420 festival: Denver's newest tourist attraction?

If you've been reading about marijuana and the cannabis industry lately, you might have seen the term, "420." For the uninitiated, 420 is a decades-old code word for marijuana use.

There are several theories as to its origins, but one of the more popular myths is that 420 stood for 4:20 p.m., the time when a group of California high school friends would regularly got together after school in the 1970s to get high. In the ensuing years, 4/20 -- that is, April 20th -- has also become the annual, unofficial day of marijuana celebration in many cities around the U.S.

In Colorado, where recreational marijuana use for adults became legal as of Jan. 1, this year's 420 festivities in downtown Denver are expected to provide an economic windfall for the local tourism industry.

But it's going to take a lot of work. Several people were shot and wounded at last year's 420 event in Denver. This year, with tens of thousands of locals and tourists expected at the weekend-long festivities, organizers have hustled to clean up 420's image and make the event more like any other big city festival.

"Street closures, additional staging, bag checks and no coolers," one of the organizers, Miguel Lopez, told CBS4-TV. "The same thing you'd see at 'Taste of Colorado' or 'Pridefest'."

The event will also feature some top-flight bands performing on two stages, as well as several hundred food and art vendors.

The smoking or consumption of marijuana in public remains illegal in Colorado, and Denver police say they're prepared to enforce the law at their discretion. "Our main concern is the safety of everyone involved," police spokesman Sonny Jackson told the Denver Post, "both participating in the event and in the area, as well as officers."

Denver's tourism industry has always been strong. The city was ranked as the 17th most popular domestic destination for Americans last year by Hotels.com. But with the legalization of recreational marijuana and the advent of cannabis-related tourism, it appears the city has become even more popular.

According to Hotels.com, "Denver has seen a 25 percent increase in hotel searches in the first three months of the year compared to 2013." And for this upcoming 420 weekend, hotel searches in Denver reportedly jumped 73 percent, versus the same time period last year.

It's gotten to the point when even the influential Fodor's Travel guide recently released a list of tips for tourists coming to Colorado for the cannabis.

But surprisingly, if you search the official Colorado tourism website for the words "marijuana," "420" or "cannabis," you'll get no results (although the state tourism site does have a very comprehensive rundown of Colorado breweries). The City of Denver tourism site, meanwhile, only has a short listing of frequently asked questions regarding retail marijuana.

Taylor West, deputy director with the National Cannabis Industry Association, says Denver and Colorado should embrace the 420 festival as another high-profile tourist attraction. The idea is "to bring people in to see the incredible things Colorado has offer, as well as the extra incentive to come to the state," she noted. "This year is getting a lot of attention, but we will continue to see it develop into that type of festival that benefits the economy."

  • Bruce Kennedy

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