Just as Napa Valley has attracted the world's wine connoisseurs, Denver has become the go-to destination for marijuana aficionados since Colorado legalized recreational pot in November 2012.
One marijuana enthusiast, Michael Eymer, saw an early opportunity to cash in on the $1.3 billion legal marijuana industry. He founded Colorado Cannabis Tours in January 2014, the year it became legal to sell recreational weed in the state.
The business began as a rudimentary model, with Eymer driving four people around in a sedan to check out a couple of dispensaries. These days, CCT takes around 200 people in six party buses every weekend. Though the bus ride itself is the main attraction, tourists get to check out a few dispensaries, including Medicine Man (aka the "Walmart of weed") as well as a live glassblowing demonstration.
Now, although Eymer, a 35-year-old single dad, runs his company out of his home, he raked in $1.8 million in sales last year. He's up 66 percent this year so far.
"Pot is my passion," Eymer told Yahoo Finance. "I keyed into the business opportunity early on. I've always had some involvement in the industry even before it was official. Then, seeing all these changes happening in Colorado, I just thought it was the perfect time to seize the opportunity."
The business of weed
Eymer, an avid cannabis consumer since he was 15 years old, first saw the possibility of building a business around his pastime in December 2009, when Colorado legalized medical marijuana. He decided to move to Denver when Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana use. (Weed sales didn't begin until 2014 in either state.)
Legal cannabis is now a $6 billion industry in the U.S., and analysts expect it to be worth $50 billion by 2026. Pot legalization in Colorado has "increased the amount of money coming into state coffers," legal pot opponent and former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter acknowledged in an interview with Yahoo Finance. Still, Ritter believes the state Legislature - rather than the voters - should have decided whether to legalize pot.
"We did this through our constitution. We didn't write a piece of legislation that could really deal with all the issues. It was passed by the voters in the constitution. It was like using a blunt force instrument to try and do this when we should have been using surgical instruments," he said.
Ritter isn't alone in opposing marijuana legalization. Just over 53 percent of Coloradans voted in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana, which mirrors the country's divide overall. Only 49 percent support nationwide legalizing recreational marijuana, according to an exclusive Yahoo News/Marist Poll, "Weed & the American Family."
Moreover, most people don't see weed as a worthwhile venture despite the economic opportunities: 72 percent of Americans would not be likely to invest in the marijuana business, according to the same Yahoo News/Marist Poll.
A controversial cash cow
Despite its divisive nature, pot has been lucrative for Eymer. Originally from south Florida, he moved to Colorado to help start and manage dispensaries around Denver. After a couple of failed ventures, he decided to forgo that business amid a glut of competitors. Dispensaries line Denver's streets, and there are 459 retail marijuana stores across Colorado. That's more than the total number of Starbucks stores in the state.
He decided to build an experiential tour company instead. Anyone could seek out dispensaries on their own, but not everyone could facilitate a decked-out party bus that hit the streets of Denver. Colorado Cannabis Tours is one of a handful of companies that have built their businesses around weed tourism without selling the drug itself.
Because federal law prohibits banks and credit unions from taking marijuana money, the overwhelming majority of dispensaries operate only with cash. CCT has a massive advantage over other pot-related ventures, though. As an ancillary business, it's found banks and merchant-service providers to work with and accepts credit card payments.
All aboard the cannabis tour bus
Yahoo Finance joined a 30-person tour with a wide range of attendees, hailing from all over the U.S. and representing different ethnic and age groups.
The youngest participants were three Hispanic 23-year-olds from Chicago. The oldest was a Caucasian grandmother from New York City, whose nephew took her on this trip to commemorate her 69th birthday.
Sherri Doll, a 50-year-old visiting from Dallas, Texas, came to Denver with her best friend to see the city from a weed-friendly perspective.
"We are on a bus in Denver, Colorado, being chauffeured to smoke pot. That's unbelievable. Younger, in my early teens, we wanted to smoke weed and were too afraid because every time you turned around, the police was pulling you over," she said in disbelief.
She said she would definitely return with her adult kids: "I would come back. I would want them to experience the good, the bad and the ugly."
Members have to be at least 21 to get on the bus, but Eymer says he has made a few exceptions for those who are over 18 if they have a medical marijuana card.
The tour itself costs $99, and it makes three stops. The first stop is Medicine Man, aka the Walmart of Weed (appropriately so, given it's the largest dispensary in Colorado). Tourists there learn how to grow marijuana indoors, and they are shown the nutrients needed to produce a healthy plant. Next, they stop at a dispensary called River Rock. Finally, they stop at Glasscraft and see a glassblower make a pipe.
A tour guide accompanies the crowd, and his primary role is to pass around a bong and keep guests happy and hydrated (especially given Colorado's mile high altitude).
The tour begins at noon and ends, fittingly, at 4:20 pm.
Entrepreneur … and a family man
Now, with 30 employees, CCT has evolved to offer much more than its namesake tours.
Eymer and his business partner Heidi Keyes, a visual artist, offer Puff Pass and Paint, a cannabis-friendly painting class, and an edible-making demo called Cooking with Cannabis, taught by a Culinary Institute of the Arts-trained chef who teaches people how to infuse coconut oil with cannabinoids. Eymer and Keyes are planning to expand to California, Nevada, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., starting in January 2018.
As his business enjoys continued success, Eymer hopes to chip away at the stigma surrounding cannabis and its users.
"I want to show that [my customers] are just normal people. This is just a plant they enjoy consuming. And when non-cannabis users can realize that - by seeing them and by them not being hidden - then perhaps once the stigma is completely dropped, we'll see the laws dropped, too. And hopefully, 10 years from now, a company like mine won't even be necessary."
As CCT continues to grow, Eymer has found it increasingly difficult to operate the business out of his home, especially as the single father of a 5-year-old daughter. Despite his current entrepreneurial success, he says that "being her father is the most important thing in my life … far beyond my business."
For now, he's been able to avoid talking to her about marijuana entirely. But he anticipates the conversation will change imminently.
"I haven't had any [conversations] yet. I haven't needed to have any yet. When your child is that young, they're still in a bit of a bubble. She'll leave that bubble in the next few years."
So what does his daughter think he does for a living?
"I'm a travel agent," he said. "She just thinks of cannabis as a plant."