Visitors get their very first impression of a destination as soon as they disembark the plane and many destinations are integrating local culture into their hubs. Denver, however, doesn't want to be known for recreational drug use.
Tourists who fly to Colorado to try legal pot can forget about buying souvenir boxer shorts, socks or sandals with a marijuana leaf on them when passing through the Denver airport.
The airport has banned pot-themed souvenirs, fearing the kitsch could taint the state’s image.
Marijuana possession and any pot-related advertising were already forbidden. Airport executives extended the ban this month after a retailer sought a free-standing kiosk to sell the boxer shorts and similar items that played off Colorado’s place as the first state to allow recreational marijuana sales.
Airport officials feared the souvenirs would send the wrong message.
“We don’t want marijuana to be the first thing our visitors experience when they arrive,” airport spokesman Heath Montgomery said.
The spurned retailer is mulling a lawsuit, noting that the souvenirs are legal and that the airport already has a large exhibit celebrating craft brewers, whose product, like marijuana, is legal only for people 21 and older.
“Why is everybody so riled up about the picture of a plant?” asked Ann Jordan, owner of High-ly Legal Colorado, which makes the shorts, socks and “pot flop” sandals that are already sold in Denver-area music stores.
But it’s unlikely that Jordan would have a strong claim. Airports have broad discretion to control concession operators, and they can limit free-speech activities, such as handing out brochures.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that airport terminals are not public forums, siding with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey against a religious group that wanted to distribute pamphlets.
The legalization measure approved by Colorado voters in 2012 allows any property owner to prohibit possession of pot, and airports in Denver and Colorado Springs do. Violators face possible civil citations.
Denver International Airport has given no possession citations since legalization, Montgomery said.
Last year, 29 people were caught trying to board planes with marijuana. In each case, police declined to issue citations, and the passengers were allowed to board planes after throwing out the weed.
In Washington state, the only other state with recreational marijuana sales, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport does not ban pot possession or marijuana-themed souvenirs, Sea-Tac spokesman Perry Cooper said.
Colorado’s smaller airports don’t ban marijuana-themed souvenirs, either.
Montgomery said the Denver airport has a special obligation as the gateway for many thousands of visitors to the Rocky Mountain region.
“Frankly there’s a lot more to Colorado than pot,” Montgomery said.
Jordan considers the souvenir ban an example of long-standing fear surrounding marijuana.
The airport’s beer exhibit consists of an entire walkway devoted to an exhibit titled “Colorado on Tap: The State of Brew Culture.” It features pub glasses, beer labels and T-shirts from the state’s 250 or so craft brewers. Gov. John Hickenlooper is quoted in the display extolling Colorado as “a mecca for quality beer.”
“If you’re opposed to drinking and you walk down (the walkway), you just ignore it,” Jordan said.
Airport officials, she said, “just haven’t come to grips that this is a whole new world and they need to adapt.”
The airport policy bans depictions of the marijuana plant, items with the word “marijuana” and the sale of publications devoted expressly to pot. But airport officials concede they can’t keep out the ubiquitous “Rocky Mountain High” puns and other slogans.
Said Montgomery: “There’s only so much we can do.”
Kristen Wyatt can be reached at @APkristenwyatt.
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Photo credit: In this Jan. 27, 2015 photo, former school teacher and current souvenir entrepreneur Ann Jordan displays a few of her products, socks and flip-flops decorated with marijuana-themes, as she drops off supplies to one of her sellers, the Red Carpet Car Wash and Detailing, in Aurora, Colo. Brennan Linsley / AP Photo