Despite Colorado’s legalization of marijuana, travelers passing through Denver International Airport will not be able to purchase pot-themed souvenirs and mementos inside facility terminals. This policy announcement comes on the heels of airport management’s decision to turn down a retail application from a vender who wanted to hawk clothing emblazoned with marijuana imagery. So from now on, if pot-passionate visitors leaving Denver hope to return home toting artifacts that salute their favorite leafy plant, they will have to purchase their souvenirs before heading off to the airport. Tourism in Colorado has been booming since the state’s voters lifted the sanctions against recreational marijuana, and to think this is just a coincidence would be the height of naiveté. Nevertheless, airport officials have concluded it doesn’t make good business sense to allow their airport’s corridors to become a shopping mall for mementos and merchandise marketing marijuana memes and motifs. Even before this latest ban, the airport had prohibited marijuana-related advertising, the display of items labeled with the word “marijuana” and the sale of publications devoted to the cultivation, manufacture or distribution of cannabis in any shape or form. “We don’t want marijuana to be the first thing our visitors experience when they arrive,” said airport spokesperson Heath Montgomery in explaining the souvenir ban. Translated, this means airport officials are concerned about travelers being turned off by the presence of marijuana retailers in their midst, which might leave them disinclined to purchase anything at all from airport merchants peddling drastically overpriced goods to captive consumers.
Despite the public’s growing tolerance for the drug, there is still a stigma attached to marijuana that doesn’t apply to alcohol. This is why Denver airport officials skittish about pot are perfectly comfortable hosting a large walkway exhibit called “Colorado on Tap: The State of Brew Culture.” This grand panorama pays homage to all things beer and features dozens of beer-related collector’s items. The spurned retailer that planned to sell similar items devoted to cannabis has threatened to sue airport management, citing the hypocrisy of their anti-pot stance in comparison to their willingness to let beer companies sponsor their own public relations-oriented pavilion. But few believe such a lawsuit will have legs, since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that airport terminals were not public spaces and that airport management could limit free speech and control the licensing of vendors. Interestingly, despite their strong anti-marijuana stance, Denver airport officials have chosen not to crack down on people caught trying to smuggle pot onto airplanes. So far, 29 individuals have been apprehended and charged with this crime, but in each case the police have issued no citations and no charges have been filed. The airport in Colorado Springs is the only other public transportation facility in the state with similar policies in place. Smaller airports in Colorado have chosen not to emulate the Denver example, apparently believing they have more to lose than gain by doing so. None of the airports in Washington state, which legalized pot at the same time as Colorado, have chosen to ban the sale of marijuana mementos in their terminals, either. Nor have they restricted marijuana advertising or attempted to put the brakes on clever retailers looking to cash in on the burgeoning pot bonanza.
The Rocky Mountain High Is Here to Stay
As marijuana legalization spreads to more states and the pot industry begins to distribute its profits more broadly, the money at stake will likely ensure the policies of the Denver airport do not become the wave of the future. Public opinion will shift as citizens adjust to the new reality, and as time passes those who are still offended by the presence of drug reminders in their midst will adjust. What seems shocking now will eventually become just another form of background noise that everyone learns to ignore. But at the present time, many people are still reacting instinctively and reflexively against the outward signs of a changing social and economic order. To some extent this makes the actions of Denver airport officials understandable, despite the veneer of hypocrisy that shrouds their apparent lack of concern about promoting beer consumption. Alcohol abuse has cut a swath of destruction through our culture that marijuana will never be able to match no matter how common legalization becomes, but at least for now it is the latter that wears the scarlet letter in the minds of the majority.