Will Pot Laws in Colorado and Washington Make Them a New Amsterdam?

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Lighting up a joint could become the newest tourist draw for Colorado and Washington which recently passed laws making pot smoking legal and where pot smokers have already been taking advantage of lax laws in some towns.

In Washington, Seattle residents voted in 2003 to make police enforcement of marijuana laws the lowest priority for the city's police department, which has helped the pro-pot festival Hempfest an annual celebration of marijuana, according to Yvonne Snyder, a longtime volunteer at Hempfest.

"We're anticipating there will be more people. Many people who smoke pot aren't public about it, so people may feel freer (coming here)," Snyder said.

In Colorado, the ski resort town of Breckenridge passed a law in 2009 allowing residents to possess and smoke marijuana.

The city of Amsterdam in Holland offers an example of how having pot treated largely as a legal substance is a draw for some travelers.

Now that both Washington and Colorado have passed statewide measures decriminalizing marijuana possession, it remains to be seen whether they will see a boost in pot-enhanced vacations.

But possessing and selling marijuana are still against the federal Uniform Controlled Substances Act, a fact which tourism industry insiders and law experts say should be watched closely before any travel plans are made.

"At this point, questions about regulation and enforcement of Amendment 64 still abound, and it will not be part of our immediate marketing strategy," said Richard Scharf, president and CEO of Visit Denver.

Until the U.S. Department of Justice announces how it will handle marijuana cases in the two states, travelers may not find what they're looking for.

"As far as ski resorts here in Colorado, people are just waiting to see how this is going to play out," said Jennifer Rudolph, spokeswoman for Colorado Ski Country USA, a trade association for ski resorts near Denver.

"There's just too many unknowns. We're waiting to see what the federal government is going to do, if the local governments have any say in how it is implemented, and any new laws that might come up in between," she said.

In response to the passing of the state laws, the federal government could sue Colorado and Washington, forcing the issue of whether states' laws can counter federal laws. They could also choose to press criminal charges against anyone who has marijuana or is growing, selling, or distributing the drug, according to Richard Collins, law professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

If the federal government decided to pursue criminal charges, any tourists visiting Colorado's ski slopes or Washington's HempFest, for instance, could be ticketed or charged. It could also ban the resorts and businesses from selling pot to visitors.

Collins said that potential growers or business owners in Colorado won't start making plans to manufacture or sell pot until they know whether the federal government will prosecute them for doing so.

"The feds undoubtedly have authority to shut down any institution, like a selling shop, and could take the position that this is not like medical marijuana, this goes too far. They could go after any place that goes for a license," Collins said.

New Pot Laws in Colorado and Washington

Collins predicts that the federal government will not pursue criminal charges against individuals smoking or possessing small amounts of pot because of the difficulty agents would face in prosecuting all of the offenders. In that case, tourists essentially would be able to carry and smoke marijuana, but would not be able to legally buy it.

"If they (ban retail sales), the existing black market would continue, and the state won't get tax money. If you ask voters why they voted for this, they say because it should be taxed like booze. That was a big part of the debate," Collins said.

Whether the federal government decides to pursue criminal charges against pot sellers or not, users who smoke or ingest the drug are still banned from skiing, snowboarding, or hurtling down a mountain while high.

The Colorado Ski Safety Act, a law passed by Colorado in 2006, bans anyone from participating in mountain sports while intoxicated.

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