Vail, Colorado, is known as a playground for the rich and famous, where celebrities such as Michelle Obama, Cameron Diaz, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Al Gore are sometimes seen. The town council isn’t convinced that legal marijuana shops would benefit the municipality’s image.
“We decided we wanted to take six months and look at reactions amongst our guests,” Mayor Andy Daly said of the town’s response to legalized pot. “We do cater to families and we’re very concerned about exposure. At the same time, marijuana has been around for a long time and unfortunately it’s not a stranger to the ski slopes.”
The decision by Vail’s council last week to extend a moratorium on pot sales for six months points to the dilemma Colorado’s world-renowned ski villages face as they try to balance tourists’ expectations of a drug-free place for family recreation against a 2012 vote by Colorado residents legalizing marijuana. At stake is $3 billion a year that the ski industry brings to the state’s economy.
The conflict is acute in Vail, where fur coats, $6,000-a-night suites and vending machines stocked with $3 bags of M&Ms are the norm. The image of young people smoking joints on ski lifts and slopes isn’t something it wants its well-heeled visitors and their families to see.
Vail Resorts Inc., which operates Vail and several other Colorado ski areas, is asking employees to distribute cards explaining that marijuana use is “in fact still illegal on our resorts,” the company said in a statement. A sign posted at the top of the Eagle Bahn Gondola warns that smoking marijuana is also forbidden in the national forest lands leased to the ski resort. Federal law still classifies marijuana as an illegal substance.
Vail, nestled in a mile-wide valley about 97 miles (156 kilometers) west of Denver, joined 118 municipalities -- about 43 percent of those in the state -- that voted either to postpone or ban retail pot sales since legalization, according to the Colorado Municipal League, which represents cities and towns.
The ban also points to another question: How would marijuana shops in Vail village play to visitors and residents opposed to the drug’s use?
“We have heard from consumers and travelers who have let us know they aren’t going to ski in Colorado this year,” said Jennifer Rudolph, communications director for Colorado Ski Country USA, a Denver-based trade association representing 21 ski areas, not including Vail Resorts’ properties such as Beaver Creek and Breckenridge.
“Our response to those folks is to educate them on what the law means and reassure them Colorado’s slopes are safe and family-friendly,” she said.
Currently, cannabis is available in Denver and a few shops elsewhere. The state’s Revenue Department issued about 118 licenses to medical-marijuana clinics wishing to expand into recreational pot, although not all might yet have local approval to do so, said Julie Postlethwait, a spokeswoman for the department’s Marijuana Enforcement Division.
Since marijuana became legal in Colorado, its use has pervaded the state’s health-conscious culture, even as towns grappled with whether to allow the shops.
The store that A.J. Peters manages in Lionshead on Vail’s west side sells items that hint at marijuana use, including a bright green T-shirt that says “Keep Calm You’re Just High (Vail, Colorado 11,570 feet).” Yet Peters says he doesn’t favor retail cannabis stores in the city founded in 1962.
“I voted for it, but now knowing what it is, I second-guess myself,” said Peters, who has managed the Vail T-Shirt Co. store for four years. “When people come through the store they smell like it, and I think it gives a bad image of Vail. You want to keep Vail being a prestige, quality resort and you hate to see it lower its standards.”
Marijuana advocates who sell the drug for medicinal purposes in one of several clinics in the Vail Valley said the town council is denying the wishes of voters to buy the drug close to home.
“The people I deal with are upset that we’re missing out on the tax dollars,” said Katie Thomas, manager of the New Hope Wellness Center in Edwards, about 15 miles (24 kilometers) west of Vail. “I have town councilmen who come in here and teachers, lawyers and doctors -- they are highly contributing people to the economy who are not happy.”
Eagle County, which includes Vail, will allow a limited number of recreational marijuana stores in unincorporated areas and is preparing an application for businesses that should be ready this spring. New Hope Wellness wants to open a separate area for retail sales this year, Thomas said.
Visitors soaking up the sun on a cloudless day on the patio at the top of Eagle Bahn Gondola said they dislike the idea of shops selling pot in their favorite ski village.
“Every year I come to ski and I don’t agree with legalization,” said Malu Samperio, a 40-year-old mother of three from Hidalgo, Mexico. “I love Vail, for my kids too. It’s a family place.”
As visitors exit the gondola station, they’re greeted by a rectangular red sign: “Warning,” it reads. “Consumption of marijuana is illegal in public and on national forest system land. You may lose your pass or face criminal charges!”
The sign is intended to reduce confusion among the thousands of visitors, most from out of state, that patronize Vail about where they can legally smoke marijuana.
The answer: Not on the ski slopes, not in restaurants, not in hotels. Not in public.
Vail Police Commander Craig Bettis said misunderstandings among visitors about how the state law works prompted him to oppose retail weed sales in his town.
“People who come to Vail for the weekend don’t really understand the law and where they can smoke marijuana,” he said. “You are setting that guest up for disappointment, as well as failure.”
“The last thing I want to see is one of my officers issuing a citation to someone from Texas, where they have to show up to court in two weeks,” he said.
Many Vail residents are part-time and own second homes in the community. Some said they’re concerned that local pot sales might lead to safety issues on mountains known for meticulously groomed terrain.
“Riding up on the lift we saw someone drinking,” said Frigge Tugcu, 73, a retiree from the Florida Keys who’s been visiting Vail with her husband for 25 years. “He had a little flask of whiskey. I can only imagine what might happen if you add marijuana to that.”
The decision on retail pot shops comes as Vail is still recovering from the longest recession since the 1930s that highlighted its one-dimensional tourism-dependent economy.
“We’re in the heart of our ski season and we’re showing every sign of having our best season since 2008, which was our record year in terms of occupancy and sales-tax collections,” said Chris Romer, president of the Vail Valley Partnership, which represents more than 800 local businesses.
City leaders are also looking to buff up storefronts in Vail Village in advance of the 2015 World Alpine Ski Championships, an event Romer calls the “Super Bowl of ski racing.”
“This puts Vail and Beaver Creek in front of mind for visitors down the road,” he said. “We hosted this event in 1989 and 1999 and for a good two years after those events, we saw an increase in visitation.”