Taking a Trip, Literally, on Colorado’s Pot Trail

New York Times, June 16, 2014

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 CannaSaver.comand 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.

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