Colorado's ski resorts and mountain towns are bracing for an influx of tourists seeking a now-legal Rocky Mountain high.
Last year, the state legalized the possession and use of small amounts of recreational marijuana, and on Jan. 1 special stores will be allowed to sell pot to anyone 21 and over. Voters had previously approved a medical marijuana system, but last fall's vote threw the doors wide open by requiring state officials to regulate pot like alcohol.
With several companies offering marijuana tours - sightseeing tours of the state's high country, with marijuana supplied - police and ski area operators worry that tourists who don't understand the rules will be sparking up on the slopes.
"We're delving into truly uncharted territory here," said Summit County Sheriff John Minor, whose jurisdiction covers the Arapahoe Basin, Keystone and Breckenridge ski areas. "We do have this misperception in Summit County where people have smoked in public, been charged, and were under the perception that it's a free-for-all."
Under the law, marijuana may be smoked by adults but only in private. But exactly what "private" means is still the subject of debate. Minor says a private vehicle on a public road, for example, is considered "in public."
Marijuana tour operator Timothy Vee of Colorado High Life Tours says to get around those rules, his drivers sometimes pull into a parking lot, allowing tour guests to partake of the pot he offers. Under current law, it's legal to give another adult marijuana as long as there's no direct payment for it. Vee and other operators charge people to rent the limo and driver and say the pot, snacks and soda are free.
For $1,200 a day, tourists can rent a chauffeured minibus from Vee to pick them up at their hotel and drive them to the slopes while they use marijuana during the ride. Vee said concerns about impaired skiers and riders are overblown. After all, he says, every ski area has a bar at the bottom of the slope. And for decades, skiers and snowboarders in Colorado have been ducking into the trees for a mid-run toke. Many ski areas are home to illicitly built "smoke shacks" tucked between the slopes, and locals often refer to gondola ski lifts as "ganja-las."
"What I'm getting are a lot of old stoners, and a lot of wealthy people who want to come do it safely with a concierge," Vee said. "Now the kids are gone, they're 60 years old and they want to get high."
Ski resorts worry their slopes' family-friendly image will take a hit if out-of-state tourists start thinking their kids will be exposed to marijuana smoke in lift lines and gondolas. At Arapahoe Basin in October, mountain manager Al Henceroth confiscated passes from several skiers he caught publicly sharing a joint.
In a series of blog posts that drew sometimes-vitriolic responses, Henceroth made a key point: Because most ski areas are on leased federal lands, marijuana use remains illegal.
"We will not hesitate to call the cops on this issue," wrote Henceroth, who declined to be interviewed.
Jenn Rudolph, a spokeswoman for the industry group Colorado Ski Country USA, said people who smoke in lift lines and on the slopes will be prosecuted, either by federal forest rangers or local law enforcement working with the resorts. Getting caught smoking pot by a ranger brings a minimum $250 citation, Forest Service officials said. Last year, rangers wrote 112 tickets for marijuana use at Colorado ski areas. This year, they had already written 93 through this September.
"Colorado is a family-friendly ski destination, and the law is clear that you can't smoke marijuana in public," Rudolph said. "Resorts are going to do what they need to do to enforce that."