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Legal pot entrepreneurs in Denver and Seattle face some complications

So-called ganjapreneurs predict a green rush of cannabis-fueled tourism, but officials haven’t seen it

Joel Schneider believes in pot.

He always has. The longtime New York securities lawyer says he has always smoked it — probably always will. In fact, he believed in pot — legal pot — so much that he left his 30-year law career behind, packed up his life and moved to Denver, where he and his wife became the new owners of a bed and breakfast.

Except he calls his a bud and breakfast.

What else to call a cannabis-friendly bed and breakfast?
Courtesy of the Adagio

Here guests pay up to $399 per night to stay in Schneider’s cannabis-friendly inn — where they’re treated with morning “wake and bake” sessions over a gourmet breakfast, where afternoon happy hours start at 4:20 and where turndown service means a silver platter filled with glasses of milk and plates of THC-infused cookies.“It’s like the Hotel California. You check in and you never check out. People want to stay. They really want to stay.” he said.

Schneider said that since he opened his doors, not only has business been good, it’s been great, with visitors arriving from all over the world. He is already booking into next spring. It’s a classic if-you-build-it-they-will-come scenario: Schneider saw a need for legal places for tourists to indulge in cannabis. He built it. They came.

It’s a gamble many people are making now that legalized cannabis is on store shelves in Colorado and Washington state. Early adopters like Schneider are jumping on what they say could be the next Silicon Valley industry. In both states, “ganjapreneurs” are popping up everywhere — pot delivery services, Yelp-type sites for pot, pot tours, pot stores, pot barbecue sauces, pot Velweeda cheeses.

But some say their excitement is entirely too premature.

No green rush

Spokesmen at both Visit Denver and Visit Seattle say that though marijuana is legal, they are less than eager to spend money on promoting marijuana tourism, especially when tourists can’t smoke marijuana in their hotel rooms.

“There’s a presumption that marijuana tourism is right at our doorstep and waiting to be tapped. There’s some challenges,” said David Blandford, vice president of communications for Visit Seattle. “It’s not a challenge of if we want to tap that market or not, but it’s a question of when we will be able to.”

Currently, he said, too many restrictions get in the way for tourists to be able to consume marijuana legally and safely.

And Richard Grant, communications director for Visit Denver, said he has hardly seen an influx of pot tourists since marijuana went on sale there in early 2014.

“The people who are saying this is a green rush? It’s in their interest. They’re trying to solicit customers,” he said Grant. “If people are saying there’s this huge marijuana industry, where are the people? Where are they staying? Where are they eating?”

While there might be pot tourists, their numbers are few, he said.

“We have 44,000 hotel rooms that have to be filled every night. You can talk to the guys on the pot tours. They’ll tell you they’re driving everything,” he said. “And it’s bull----. It’s ridiculous. There will be eight people on the tour.”

“There was no marijuana tourism last year. None. Zero. Didn’t exist,” Grant added. “The idea that thousands of people are coming here — there is no evidence of it.”

Combating cannabigotry

With its streamlined aluminum shape, a bottle of Dixie Elixirs’ Sparkling Pomegranate soda would look at home in a high-end grocery store or a swank day spa.

That’s precisely the image the Colorado-based company wanted, according Dixie Elixirs’ chief marketing officer, Joe Hodas. Dixie, which has been making THC-infused sodas, bath products, edibles and tinctures for medical marijuana patients since 2010, gave its company a branding makeover in early 2014. The challenge, he says, was to appeal to new, curious customers without excluding their longtime consumer base. 

Tripp Keber, CEO of Dixie Elixirs and Edibles, in Denver in January 2014. The company gave its products an upscale redesign early this year.
Matthe Staver/Landov

“Our product, it’s got a very sophisticated look and feel. It’s really designed to create a level of confidence for the consumer, something they can feel safe with,” Hodas said. “This is our calling card. This is a quality you can trust.”

The business of marketing legal cannabis, he said, means constantly thinking about the current restrictions while anticipating all the possibilities that lie ahead. Right now, he said, the biggest challenge that ganjapreneurs face is normalizing cannabis use.

“I want my Dixie One Watermelon Cream, which is a low dose elixir, I want that to be a soccer mom’s substitute instead of polishing off a bottle of wine on a Saturday night,” he said.

Sean Topping, founder and creative director of Denver advertising agency Grit, said when his company helped rebrand Dixie’s products this year, they saw a lot of raised eyebrows.

“I’ve been in this industry for 17 years, and I went around and talked to all of the printers and the box makers and all of the ancillary people that touched these products. It was a cross between shock and awe and ‘Are we really talking about this? Are we really going to make this?’” he said.

But he said that in the end, people are excited to see what happens in Colorado and Washington. And for Grit, he says his company is hoping to be on the forefront of mainstreaming cannabis usage.

“We still work with a lot of travel and tourism people, and there were some people who were like ‘Gosh, you’re going to do marijuana? You’ll ruin your portfolio’ and ‘What will your clients think about that?’” Topping said. “I think the stigma of the industry is fading really, really quickly … Banks and finance people are really seeing that it’s here to stay and it’s not a bunch of hippies baking weird stuff in their kitchens. It’s a full-fledged industry that is going to make some people a lot of money.”

The new normal

Mainstreaming marijuana, though, isn’t something that can happen easily in Colorado or Washington as the current laws are written. Marijuana may be legal for adult consumption in those states, but it comes with caveats — no consumption in public, no impaired driving, no taking it over state lines.

But perhaps the biggest obstacle hindering the marijuana experiment in both states is location. Aside from homeowners who can smoke marijuana in their homes, where can people legally consume their legal products?

Tourists can’t smoke in their hotel rooms. Most renters can’t smoke in the houses or apartments they rent. You can’t smoke in a park or an alley or in your car. In Washington, business owners have tried to get creative, allowing pot eateries, bars and even tour buses, to no avail. 

Evergreen Apothecary in Denver asks visitors to put a pin on a map to show where their customers came from.
Kai-Huei Yau/Tri-City Herald/MCT/Landov

John Schochet, deputy chief of staff for the Seattle City Attorney’s office, said there could be blowback from making the laws too strict. His office has begun to explore ways to make things like vaporizing cafes legal in Seattle.

“I think that the goal is to create a realistic and achievable set of regulations for marijuana,” he said “And if you make the rules too strict and you don’t allow anyone to consume anywhere legally, you’re going to get more people who ignore the law and do it in the streets.”

“Ultimately, I would like to see Washington state law amended to allow cannabis coffee shops similar to those in the Netherlands,” said Alison Holcomb, the author of Initiative 502, the 2012 referendum that legalized adult marijuana use, possession and production in the state. “Social spaces open to the public not only promote tourism — they help establish healthier norms for responsible cannabis use than clandestine venues.”

Since Washington gave the go-ahead to marijuana stores to open their doors in early July, only one shop has been able to open in Seattle. That’s the other key component, Schochet said, to seeing if this marijuana experiment can work.

As written, Initiative 502 was intended to undercut the black market, but that’s hard to do when people’s options are so limited.

“We do need to get more stores open and increase the supply,” he said, “and figure out a way to have more legal use areas so that when people are told not to smoke in a park, they’re given another option that they can use it.”

After all, he said, “There are lots of places you can drink alcohol legally.”

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