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Aspen and Colorado marketers legally restricted from marketing marijuana

Many visitors of Colorado are attracted by the novelty of legal marijuana, however both state and Aspen tourism officials have no plans to market the state for its pot.

Many visitors of Colorado are attracted by the novelty of legal marijuana, however both state and Aspen tourism officials have no plans to market the state for its pot.

A recent study showed that 6.8 percent of visitors said legal marijuana was their driving force to vacation in Colorado, but both state and Aspen tourism officials have no plans to market the state for its pot.

“We operate on Forest Service land, so you do the math,” said Christian Knapp, vice president of marketing for Aspen Skiing Co.

Cannabis is legal to buy and use for both recreational and medical purposes in Colorado. It is illegal to use, however, under federal law.

Knapp also sits on the marketing board of the Colorado Tourism Office, which last week produced results of a survey relating to the reasons vacationers visit the state during the spring and summer. The survey, done by Strategic Marketing and Research Insights, was performed to measure the impact of the Tourism Office’s “Come to Life” marketing campaign that ran from April to August.

“The primary reason visitors choose Colorado is not for marijuana,” the Tourism Office said in a statement last week. “The summer travel opportunities that continue both to inspire the largest number of visits and to be listed as the top reasons for travel are: scenic drives, state and national parks, historic sites, hiking and backpacking.”

The survey showed that 8 percent of out-of-state guests, both in 2014 and 2015, visited a marijuana dispensary while in Colorado. Another 20 percent said legal cannabis would make them more likely to visit, as opposed to 15 percent who said it would make them less likely to visit.

The survey also had an inconclusive question: “How much did the legalization of marijuana usage influence your decision to visit Colorado?”

“Forty-eight percent of respondents said it was extremely to somewhat influential,” the Tourism Office said in an email to The Aspen Times. “Unfortunately, these responses were not broken out as positively or negatively influenced.”

All seven of Aspen’s recreational cannabis shops are members of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, which has elected not to market legal pot to visitors either in state or out of state.

“When it first became legal (recreational pot was first sold in the state on Jan. 1, 2014), the board did talk about it,” said Julia Theisen, the chamber’s vice president of sales and marketing. “Some people will come to Aspen for marijuana tourism, but we didn’t feel that was in line with our brand.”

The chamber still takes that position.

“We don’t actively promote, but we will facilitate visits (to Aspen pot shops) to outside media,” she said. The chamber’s website has an FAQ section about marijuana use, with details about the legalities as well as shops in town.

The city of Aspen does not treat the cannabis trade as its own industry in its sales tax report, instead combining it with liquor sales.

Even so, Finance Department Director Don Taylor previously told The Aspen Times that for the 12 months ending in May, the city reported $6.75 million in taxable sales of recreational and medical marijuana. He also said Aspen pot shops rang up $915,000 in sales in August, the same month Colorado eclipsed $100 million in sales for the first time, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue.

Garrett Patrick, co-owner of the Aspen marijuana dispensary Stash, said a good amount of business comes from out-of-staters.

“I’m sure (legalized marijuana) helps to pull them toward Colorado if you’re deciding between Utah and Colorado,” he said. “And quite a lot of our business is from tourists. A lot of locals grow their own bud and have their own connections.”

Native Roots has a recreational shop in Aspen as well as on the Front Range and in several other ski towns. Spokeswoman Tia Mattson said the stores “see an influx of out-of-state customers during peak tourism times. Many of our out-of-state customers mention how the legalization of marijuana contributed to their decision to visit and that it is a deciding factor in planning a trip to our state.”

The state Tourism Office said it’s too early to make any sweeping conclusions about marijuana’s impact on tourism.

“While this research has provided new insights, many questions remain about the impact of marijuana on Colorado travel,” the office said. “The Colorado Tourism Office will continue its research to gain a deeper understanding into this traveler segment.”

The Tourism Office noted that 65 percent of its respondents said legalized marijuana has no bearing on the likelihood of them to visit Colorado.

It also said that marketing Colorado for its cannabis to out-of-staters poses legal issues.

“The Colorado Tourism Office mostly focuses its marketing efforts on out-of-state visitors,” its statement said. “Due to two regulations, it is basically illegal for the (Tourism Office) to market marijuana to its out-of-state audience.”

One of those two regulations, which are part of Amendment 64 that made recreational marijuana legal in Colorado, say that online advertisers must be able to demonstrate that no more than 30 percent of their audience is younger than 21.

The other regulation states, “Retail marijuana establishments cannot engage in advertising that specifically targets people outside of the state of Colorado.”

The Tourism Office said it doesn’t have “sufficient evidence” to know the ages of its website users, and “retail marijuana establishments cannot use it as medium for advertising” because the website focuses its effort on non-Colorado residents.