Crested Butte, Colorado's wildflower capital, nestles in the Elk Mountain Range of west-central Colorado, where lupine, aster, mule's ear and a host of other dazzlers dot the fields. But currently the hottest tourist attraction is weed.
The resort town, population 1,600, supports four marijuana shops.
The sale of medical marijuana has been legal in the state for 14 years, but since Colorado sanctioned recreational marijuana for adults in January, the cannabis shop's stubby green cross insignia has become as recognizable as a striped barber's pole — and in some towns, more common. Meanwhile, the number of visitors coming to partake has grown like a weed.
Crested Butte — once a silver mining hotbed, now a hub for mountain bike and ski enthusiasts — radiates a laid-back vibe. Free shuttle buses, whimsically decorated by local artists, ferry passengers from the cozy downtown to condos and hotels on the slopes. On Elk Avenue, the main boulevard, a string of 1880s blacksmith shops, dry goods stores and saloons (Butch Cassidy allegedly drank here) have been reborn as trendy pizza parlors, sushi lounges and boutiques. The posted speed limit is a leisurely 15 miles an hour. As one pot tourist observed, "If you're stoned, 15 is fast."
Four blocks south, past miners' shacks in various stages of decay and rehab, another shopping strip along sunswept Belleview Avenue includes three pot dispensaries. Modest signage is the only clue to the cannabis stores' existence. Prohibited by law from displaying their wares in storefront windows, they present themselves in plain brown wrappers of anonymous stucco and clapboard.
A small group entered one of them, Soma Wellness Lounge, and were greeted by Elizabeth Langanki, a Minnesota native with the easygoing manner and studious eyeglasses of a friendly librarian. She asked to see photo IDs (legal age begins at 21) and then invited the visitors to relax on sofas with a coffee or tea and have a get-to-know-you chat before proceeding to the sales area. Putting potentially nervous newcomers at ease is an essential part of the business, she said.
The shop's retail space, behind a locked door, is a spotless earth-toned showroom that could pass for a tastefully appointed gourmet tea store. Gleaming glass shelves line the walls, displaying rainbow-colored cannabis oil gummi sweets, pot brownies, hash candies and squeeze bottles of THC-infused massage lotions. Humidors full of gray-green buds the size of a baby's fist decorate the wall behind the sales counter. Display cases house sheaves of precisely crafted, individual machine-rolled joints. Beside the checkout are bottles of Clear Eyes Redness Relief Eye Drops.
The store's prices, including state taxes of 21 percent, are around $360 an ounce for high-quality strains. That's about one-third above the black market street price, but seniors, active-duty military and veterans receive a 5 percent discount.
Soma, open since April, has found that educating its customers is crucial. "It's a lot older demographic than we would have expected, a lot of people from 45 to 70," Langanki said.
Such shoppers require a fair amount of advice, since today's strains of marijuana aim for maximum potency.
As with beer or wine, there are many different qualities and styles of pot available, bearing names such as Durban Poison, Super Lemon Haza and Afghan Dream. There are sativas that produce a heady, energetic response; relaxing indicas; and hybrids that blend both experiences.
"We can't just tell people, 'This is going to get you high.' We have to explain this is how you will feel with this particular product," said Langanki, who graduated from the University of Minnesota with a horticulture degree, and oversees Soma's greenhouse operations. "The nutrients they're on are like steroids," she said.
If the store's oversized guest book is any indication, Soma has satisfied quite a few customers.
"Awesome, after 49 years I am finally a law-abiding citizen," wrote one visitor. Another asked, "When are you guys coming to Texas?"
Many pages feature loopy amateur cartoons of blissed-out smokers.
It's boom times for post-prohibition pot, a new silver rush linked closely to tourism. Washington state got in on the act in July, after legislators there legalized recreational marijuana.
In Colorado, some $70 million worth of recreational cannabis was sold legally in the first four months of 2014, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue. During that time retail sales in most tourist destinations more than doubled. Telluride's San Miguel County saw pot sales rise 174 percent in the first four months of 2014. In Denver, with a lower visitor-to-resident ratio, sales rose only 19 percent. Though out-of-staters are limited to quarter-ounce purchases and bringing it home is prohibited, about 90 percent of sales in some counties is likely to be from visitors.
Inevitably, there's an iPhone app: Weedmaps displays all the dispensaries in commuting distance, with consumer comments.
Not everyone in the tourism industry embraces the budding entrepreneurs. Some businesspeople believe that branding Colorado a weed wonderland could sully its wholesome heritage as a hiking, biking and skiing family destination.
A search of the state's visitors bureau website for marijuana or cannabis produces no hits. ("Did you mean 'canvas'?") The boosterish Denver Convention & Visitors Bureau website omits mention of dispensaries, as well.