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Mainstreaming marijuana in the mountains

Smoke clears for pot in Breckenridge, but not on Main Street


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On Main Street in Breckenridge you can get a tattoo. You can buy a bottle of scotch or snarf down fat-laden french fries advertised as “heavenly.” The one thing you cannot get after January: marijuana.

Seventy percent of Breckenridge voters decided in December to make cannabis dispensaries off-limits in the town’s tourist-oriented shopping areas. Opposition leaders had declared that cannabis shops on the town’s Victorian-cute Main Street, even if limited to upstairs locations, jeopardize the town’s tourist-friendly brand.

Breckenridge has had a conflicted stance regarding cannabis sales. The town had no hesitation about allowing sales of marijuana for medicinal uses after it was authorized by state voters. In 2009, town voters went one step further, voting to decriminalize marijuana altogether. That measure to allow possession of up to one ounce passed with 73 percent of the vote. It was the second municipality in Colorado to do so, following Denver. In 2012, when 55 percent of Colorado voters cast their lot with full legalization, Breckenridge was there with 70 percent.

Other mountain towns have similarly tolerant attitudes toward drug use, particularly marijuana. For decades Aspen boycotted the war on drugs, as local law-enforcement agencies openly feuded with Drug Enforcement Administration agents. Back in the day, Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis hung out with Hunter Thompson who, until he committed suicide in 2005, made no secret of his drug use.

Marijuana was also no stranger to Vail — the ski area of business tycoons. The ski resort’s first detachable quad-lift was officially called the Vista Bahn, but was nicknamed the Rasta Bahn, because the cover designed to shield occupants from wind and snow made illicit activity that much more covert.

BACK IN BRECK

In Breckenridge, the town council initially allowed medicinal dispensaries on Main Street, so long as they were not on street-level. A half-dozen such stores at one time were trying to do business in second-floor locations. Most, however, gravitated over time to the town’s northern edge, in a service-oriented business district along Airport Road.

“Airpot” Road, as locals have dubbed it, had four cannabis dispensaries entering ski season this winter. The area had been called the “green-light district,” with dispensaries’ neon green signage winking down the way. What you won’t see much of, if any, is natural light in these cannabis shops. There’s a sense of the underground even now that the cannabis economy is entirely legal, with a valid driver’s license certifying 21 years or more, of course.

The names of THC-infused products available in Breckenridge and elsewhere suggest edginess or radical transformation: Rare Darkness, Venom OG and Jack the Ripper. Plus White Widow, Agent Orange and Skunk. Marijuana in the 1970s could have had names like Sleepy Head or Hall of Paranoia.

At hotels near the slopes, concierges – who insisted they could not be identified – had various accounts of tourists’ reactions. One reported only a single inquiry since summer. Another concierge with longer tenure said hotel guests pose frequent queries and ask for transportation to dispensaries on Airport Road. Some also smoke in their rooms, but if caught, they are assessed surcharges of roughly $300 — the same charge for smoking cigarettes.

The Breckenridge Cannabis Club might have been allowed to stay in its old yellow house on Main Street but for a tactical business decision. In 2013, the owners approached town government with plans to convert from medical to recreational sales, expanding their potential pool of customers. The owners sought permission to convert use. Council members said no, but in what former councilman Mike Dudick describes as the spirit of compromise, the Breckenridge Cannabis Club was given a reprieve through the end of its lease in 2014. On Jan. 2, 2014, the Breckenridge Cannabis Club transformed from a medicinal dispensary to one accepting any customer over 21.

Facing the end of its lease, the Cannabis Club in summer 2014 approached the town again, this time seeking an extension. Council members were split. Still lacking was consensus about whether marijuana sales should be allowed downtown and under what conditions. A cap on the number of dispensaries? Only second-floor locations? The council chose to sponsor a non-binding plebiscite among town voters.

PROTECTING THE BRAND

Risk was the central axis for this debate. One website described “substantially more risk than reward” to having marijuana sales on Main Street and adjoining high-traffic tourist areas. “Do you know how to ruin an idyllic, family-friendly mountain town?” asked one commentator.

The local lodging association opposes marijuana on Main Street, at least for now, until impacts to the Breckenridge “brand” are understood, according to a letter published in the Summit Daily News.

Three former mayors, with a combined tenure of 16 years, also posted a public letter warning of “big risk, little upside.”

“The town should watch marijuana evolve in Colorado and the nation carefully while continuing to encourage retail and medical marijuana sales (in the service area),” went the letter, signed by Chuck Struve, Sam Mamula and Ernie Blake. “When marijuana goes mainstream, our Main Street may then be ready. But not now, not yet.”

Dudick was one of those pushing to keep cannabis off Main Street. He’s an owner of Breckenridge Grand Vacations, a time-share enterprise that employs 450 year-round. The company operates more than 300 units with another 75 under construction and more than 20,000 owners.

Colorado is a liberal state, and Breckenridge even more so – but its customers aren’t, necessarily, says Dudick. “I don’t think it’s wise to take a risk with the brand. No one has done a survey to understand the perception of the guests.”

When the perceptions around cannabis evolve from scandalous to nothing out of the ordinary in the U.S., then Breckenridge will be ready, Dudick says. “Without proper research, I say as a pragmatic businessperson we shouldn’t make a gut feeling call on this as a community without doing good research. I don’t see the need for Breckenridge to be the trailblazer.”

The staff and owners of the Breckenridge Cannabis Club turned a deaf ear to these arguments during the campaign in November. How can you condone alcohol sales at bars and restaurants but sniff at cannabis sales? they asked. “Being one of the first communities in the world to take on the historic task of ending marijuana prohibition is scary,” the public letter declared. “But scary is interesting, and it is that pioneering spirit that enchants visitors and created the history we have.”

LAYING DOWN THE LAW

Other mountain resort towns in Colorado have approached marijuana legalization very differently.

Aspen chose to treat marijuana no different than alcohol. There is no cap, nor zoning restrictions except as would be applied to liquor outlets. The free market is allowed to sort out the economics of pot. The town as of December had four dispensaries and a pending application for a fifth. Telluride also allows cannabis dispensaries without distinction from liquor stores.

Steamboat allows dispensaries, but has only three, and none on Lincoln Avenue, the town’s old main street. Frisco allows cannabis sales, but not on its primary tourist thoroughfare. Instead, they’re on Highway 9 – including, in late December, the opening of Native Roots, which is on its way to becoming a Starbucks of marijuana retailing in the state. The chain also has three stores along the Front Range plus another just west of Vail, in unincorporated Eagle County.

Vail first refused medical dispensaries and has now postponed any decisions about recreational stores. This is despite a clear vote by full-time residents in 2012 in favor.

The town council in Vail appears split. One member pointed to increased sales tax revenues, enjoyed by communities such as Boulder. Others have spoken cautiously about putting off more conservative visitors. The official position in Vail was to wait and observe the fallout in other communities. But similar to Breckenridge, a 2014 community survey showed stronger support for stores in West Vail, away from the ski lifts and the primary shopping areas. Younger residents and visitors were more welcoming altogether, with increasing distrust among survey respondents in increasing age brackets.

Councilman David Chapin has a long-time perspective as 30-plus year partner in Vendetta’s, a popular eatery and watering hole located on Bridge Street, a short distance from the lifts. After medicinal marijuana became legal, he says, some customers wanted to smoke it on the restaurant’s deck, which overlooks a pedestrian pathway called Wall Street.

THE SHAKE OUT

With the advent of recreational marijuana, there were fears it would radically change behaviors. It hasn’t been a problem, Chapin says. “It’s not that people are walking around wacked out of their minds. It’s just not the case.” But alcohol, when consumed with cannabis, does have a synergy. “When you mix the two together, that’s a dangerous combination,” he says. “In my business, we are serving one drug, alcohol, and people’s intoxication levels surge through the roof (if they have consumed cannabis).”

By November, before the next municipal elections, he hopes the council will have made a decision. But for now, people in Vail wanting to buy cannabis can travel just a few miles west to Eagle-Vail, in unincorporated Eagle County, where three stores are operating.

Similarly, the Breckenridge Cannabis Club in December was also facing the decision whether to be on the edge of Breckenridge or not at all. On the Friday evening before Christmas, the store had a line of customers willing to walk up the narrow stairs into the old house. There, they were met by a friendly dog, carded, and allowed to peruse the products that could be smoked, eaten or absorbed.

Now, if they want cannabis in Breckenridge, they’ll have to go to the town’s “green light district.” Historians say it’s not far from the red light district when Breckenridge was a mining town.

MOUNTAIN POT LAWS

AT A GLANCE

Breckenridge

Dispensaries off-limits in the town’s tourist-oriented shopping areas.

Aspen

No cap, nor zoning restrictions that differ from liquor outlets.

Steamboat

Allows dispensaries; none currently on town’s old main street.

Frisco

Allows cannabis sales, but not on its primary tourist street.

Vail

Initially refused medical dispensaries; postponed decision on recreational sales.

Telluride

Allows dispensaries without distinction from liquor stores.

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Allen Best

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