Ski Utah 'not concerned' about marijuana legalization in Colorado

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 7 2012 7:19 p.m. MST

A skier enjoys the new snowfall at Deer Valley ski resort Monday, Feb. 13, 2012, in Park City, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — The legalization of marijuana by voters in Colorado created a brief buzz Wednesday among the people who promote The Greatest Snow on Earth.

"We kind of keep an eye on everything Colorado does," said Ski Utah communications director Susie English when asked about the passage of Amendment 64.

"The topic came up quickly" Wednesday morning during a monthly marketing meeting attended by representatives from all of Utah's ski resorts, English said.

"(Amendment 64) definitely was, you know, on our forethought because Colorado is one of the biggest ski destinations and one of our biggest competitors," she said.

Ski Utah has battled long-standing public perception that Utah's liquor laws prohibit out-of-state visitors from having a good time. Recent changes to those laws have been heralded by the industry group, English said.

"Our industry is always trying to make people realize that it is easy to get a drink here and have a good vacation," she said.

Now, Colorado has become one of the first states to allow marijuana for recreational use. While ballot measures there and in Washington earned support Tuesday from broad swaths of the electorate, they are likely to face resistance from federal drug warriors. As of Wednesday, authorities did not say whether they would challenge the new laws.

Pot advocates say a fight is exactly what they want.

"I think we are at a tipping point on marijuana policy," said Brian Vicente, co-author of Colorado's marijuana measure. "We are going to see whether marijuana prohibition survives or whether we should try a new and more sensible approach."

Soon after the measures passed, cheering people poured out of bars in Denver, the tangy scent of pot filling the air, and others in Seattle lit up in celebration.

Authorities in Colorado, however, urged caution.

"Federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don't break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly," said Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who opposed the measure.

As the initial celebration dies down and the process to implement the laws progresses over the next year, other states and countries will be watching to see if the measures can both help reduce money going to drug cartels and raise it for governments.

Both measures call for the drug to be heavily taxed, with the profits headed to state coffers. Colorado would devote the potential tax revenue first to school construction, while Washington's sends pot taxes to an array of health programs.

Estimates vary widely on how much they would raise. Colorado officials anticipate somewhere between $5 million and $22 million a year. Washington analysts estimated legal pot could produce nearly $2 billion over five years.

Both measures remove criminal penalties for adults over 21 possessing small amounts of the drug — the boldest rejection of pot prohibition laws passed across the country in the 1930s.

Pot has come a long way since. In the 1960s, it was a counterculture fixture. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs. Twenty-five years later, California approved medical marijuana. Now, 17 states and Washington, D.C., allow it.

On Tuesday night, broad sections of the electorate in Colorado and Washington backed the measures, some because they thought the drug war had failed and others because they viewed potential revenue as a boon for their states in lean times. A similar measure in Oregon failed.

"I was not surprised in the least that Amendment 64 was passed," said Taylor Stratton, a BYU student.

Stratton, a Colorado native who cast his vote against the amendment by absentee ballot, said he opposed the measure for moral reasons. But he also questioned the wisdom of legalizing "another mind-altering substance."

"(It) really isn't what the nation needs," Stratton said.

"People think little old ladies with glaucoma should be able to use marijuana. This is different. This is a step further than anything we have seen to date," said Sam Kamin, a University of Denver law professor who has studied the history of pot prohibition.

The Justice Department says it is evaluating the measures. When California was considering legalization in 2010, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said it would be a "significant impediment" to joint federal and local efforts to combat drug traffickers.

Federal agents have cracked down on medical pot dispensaries in states where it is legal, including California and Washington. Individual pot users may not be immediately impacted, as authorities have long focused on dismantling trafficking operations.

Brian Smith of the Washington State Liquor Control Board, which will implement the new law, said officials are waiting anxiously to find out what federal law enforcement authorities plan to do. "They have been silent," Smith said.

Law enforcement officers in Utah, however, are talking about the legal change that happened overnight in neighboring Colorado.

"We'll continue to patrol those stretches of highway that cross from Colorado into Utah, just as we're doing now," said Utah Highway Patrol Cpl. Todd Johnson. "Once they cross the border, they're subject to the laws of Utah." 

Colorado and Washington will have about a year to come up with rules for their legal pot systems. 

And while the future of Colorado's law remains hazy, English said Utah's ski industry clearly isn't worried that skiers will book vacations based solely on access to marijuana. 

"We're not concerned," she said, noting that Utah's appeal among families and older skiers remains strong.

"I think that our resorts and our access, and snow and value all kind of speak for (themselves)," English said.

E-mail: gliesik@desnews.com

Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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