession, cultivation and private personal consumption of marijuana by adults for the sake of just getting high has already been legal in Colorado for more than a year under a state constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2012.

The law has presented new challenges for law enforcement officials, who are aware legalization could bring marijuana tourists to the state's ski slopes.

San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters, whose county includes the Telluride Ski Resort, said enforcing laws about no public consumption of marijuana would be difficult for so-called infused pot products that are edible and mind-altering.

"Is seeing people passing around a lollipop probable cause to take some enforcement action? Probably not," he said.

Denver police and the Colorado State Patrol reported a smooth first day of legalized pot sales in the state.

Colorado has acted faster to authorize sales than Washington state, whose voters legalized marijuana at the same time as Colorado in 2012. Washington is scheduled to open its first retail establishments later this year.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced in August it would not seek to interfere with the two states' efforts to regulate and tax marijuana sales, and instead would focus on such areas as restricting the flow of the drug across state lines and keeping it away from minors.

(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Lisa Shumaker)

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