Our View: Is pot tourism a burning issue? | SteamboatToday.com

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Our View: Is pot tourism a burning issue?

Steamboat's first retail marijuana store isn't due to open for four days — Wednesday at the soonest — and we already can foresee that local regulations are apt to evolve, perhaps quickly.

At the forefront of our minds is the conundrum presented by the fact that our many out-of-state visitors are free to purchase marijuana during their visit to Steamboat Springs, but as a practical matter, they won't be able to find a place to legally smoke it.

The Steamboat Springs City Council, in its role as the marijuana licensing authority, could agree Tuesday night to approve the first of three anticipated licenses for recreational pot shops in Steamboat. And Rocky Mountain Remedies' new store on Steamboat's west side, right next to its existing medical marijuana operation, could open the next day.

Steamboat residents can take their purchases home with them and legally smoke a joint in privacy or on a porch or balcony on their private property. But it will be a dilemma for visitors from out of state who can't take their purchase home with them without risking arrest and soon will find that places to smoke legally in Steamboat are almost nonexistent.

Is that what City Council intended in September when it drafted and passed our local ordinance?

The answer, City Council President Bart Kounovsky said Friday, is not really. Instead, he said, the sentiment among the majority of council members is that there was no need to make large changes to local policy until City Council has a better understanding of the issues that are sure to pop up and the magnitude of those issues. City Council always can revisit an ordinance, he said.

"We didn't see the need to really have wholesale changes," Kounovsky said. "As (marijuana consumption) goes from medical to retail, we're dipping our toes into it. Maybe we don't have it all figured out about the tourist stuff, maybe we will in the near future. With retail marijuana, there's likely to be a bunch of revisiting over the next few years. But I'm not sure it's going to be an issue."

Here's the problem for our visitors: They can't legally smoke pot in public, they can't smoke it in the park, they can't legally smoke it on the chairlifts or in the gondola and they can't legally smoke it in the Routt National Forest — that's a federal offense.

Steamboat has ruled out pot clubs, where like-minded people could share their weed. We understand that gets complicated with laws banning smoking in public places. But how different would a pot club be from the smoking lounges in major airports? Utah for years has allowed drinking clubs by law, where "members" can purchase liquor until 1 a.m.

Pot tourists here aren't likely to find any lodging properties that will permit pot in their handful of rooms that aren't non-smoking. The risk of alienating Steamboat's essential family-oriented clientele is too high. We completely understand.

So where can they light up and get high?

The obvious answer might be for visitors to not light up, but to instead purchase food products infused with THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana. There is the concern that people unfamiliar with pot-infused baked goods might ingest too much of the product before realizing how high it will make them.

But what law enforcement official will stop and write a ticket against a suspiciously mellow fellow licking a lollipop that might contain THC?

Public Safety Director Joel Rae is taking a pretty hard line when it comes to enforcing bans on consuming marijuana in public, balanced with a level-headed understanding of the issue.

Rae and his force has demonstrated discretion when it comes to pot smokers at Steamboat's free outdoor concerts in the past.  

"Any reasonable person can anticipate a higher use of marijuana consumption per capita based on the public availability of it," Rae told the Steamboat Today this week. "We just want people to be responsible."

But Rae told the newspaper this week that his officers won't look the other way when people smoke or ingest pot in public, nor will there be a grace period as people adjust to a new era.

"You cannot consume marijuana in public, and if you do and we catch you, you do get a ticket," Rae said. And that goes for edible pot products, though Rae acknowledged these will be harder to detect.

We don't advocate for the use of marijuana, and we do advocate against driving a motor vehicle while under the influence of marijuana. But we are concerned that by creating a pot paradox for visitors to our community, we increase the likelihood that, faced with the unreasonable constraint that they can't smoke pot anywhere, they will decide to smoke anywhere they please.

That's not something that any of us, including law enforcement, want.

We think public pot smoking does have the potential to become a big issue here in 2014, and if we're going to create an expectation that visitors can purchase and enjoy marijuana here, we also should be prepared to provide a reasonable outlet for visitors to do just that.