Denver - As marijuana users prepared for their unofficial national holiday on Saturday, Denver got a head start, with local promoters trying to showcase Colorado as a state that welcomes pot-smoking tourists after voters legalized the drug in November.
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At Ganja Gourmet on South Broadway, where the pot-laced Mountain High suckers sell for $6 and an ounce of top-shelf weed goes for $280, owner Steve Horowitz made plans for his entry in Saturday's Cannabis Cup competition: a triple-threat cheesecake made with hash oil, hash and marijuana butter.
For now, his pot is only available with a doctor's note, as recreational marijuana hasn't formally begun in the state. Still, he's looking forward to getting a license and expanding his market, including by welcoming out-of-state tourists.
"This is a big week. . . . The phone's ringing a lot, with people who want to come to Colorado and pretend they're in Amsterdam," said Horowitz.
And at a cooking school on Zuni Street, chef Blaine Hein showed out-of-state tourists how to use marijuana to make a gluten-free trail mix and other food as part of a private event called World Cannabis Week, which sold out quickly. It drew more than 200 visitors for four days of activities, including daily happy hours, hash-making labs, tours, parties, concerts and films, along with "legal sampling, tasting and sharing."
"This is showing off all the things that make Colorado great," said Matt Brown, one of two entrepreneurs organizing the event.
The highlight comes Saturday, in what organizers say will be the world's largest marijuana rally. Tens of thousands are expected in Denver's Civic Center park across the street from the state Capitol, which serves as an open-air marketplace for pot dealers.
While many of Colorado's pot aficionados relish the thought of more tourism, others – including the official tourism office – say it could backfire and hurt the state's image as a place where families can ski and hike and enjoy more than 300 days of sunshine a year.
"Our office is not going to use legalized cannabis for any marketing purposes," said Al White, director of the Colorado state tourism office. "We feel that there's too much to see and do in the state without having to bang that drum. And in fact, it kind of works counter to the branding effort that we're going for to get people to recognize the healthy aspects of the state."
He said his phone has been ringing, too, with calls from both sides, including parents who don't want to visit the state because of its pro-marijuana culture.
"It sounded like the kind of people who would come and spend maybe $5,000 in a week on their family vacation, with mom, dad and the two kids – as opposed to the guy who . . . would bring a hundred-dollar bill and spend a week and leave with $20 in change," White said.
Marijuana backers say that state officials are guilty of a double standard, all too eager to use taxpayer money to promote the annual Great American Beer Festival.
"They celebrate alcohol tourism and are now acting as if marijuana tourism may somehow be a bad thing – I don't get it," said Steve Fox, who worked to pass the new Colorado law and now is the national political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group in Washington.
As soon as Colorado and Washington state voted to approve the recreational use of pot for adults 21 and older, Arthur Frommer, the founder of the popular Frommer's Travel Guides, said that Denver and Seattle could "expect a torrent of new tourism" and that they'd become among a handful of the world's hottest new destinations.
After spending his career battling drugs, Tom Gorman wants nothing to do with it.
"I don't think this is the kind of reputation that Colorado really wants, to be the pot capital – or the Netherlands – of the United States," said Gorman, the director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program – which coordinates federal, state and local law enforcement efforts – and the former head of California's anti-narcotics operations. "Now we are Rocky Mountain high for real."
Gorman predicted that it would take only four to six years before state voters scrap the legalized system as they watch drug use rise in both adults and teens.
"How many more people getting killed on the interstates are we willing to accept before we say enough is enough and this was not a good idea?" he asked.
Saturday's event, the "420 Rally," has become an annual affair here, taking place on April 20, or 4/20. Legend has it that the significance of the number dates back to the early 1970s, when a group of California teens smoked pot each day at 4:20 p.m. Now it's a day of marijuana activism across the country.
James Walker, one of the organizers of World Cannabis Week and the head of a new Denver-based company called My 420 Tours, said this year's rally could draw more than 50,000 people.
"I don't think the city really understands how many people are coming – from everywhere," he said. "All the hotels are sold out. You can't find a hotel room downtown."
Organizers had to abandon plans for a similar rally at the University of Colorado campus in Boulder after the school's president shot them down.
University of Colorado President Bruce Benson said that legalizing marijuana could mean the loss of nearly a billion dollars in federal money for research and student financial aid, since the drug is still illegal under federal law. He said the university is trying to defeat its image as a party school and that no students can smoke marijuana on campus.
State officials and a task force created by the governor studied the possibility of imposing a residency requirement on recreational marijuana. But that idea was rejected, with critics saying it would be unconstitutional.
Christian Sederberg, an attorney on the task force, said that it would have violated the intent of voters, who wanted to make marijuana available to people regardless of where they live, just as alcohol is sold to out-of-staters. He said it now will be important to prove to skeptics that legalizing pot can work.
"The decades of marijuana prohibition and the form it takes in all 48 states, besides Colorado and Washington state, is a failure – and now's our opportunity to show that there's a better path forward," Sederberg said. "And we just have to show that to the rest of the country."
For now, marijuana sales are limited to those who have permission from a doctor.
At Ganja Gourmet, where Horowitz has sold medical marijuana since 2010, patients ring a bell in the lobby and show their state-issued red cards to get buzzed in to a pot lover's paradise: a small, dimly lit room with a fish tank and Bob Marley posters, where they can buy a single joint for $3.99 or choose from hundreds of marijuana-laced products: honey oil hash sticks, magic bars, sky-high peanut butter cookies, Beyond Mars infused butter, cannabis cooking oil, herbal teas, hybrid gummies, extra-strength pain spray, lip balms, salves, bath salts and more.
Planning ahead, Horowitz hopes to cash in on new marijuana-laced drinks: A Denver Speedball, which he says would be a high-energy drink, and medicated cappuccino for those who like to smoke a joint with their morning coffee.
"How anybody can be fighting to keep this wonderful herb illegal, that just grows and grows from the ground, is just beyond me," he said.
At the cooking school on Thursday, Hein showed students who came from Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, Florida, Texas and elsewhere how to make his trail mix, combining apple juice, honey, almonds and hemp seeds with oats.
With the nation creating few new industries, he said, pot could become a huge cash crop, boosting hemp farming and providing more jobs while giving Americans a new way to manage pain.
"They're passing pills out like they're going out of style," Hein said.
Two tourists watching Hein cook said they were happy to be vacationing in Colorado.
Glen Czarnecki, 61, a retired federal employee from St. Louis, said he considered going to Amsterdam but opted for Denver when he heard about the marijuana tour. He liked staying at a pot-friendly hotel, smoking on the balcony with little fear of arrest.
"It's really nice freedom, to be able to sit there and not have to worry about the police," he said.
Nicole Hamrah, 45, a former cancer patient from Las Vegas, said she came because she wanted to learn how to bake with marijuana.
"I would like to have a little cafe-type place, where people could come and eat my brownies and drink my coffee and listen to music," she said, adding that Denver just might be the place for her business: "I would move here totally."