Vote Over Weed in Colo. and Wash. May Increase Tourism

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Washington state already sees a version of marijuana tourism.

Every summer on the shores of the Puget Sound, Seattle is host to "Hempfest," which according to organizers attracted around 250,000 people over three days this year. For those three days, people are largely left alone to smoke publically at a local park, even as police stand by.

"People travel to Seattle from other states and countries to attend Seattle Hempfest every year to experience the limited freedom that happens at the event," said executive director Vivian McPeak. "It's reasonable to assume that people will travel to Washington assuming that the federal government doesn't interfere."

McPeak parallels the event to Amsterdam where an annual "Cannabis Cup" attracts tourists from all over the world. She also points to Vancouver, British Columbia which has lax marijuana rules that have borne marijuana cafes drawing travelers.

Amsterdam's marijuana tourism is in a hazy spot these days, though. The incoming Dutch government suggested a national "weed pass" that would have been available only to residents and that would have effectively banned tourists from Amsterdam's marijuana cafes. The "weed pass" idea was scrapped, but under a provisional governing pact unveiled last week, Dutch cities can bar foreigners from weed shops if they choose.

In Denver, some feared that the Colorado marijuana vote could deter tourists, not to mention business visitors.

"Colorado's brand will be damaged, and we may attract fewer conventions and see a decline in leisure travel," Visit Denver CEO Richard Scharf said in a statement before the vote.

Colorado's governor opposed the measure but said after its passage that he didn't envision marijuana tourism materializing.

"I don't think that's going to happen," Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper said. "They're going to flock here to buy marijuana as if they're going to take it back? On an airplane? That seems unlikely to me."

Colorado's measure specifically bans public use of the drug. But guidelines for commercial sales are still to be worked out. The state's 536 medical marijuana dispensaries are banned from allowing on-site consumption, but lawmakers could set different rules for recreational marijuana shops.

Marijuana backers downplayed the impact on tourism. Aldworth pointed out that pot-smoking tourists wouldn't exactly be new. Colorado ski slopes already are dotted with "smoke shacks," old mining cabins that have been illicitly repurposed as places to smoke pot out of the cold. And the ski resort town of Breckenridge dropped criminal penalties for marijuana use two years ago.

"Some folks come to Colorado and enjoy some marijuana while they are here today," Aldworth said.

The sheriff of the county including Aspen was sanguine about the prospects of pot-smoking visitors.

"For me, it's going to be live and let live. If people want to come to Colorado because pot is legal — and that's the sole reason — it's up to them," Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo told The Aspen Times. "I am not the lifestyle police."

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