Colorado’s first legal cannabis party bus is preparing to roll up and roll out on the streets of Denver this week, offering shuttle services to and from the airport as well as curated tours of the city.
The Cannabis Experience will debut its 12-passenger bus, decorated with flowers and other hippie iconography on the exterior and interior, after a test run on Wednesday with friends and family members of owners Sarah Woodson and Terrence Hewing. But they’re already accepting reservations for those seeking elevated transportation.
Although other cannabis buses have operated in Colorado before, they weren’t technically legal and all of them shut down or were forced to close by authorities. The Cannabis Experience, on the other hand, has a state-issued marijuana hospitality permit along with a license from the city.
Still, Woodson and Hewing are taking things slowly since there are strict regulations for how the bus can operate. For example, Denver requires marijuana buses have a GPS tracking system and ventilation that prevents second-hand smoke from reaching the driver. They are also required to submit pre-planned driving routes as well as timely updates if the routes change. That’s one reason The Cannabis Experience will start by picking up and dropping off airport travelers, as well as two of its tours, at Union Station.
“Because we’re first, there’s going to be a learning curve on how everything is going to work as smoothly as possible,” Woodson said.
The Cannabis Experience will be BYOB – bring your own bud – during curated tours such as Toking and Tacos, which will stop at several restaurants in a roughly two-hour timeframe, Woodson said. The company also plans to offer sightseeing tours of murals in the River North Art District and other local landmarks.
Folks who want to book a ride downtown from Denver International Airport will be able to do so during a certain window of the day — and the bus will stop at a dispensary along the way to let customers shop. Woodson hopes to secure a dispensary partner soon.
The vibe will be “the full, I’m back and ready to have some fun on my way home type of consumption,” she added. “We’re excited about that because it’s never existed before.”
No matter the shuttle service, each ride begins with an ID check to ensure patrons are over 21 and a quick lesson in responsible consumption, Woodson said.
As The Cannabis Experience fleet grows, so too will its offerings. Woodson aims to one day have a fleet of 10 canna-buses shuttling enthusiasts to marijuana grows and other attractions in Denver and its neighboring suburbs, as local regulations permit.
Previous buses doobie-ously operating
Although marijuana tour buses cropped up when recreational sales began here nearly a decade ago, they weren’t doing so legally. In 2018, for example, undercover cops raided local marijuana tour buses and cited many customers and employees for participating in unlawful activities. At the time, ironically, city regulators were considering legalizing the business model.
The conundrum highlighted a gap in Colorado’s then-newly minted marijuana market: Locals and visitors had a plethora of places where they could legally buy products, but nowhere except a private residence they could legally consume.
That’s why, in 2019, state regulators developed the marijuana hospitality license, which allowed for a new type of business where patrons could smoke, eat or vape cannabis onsite. Hospitality establishments have been slow to get off the ground, however, as municipalities need to opt in to allow them. The first chance cities had to do so was Jan. 1, 2020, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, few did so immediately. Denver didn’t open applications until November 2022.
Prior to now, cannabis enthusiasts could openly consume at just two places in Denver County, The Coffee Joint in Lincoln Park and Tetra Lounge in RiNo.
The Coffee Joint is connected to a dispensary and only allows patrons to vape or eat edibles.
When it opened in 2018, Tetra Lounge allowed patrons to smoke cannabis indoors because it operated as a private club, charging membership fees. That designation enabled it to sidestep the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act, which banned smoking in most public, indoor spaces. However, when the city of Denver opted to allow marijuana hospitality, the business was required to apply for the new license — and meet the building codes that go along with it.
Tetra Lounge is currently closed to upgrade its ventilation system to permit smoking inside, owner Dewayne Benjamin said.
Otherwise, JAD’s Mile High Smoke in Adams County sells cannabis products that patrons can consume onsite, including flower, beverages, concentrates and more. And the Patterson Inn, a Capitol Hill bed-and-breakfast, is building a smoking lounge onsite.
“We’re excited for the fact the one thing that’s been missing in Denver’s market for legalized marijuana are places for people to consume legally,” said Eric Escudero, spokesperson for Denver Excise and Licenses. “Assuming [The Cannabis Experience] is up and running soon, it will be the first place in Denver history where you can legally smoke flower.”
Woodson and Hewing used to host classes — paint-and-smoke and sushi-and-spliff-rolling, but they had to put them on hold when Denver moved to allow marijuana hospitality businesses since they would have needed a permanent location to abide by the rules. They’d like to restart the classes, by finding a good location is easier said than done, Woodson pointed out.
“The required distance between a hospitality lounge and daycare is 1,000 feet, and Denver has tons of daycares,” she explained. That’s before taking into account that about 70% of the city is ineligible for businesses of any kind because of residential zoning restrictions.
In addition, the cost of opening such a space is immense, Woodson added, especially for social equity applicants like herself and her husband.
State law initially prohibited convicted felons like Hewing, who was convicted of a felony marijuana charge prior to legalization, from procuring a license to grow, manufacture or sell cannabis for up to 10 years – even after having served the consequences.
But in 2020, regulators moved to rectify this disparity and acknowledge “the effects of decades of criminal enforcement of marijuana laws on communities of color” by offering additional resources to locals who meet their definition of social equity. In Denver, most new marijuana business licenses are available exclusively to social equity applicants until July 2027.
Eventually, Wood and Hewing hope to open a brick-and-mortar business, but in the meantime, the Cannabis Experience could help them raise money while offering a service for both locals and tourists. An airport ride costs $100, while a tour costs $69. The bus will also sell snacks and CBD-infused beverages.
“We want people to understand it’s safe, licensed and legal, and getting us to what legalization should be about,” Woodson said. “I’m excited and proud we’re at the forefront of that movement.”
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