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Marijuana moves into open in a ‘high’ ski town

In the wake of the approval of a new drug ordinance in Breckenridge, Colo., business owners are concerned about the town’s image and resort managers about safety.
Image: Downtown Breckenridge, Colo.
Breckenridge, Colo., has recently passed a drug ordinance that decriminalizes small amounts of marijuana.Carl Scofield / AP file
/ Source: The New York Times

High-altitude partying is a deeply carved tradition in ski country, where alcohol in the open and illicit drugs in the shadows have been intertwined for years.

Even before last week’s town vote here that decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, one of the best-selling T-shirts at Shirt and Ernie’s on Main Street winked at what it means to live and play 9,600 feet up in the Rockies.

“Dude,” the shirt says, “I think this whole town is high.”

But what the town’s drug ordinance could mean for the local culture and economy, as well as its potential impact on the resort industry if more ski towns go Breckenridge’s way, has become part of the discussion as people scan the skies and wait for snow.

For business owners ever vigilant about the town’s image, safety-minded resort managers and footloose ski and snowboard vagabonds whose ranks have given towns like this a tinge of wildness since the first ski bum washed a dish or waited a table, marijuana is openly discussed as perhaps never before.

Town-by-town strategy
The leader of the group that organized the petition drive leading to the vote, Sensible Colorado, said that Breckenridge, where 71 percent of voters approved the marijuana measure on Election Day, was the opening salvo in a town-by-town strategy toward the goal of a vote on statewide legalization within a few years.

Local efforts, said the group’s founder and chairman, Sean T. McAllister, are now organizing or under way in two other Colorado resort towns, Durango and Aspen. After the election, Mr. McAllister said, people in Montana and Washington called seeking advice on starting voter initiatives.

Breckenridge’s part-time mayor, Dr. John Warner, a dentist who voted against the measure but remained publicly neutral before the election, said the three dozen or so e-mail messages he had received since the vote had been mixed.

About half of the messages were negative, Dr. Warner said, and included comments from people who said they had canceled reservations and would never come back. Other respondents said they were thrilled about the town’s vote and could hardly wait to visit and spend some money.

State and federal law still make marijuana possession a crime in Colorado, but residents here say that local enforcement has not been a high police priority.

Not a ‘little Amsterdam’
A spokeswoman for the Breckenridge Resort Chamber of Commerce, Carly Grimes, said she thought that because of those other laws, little would change. But she said that some chamber members were concerned about perceptions — that the statute could send a message of broader drug tolerance that could turn off visiting families, who remain a cornerstone of the economic base.

“This is not going to become a little Amsterdam,” she said, referring to the Dutch capital, an international symbol of libertarian drug use.

At Vail Resorts, a publicly traded company that owns the Breckenridge resort, a spokeswoman said she expected no change in management practices.

The spokeswoman, Kelly Ladyga, said that resort employees were already trained to be “hypervigilant” in watching people for dangerous behavior from drugs or alcohol and that the company reserved the right to test any employee for drugs if “reasonable suspicions” are raised or an accident occurs.

“We’re a family-friendly resort, and together with the town we remain committed to delivering an exceptional guest experience,” Ms. Ladyga said. “Boarding a lift or using a slope or trail while under the influence of alcohol or drugs is prohibited.”

At Home for the Holidays, a year-round Christmas store, the manager, M. Musso, who asked that only her first initial be used, said her customers tended to be older and more conservative. The young and the rowdy, who crowd the bars when the lifts close, usually do not shop for Christmas baubles, she said.

“I don’t think that’s the type of person we want flocking into Breckenridge,” said Ms. Musso, who opposed the ordinance.

But it is also easy to find people like Chelsey Vogt, a 21-year-old snowboarder originally from upstate New York who foresees what she calls change for the better — from local marijuana users’ becoming more open and comfortable to pot-smoking visitors drawn by the town’s new stance.

“It’s been here forever,” said Ms. Vogt, who works for a property maintenance company when not on the mountain. “Now people can just be more comfortable walking down the street having some marijuana in their pocket — definitely including me.”

One Town Council member who supported the ballot measure, Jeffrey J. Bergeron, said he thought history had played a role in assembling a majority of voters. Mr. Bergeron, who has lived in Breckenridge for nearly 30 years, said many longtime residents vividly remembered the 1970s and 1980s, when cocaine use became a rage and then a scourge, destroying lives and businesses before fading in the 1990s. Through that lens, he said, marijuana looks comparatively benign.

But Mr. Bergeron said he had not expected a backlash, and he now worries that business could take a hit.

“It was a gesture in the right direction,” he said. “I just wish some other town had done it.”

Whether the new measure will lead to more accidents on the slopes is anyone’s guess.

Colorado is one of the few states whose legal codes specify that collisions between skiers are not a natural risk of the sport. The provision, passed by the legislature in 1990, imposes what lawyers call a higher standard of care and potential legal liability upon skiers who cause accidents than do most other states with big resort industries.

‘It’s a dumb thing’
James H. Chalat, a lawyer in Denver who specializes in personal injury and ski cases, said that of the hundreds of lawsuits stemming from skiing accidents handled by his firm, Chalat Hatten & Koupal, over 29 years, marijuana had been a factor in only one collision between two skiers.

Alcohol, on the other hand, has often been an aggravating cause, with a drunken skier or snowboarder plowing into somebody else, causing injury.

In any accident, though, evidence of marijuana use would be looked at. “If somebody is stoned, that’s not helpful,” Mr. Chalat said. “It’s a dumb thing.”

This article, "Marijuana Moves Into the Open in a Ski Town," first appeared in The New York Times.