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Party town or health haven?

Naomi Havlen
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Aspen first earned a drug-crazed, party-town reputation in the 1970s, a reputation that persists today.

The tales of Aspen excess abound: lines of neatly cut cocaine on bar tops and all-night, drug-induced parties. At one time Aspen was practically synonymous with drugs. Those who took part in the debauchery still tell the stories, at least the parts they remember.

“In the 1970s cocaine and psychedelics were prevalent, and Aspen was a great place to be. It was a great place to hide out and do drugs,” said a man we’ll call Brian, a recovering drug addict, alcoholic and Aspen resident.

“With the energy of a ski town, Aspen had the night life and all these bars. No one would bitch at you, no one would look down on you. If you stayed up all night, you just had to make it in to work the next day.”

Has anything really changed? And how permissive is modern-day Aspen?

Opinions are mixed. Some say drugs of all kinds flow as freely as they ever did; others say a joint or water pipe might be passed at a party without a second glance. Still another set might say a truly health-conscious lifestyle in Aspen no longer includes chemical substances.

Who’s right, and who would really know? Statistics don’t always tell the entire tale, and personal anecdotes are just that – personal. Aspen’s police chief says he routinely hears about liquor establishments where drugs are bought and sold, but without solid information about who is selling what, he considers these tips simply rumors.

The stories of rampant drug use in the ’70s and early ’80s in Aspen continue to flourish, and the local night life – a revolving door of clubs and bars – continues to offer late-night entertainment after a hard day of skiing or working. Some liken Aspen to a college campus, where working hard and playing hard go hand in hand, where freedom to sample chemical substances is respected and sometimes encouraged.

But Aspen has grown up since the 1970s, and many of those longhaired free spirits are now raising children and running businesses. A recent coke bust at Aspen High School provoked more collective soul-searching than snickering. Furthermore, the culture of the early 21st century frowns on open, rampant drug use, and even Aspen has changed its tune.

Still, a liberal attitude about drugs lingers in this resort town, coexisting with a large community of recovering addicts, vacationers looking for a good time and locals working multiple jobs to stay afloat. It may seem like a contradiction, but while cocaine is now snorted in the closet, marijuana remains a drug of choice.

As a popular vacation spot and a getaway location for five decades, Aspen has earned a resilient reputation as a party town.

In the October 2002 issue of Ski Magazine, readers voted Aspen Mountain No. 1 for both dining and apres ski out of 30 ski resorts in the western United States. It also won No. 2 in “off-mountain activities.”

“Aspen is the nucleus of the after-dark, party-town resort, and most of the use and commerce of illicit drugs occurs within the city limits,” said Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis. With just three or four bars in unincorporated Pitkin County, he said, drug dealers follow a law of geography. “People who sell drugs know where the buyers are.”

Many say Aspen has an especially permissive attitude toward drugs, but the same people tend to agree that use in Aspen is comparable to that of other resort towns.

In 2002, the Colorado Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division produced a study of the 10 northwestern Colorado counties, which includes resort areas like Vail, Aspen and Steamboat Springs. Pitkin County ranked third out of 10 counties in indicators like adult drunken-driving arrests, adults in alcohol or drug treatment and alcohol sales outlets.

Ranking first and second were Garfield and Summit counties.

Vacationers come and go with their recreational drug use in resort communities, but those in the substance abuse and prevention fields wonder how the resort lifestyle impacts full-time residents. The “transitory nature” of resort communities may perpetuate drug use, said Shelly Molz, director of Valley Partnership for Drug Prevention.

“If you move here for just a couple of years to party, you’ll probably not get really invested in the community, like in public service. You pop in and you pop out, and that changes the dynamics when you’re trying to create a healthy community,” Molz said. “Since a lot of people here are transplants, they don’t have extended family that would confront [a drug or alcohol problem.]”

“Dianne,” a Breckenridge resident visiting Aspen last weekend, said she’s not part of her local drug culture but she does notice the resort is full of people in their 20s making a transition from college and looking for a good time. With no family in the area, they’re free to experiment just as they did in college, she said.

Brian, the recovering addict, said he sees Aspen as an “extension of college, with the whole dynamic of freedom and choice here. You work hard and you play hard – it’s the same as studying hard and playing hard.”

Jeff Kremer, director of the Aspen Counseling Center, said extended family can be a “built-in prevention tool” for substance abuse.

“Historically, people were watching you, setting standards of behavior, and caring about you,” Kremer said. “A small-town sense of community was probably here in the ’50s and ’60s, and it’s become increasingly fragmented as this place became a mecca for the increasingly wealthy.”

Aspen does have a large support system for recovering addicts, many of whom experienced the excess of the ’70s and now lean on each other as a sort of extended family. Still, Kremer said, the large “stay-a-few-years-and-leave” population, coupled with Aspen’s high tolerance for substance abuse, makes for problems.

“Our community norm for substance use and abuse is quite high,” he said. “We have a high tolerance in this community for usage that’s not by any stretch of the imagination ‘social’ – it’s abusive,” Kremer said.

“You can split hairs about what social use is, but what’s not social is drinking and causing problems, drinking and missing work, drinking and getting arrested, or just having negative consequences in terms of the outcomes of your use.”

Specifically, Kremer said, a high tolerance for marijuana creates a sort of baseline for acceptable drug use. When a community “starts out with pretty pervasive usage and acceptance of cannabis, it makes those other substances that much more OK.”

In other words, when your jumping-off point is marijuana use rather than abstinence, then you’re that much closer to more serious drugs like cocaine and heroin.

But Police Chief Loren Ryerson feels state law has set the benchmark for acceptable marijuana use. In most cases, possession of a small amount of pot is a class-two petty offense, punishable by a $50 fine.

“The state legislature is making laws for the state of Colorado that I have to enforce, and that’s where they place marijuana,” he said. “So, to say it’s Aspen being tolerant – perhaps we should look around the nation at how other states are enforcing it.”

Putting a number on substance abuse in Aspen is tricky math; no complete study is available to tell officials what kinds of drugs are being consumed, how much or by whom.

The Aspen Police Department can compile numbers of drug-related arrests within the past few years, but, as Ryerson notes, this data is only as accurate as each police officer’s willingness or ability to put every detail into a police report, where it can be tallied.

Regarding the total number of APD cases where drugs were involved, Ryerson said, “You have to remember that these are just reported crimes. It’s not indicative of what’s occurring in town – it’s only the information that made it to a report or an arrest.”

Braudis performs his own research of current trends in drug use and abuse by talking with a number of community members who span three generations.

“It has gone underground, compared to the ’70s,” he said. “It’s not as cool at all to use hard drugs as it once was. A lot of people who are addicts are closet addicts – they’re not out there sharing or exhibiting.”

At Cooper Street bar and restaurant, bartender D.C. frantically served drinks last week to a crowded bar while saying he sees drugs “coming through everywhere in Aspen, because it’s a resort town.”

Known for years as a place to buy and sell drugs, Cooper Street has tried to clean up its image.

“We do as much as we can, and we watch, but if someone has something in their pocket, we don’t have any options,” he said. “Because we have limited power, there’s not much we do. In my perception, there’s a lot of drugs in this whole town – not just in Cooper Street.”

In September 2001, Valley Partnership completed a study on substance abuse in the Roaring Fork Valley, including 60 stakeholders and experts in the valley on their perceptions.

“Every single law-enforcement or court-related jurisdiction told us that the most common arrest, violation, or common reason for a conviction was because of a drug or alcohol violation,” Molz said. “The fact that law enforcement was willing to say ‘this is what we’re picking people up for – not for robbery, vandalism, or minor crimes’ means that they’re spending a lot of time, energy and resources intervening on substance-abuse problems.”

Ryerson said he’s never responded to a domestic violence incident or a fight where drugs and/or alcohol were not involved. Pitkin County Jail Administrator Don Bird said of the 14 people currently in the Pitkin County Jail, probably between 10 and 12 have some sort of substance abuse component to their arrest, and roughly 80 percent of inmates each year have some kind of chemical dependency.

“The average inmates in Aspen aren’t predators, and they aren’t threats to the social fabric, they are temporary fuck ups,” Braudis said. “They are people who lost control of a certain part of their life because of chemical addiction.”

One of the ironies of drug use in Aspen is that it doesn’t come with the side effects experienced in other communities around the country. With no gang activity or drive-by shootings, Ryerson said, Aspen has a lot of “convenient circumstances” that could lead people to believe there is no drug problem.

“We associate crimes and vagrancy, people living hard on the street and stealing to support habits with drug abuse,” Ryerson said. “So it’s a little bit more convenient to say here that if a person destroys his job or marriage that ‘oh, that person isn’t a good business person, or his marriage was on the rocks for a long time – it had nothing to do with substance abuse.'”

The things that Ryerson calls “very subtle” signs of drug abuse in Aspen are things that the Aspen Counseling Center’s Kremer sees every day.

“I get accused, and maybe rightfully so, of having a distorted view on this because I get to see firsthand the devastation. I absolutely see the worst,” Kremer said. “We see people who didn’t figure out that the party was over a long time ago. So do the cops and the hospitals – people who have devastated themselves.”

In 2002, of all the clients seen at Aspen Counseling Center, Kremer said 517 were given a “mental health diagnosis.” Of those, 103 had alcoholism as their primary cause for treatment, and 38 had drug addiction. A total of 170 people took part in the counseling center’s driving-under-the-influence programs, as recommended by the criminal courts or probation.

These figures can be partially skewed, Kremer said, because the center only gives an alcohol or drug diagnosis if the patient is willing to acknowledge and work on their addiction.

“They come in with problems with their wife or husband, a job-related problem, family problems, or it could be a medical problem they think they have, like depression or anxiety,” he said. “But these people are still in denial that they have a [substance abuse] problem.”

Kremer and his staff spent a lot of 2002 discussing how to intervene with the large number of patients who deny they have a drug problem. In these cases, the problems manifest themselves when people don’t show up for work, or call in sick Monday after an overindulgent weekend.

“The culture here leads to some people having problems and not getting help for it,” he said. “We’re always asking the community in our own way to examine your own behavior, because your behavior is contributing to a norm. Is this what you want to bequeath to your kids? I don’t want to have a community where we normalize usage to our kids.”

A man we’ll call “Jon,” a recovering addict who began experimenting with drugs in Aspen at the age of 15, said during the ’70s in Aspen he and other teenagers heard a lot about casual drug usage from “the 30-somethings of the world.

“It was just kind of talked about a lot, and we heard about it down in teenage land,” he said. “It was considered nonaddictive at the time – you could do it and not get addicted.”

Sheriff Braudis considers drugs to be more of a “clandestine phenomenon” now than they were in the 1970s and early ’80s in Aspen, but he says he and deputies work hard to keep local kids away from drugs and alcohol.

“We want to keep kids chemically free as long as we can. The adolescent years are very formative physically and mentally – it is not the time of life to introduce toxic chemicals to the formation of your body and mind,” he said “That’s where we focus our energy. But attempting to tell educated, intelligent adults what to do and what not to do is a losing proposition.”

On Friday nights, pairs of Aspen Police officers begin their nightly walks through local bars and nightclubs at 10 p.m. Aspen Police Sergeant Bill Linn said finding illicit drug activity is one of the main aims of the regular rounds.

“Do we see a lot of drugs? No. By the time the second officer is through the door, word hits the back door that the cops have arrived,” Linn said. “Especially if business is being transacted, people watch.”

But Linn notes that the majority of Aspen drug arrests result from police walk-throughs in bars – although most people found with bindles of cocaine or baggies of marijuana are users, not dealers.

“Dealers are savvy, and protective, but users are more careless,” he said. “Users drink, do drugs, get out of hand and end up in our hands. When we see two guys walking out of a single-stall bathroom together, it doesn’t take much to figure out what’s happening. Nine times out of 10 that ends up in a drug arrest.”

On a recent Friday, officers John Rushing and Ian MacAyeal strolled through bars crowded with visitors for the ESPN Winter X Games, and heads turned as the strobe lights caught the word “POLICE” on the back of Rushing’s jacket. Bar patrons pointed at the officers’ badges as Rushing and MacAyeal wandered through the crowd, often stopping to watch the large, dancing crowd. The officers make one last stop to peer into the club’s bathroom before leaving – via a back door where a drug trade could be occurring.

Aspen Police may spend nights patrolling bars, but they insist they’re not trying to harsh anyone’s mellow. Rushing and MacAyeal make their presence known to club bouncers, bartenders and patrons, but local policing is influenced by local attitudes.

“I think a lot of people who live here find marijuana acceptable,” said Rushing.

“We do what the community wants us to do,” MacAyeal added. “We work for the community.”

Chief Ryerson recently told the Aspen City Council that law enforcement alone will never be able to “clean up” any substance-abuse problem in Aspen. It’s an educational issue, a medical issue and a social issue as well as a criminal one, he said.

“These issues are very complex. You can’t throw a cop at it and make it go away,” Ryerson said. “[Police] do have a role to play, and I’m not going to abdicate that role, but I do believe that as a parent I have a role to play, as a coach of children I have a role to play, and as a member of this community I have a role to play.

“As an officer I’m acting responsibly with the information that’s given to me, and developing cases if cases exist. But I have to be working with real solid information with real solid facts and with real solid people.”

Attitudes about drugs and partying in Aspen run the gamut.

“For adults capable of making decisions, recreational use is not the worst thing in the world. It’s just that – recreation,” said a man we’ll call “Frederick,” an Aspen resident in his early 30s who has lived here for 10 years. “To a limited extent what we’re promoting is personal choice. People come here to do their own thing. There is a certain amount of personal freedom here to make choices.”

Jeremy, an Aspen resident in his mid-20s at Cooper Street, thinks the town is probably split 60-40, with the majority seeing drugs as a civil liberty that should be legal in the privacy of one’s home. Sheriff Braudis feels the same way.

“If drugs were legal and the only problems associated with them were mental and medical, a lot of people wouldn’t be in jail – they’d be consulting with their doctors,” Braudis said. “Nobody wants to live in a country where everyone is stoned. You want your airline pilot, the guy who delivers your propane gas and your doctor to be straight when they’re working, and not hung over.”

Ryerson would like to see Aspen promoted as a healthy place to be, rather than simply get top billing in Ski magazine for being a great party town.

“Aspen was a party town, but we’re looking at life differently,” he said. “We can acknowledge the past and the good things that came from being a party town, but now we want to move forward and project a healthy lifestyle and attitude. This is not a place where you have to fear to bring your children. Now is the time to start thinking about what we want our community image to be. And maybe that doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive.”

Compared to what he remembers of the lifestyle in Aspen 34 years ago when he arrived, Braudis said the area has already made great strides. And maybe, he said, that wild image of Aspen was exaggerated.

“Aspen’s image and its substance were never the same. The image of Aspen’s wild, all-night parties and debauchery were offset by the fact that most Aspenites then still had to work multiple jobs in order to pay the rent and buy the lift tickets,” he said.

“We now probably have more health clubs per capita than most towns in the country. You look around here in the winter and people are carrying snowboards and skis back and forth. In the summer they’re all in Lycra with their bikes, hiking up Smuggler. That’s not conducive to all-night physical depletion from drug use. You don’t get that kind of energy from chemicals.”

Whatever party there was or is, there is a large local contingent of recovering addicts who depend on each other and meetings of Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous to live a new life in Aspen.

“These are people who have made some sort of transformation within themselves,” Kremer said. “Strong recovery groups have support systems, and they make changes in their thinking that allows them to thrive. That’s one of our resources: We have 12-step meetings in Aspen all times of the morning, noon and night.”

In a typical week there are 21 meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous in Aspen, compared with seven per week in Vail.

When he got “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Brian joined the recovery community. He has lived in Aspen for 11 years now without a relapse. Occasionally he’ll go to a liquor store to buy alcohol as a gift for a friend, and five out of six times he has bumped into someone from the recovery community who asks him what’s going on. It’s the function of a small town, he said.

“I believe that if you are addicted and admit it to yourself, and you want to do something about it, Aspen is a great place to be,” he said. “The reason I still go to meetings is because it helps me live one day at a time, and helps me be a part of something. It’s participating in my recovery and the recovery of others. There was somebody there when I went to my first meeting, so there better be somebody there when you go to your first meeting.”


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