DENVER As marijuana users prepared for their unofficial national holiday today, 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.
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 today's Cannabis Cup competition: a triple-threat cheesecake made with hash oil, hash and marijuana butter.
For now, his pot is available only 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," Horowitz said.
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 today, 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.
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."
Today'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 squashed them.
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.
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.