The Brave New World of Cannabis Tourism
Now that many states have legalized marijuana for recreational use, a small but rapidly growing industry is catering to pot-curious travelers.
Emerald Farm Tours
Marijuana is now legal for recreational use in nine states and Washington, D.C. (and, soon, Canada), and for medical use in 22 others (along with Puerto Rico and Guam). If you include states that allow the sale of products containing marijuana-derived cannabidiol (also known as CBD, a non-psychoactive chemical found in the plant), only four places in America—Idaho, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas—still ban marijuana entirely.
Legal cannabis is here to stay, and a mature industry of growers, product manufacturers and retailers is starting to pull itself together, which means it’s also becoming a draw for tourists to pot-friendly destinations. And while the sale and possession of marijuana remain a federal crime, innovative businesses around the country are testing the waters of catering to tourists looking to take advantage of rapidly relaxing cannabis laws.
In 2015, Oregon became the third state to legalize recreational marijuana. “It was big news, but guests were a little shy and afraid to broach the subject,” says Al Munguia, general manager of the Jupiter Hotel’s two locations in Portland. “As people in the hospitality industry, our job is to make the customer comfortable, so we decided, ‘Let’s start the conversation ourselves.’” Munguia partnered with local cannabis businesses to create the 420 Package, which includes an issue of Oregon Leaf magazine, a vape pen and a package of coupons and other goodies from nearby dispensaries.
“We reached out to start this joint package—no pun intended. We wanted it to be educational. We call it Everything But the Weed,” Munguia says. “I was quite surprised by the response. It became our best-selling package ever. We sell several every week. It’s opened up this whole market segment for us.”
One of the dispensaries the Jupiter partnered with is Serra, an elegant and high-end shop selling the kind of artisanal and hipster-friendly products Portland is known for. It partnered with local chocolatier Woodblock to create a special series of edibles that have been a best-seller. “Woodblock with their ‘bean-to-bar’ philosophy is very close to our ‘seed-to-weed’ level of control,” says Karlee Eichenberger, Serra’s COO. “It’s a carefully controlled, meticulously created chocolate, and we contributed the same level of detail with the cannabis.”
Serra is part of Groundworks Industries, a company founded in 2015 that’s positioning itself as a leader in high-end marijuana, with a cultivation division, two different dispensary brands and a full marketing, branding and legal-compliance staff planning on rapid growth. The dispensaries do a good bit of marketing to tourists: They frequently partner with hotels near their locations, bringing in concierge teams for private tours, and they also offer “travel bundles” for curious tourists, consisting of a joint, an infused beverage and an edible.
Eichenberger says that Oregon regulations changed in the last few months to prevent dispensaries from tracking where their customers come from, but that prior to that, 60 to 65 percent of customers were tourists, either from out of state or from other parts of Oregon. And in Colorado, Native Roots, a dispensary chain with 20 locations that claims to be the world’s largest, says that about 36 percent of its customers come from out of state. Clearly, travelers are interested in marijuana.
Marijuana tour companies are becoming some of the first to truly embrace pot tourism, with a variety of experiences available. A Denver-based company called City Sessions offers tours targeting everybody from those interested in getting into the cannabis business themselves to beginners visiting from elsewhere, like the Mile High Sightseeing trip, which starts with a tour of a commercial grow facility and a visit to a dispensary, followed by a scenic drive through the city or up to the famed Red Rocks Amphitheater. “Cannabis really heightens the senses,” says City Sessions owner and founder (her official title is “The Knower”) Goldie Solodar.
City Sessions also offers a New to Cannabis tour with a full introduction to cannabis production and consumption (even including a glass-blowing demo), and Solodar’s been astounded by the diversity of customers. “Last week, we had a group of five women between 63 and 72 years old in from Iowa,” she says. “It’s really hard to bucket them in terms of age or gender, whether they’re new to cannabis or a connoisseur.” Last year, City Sessions ran 288 tours ranging in size from a single person to groups of 50, seeing just over 1,000 customers in total.
Emerald Farm Tours is a similar business in Northern California, with a San Francisco cannabis culture and city tour as well as a soon-to-launch outdoor marijuana farm tour in Sonoma County. The first tours launched this February. Emerald Farm CEO and co-founder Victor Pinho says the experiences have been selling out consistently, and that several hundred people have now taken the tour. “We meet people on their level. If they’ve never experienced cannabis and they want to go on this tour, we’re gonna make sure they have a healthy, positive experience all the way through,” Pinho says. “A lot of these tours are really a ‘bong-on-a-bus’ experience. And that’s not what we wanted to do. We wanted to be an asset for this industry and introducing people who don’t have a lot of experience.”
Groundworks Industries in Oregon really embraces that philosophy of meeting people on their level, too. Its two dispensary brands target wildly different customers. Serra’s two locations are “light and bright, with a greenhouse kind of feeling. You could be walking into an art gallery or an apothecary boutique,” Eichenberger says. Store staff are called “docents,” trained to help guide those unfamiliar with marijuana, and the different products and cannabis strains on offer are categorized by the feeling they engender, whether you’re looking for relaxation, pain relief or focused creativity.
The other Groundworks dispensary brand, Electric Lettuce, takes a more fun approach. With its ‘70s shag-carpeting-and-record-players aesthetic and lighthearted embrace of Cheech and Chong-style “stoner” stereotypes, its four Oregon locations are pitched pretty firmly at the Baby Boomer generation. “It’s the kind of place you want to bring your friend or your dad, where everybody knows your name, that doesn’t take itself seriously,” Eichenberger explains. “Both our brands are trying to destigmatize cannabis, in a playful way with Electric Lettuce and an artful way with Serra.”
The fledgling marijuana-tourism industry might be booming, but there are still plenty of legal hurdles to negotiate. Chief among these is that there’s nowhere for pot-seeking tourists to actually use the stuff. Many of the states where marijuana is legal do not allow smoking in public places, and the vast majority of hotels and Airbnbs ban it in private, too.
“We’re gonna have all these people buying weed, and they’re not gonna have anywhere to consume it,” says Kyle Moon, the general manager of The Summit of Worcester, Mass., the first private cannabis club in the state, which opened in January 2018. Moon’s brother had been working in marijuana cultivation and visited a similar club while attending a conference in Colorado. The grungy, run-down space he found was a disappointment, and the brothers decided to look into creating something different in their hometown.
“We’re licensed just like a VFW hall, an Elks Lodge, the Masons—any kind of private organization,” Moon says. Customers may buy a full membership (a minimum of three months at $15 per month) or a one-day guest pass (also $15) in order to access the private space. Much like a cigar lounge, The Summit is a private space with specialized air-handling equipment (there are four of what Moon calls “industrial smoke-eaters”) for members to consume their own smokables. The Summit is not allowed to sell marijuana, but it does have a license to sell pre-packaged snacks and drinks as well as tobacco products, and it has a variety of glass pipes available for purchase or rental, plus menus from neighborhood restaurants that deliver to the front door. Though it’s only been open six months, the club already has more than 100 members and saw nearly 400 visitors in the last month alone. “The city says we took advantage of a loophole, but to me, ‘loophole’ says ‘legal,’” Moon says. “It’s a need, it’s a want and we’re gonna do it as legally as we possibly can.”
Even at the Jupiter Hotel, guests who take advantage of the 420 Package aren’t technically allowed to enjoy any cannabis in their rooms. “You can’t consume cannabis in the hotel, and we as hoteliers don’t want you smoking in the rooms,” Munguia says, “but we do give you an odorless, smokeless vape pen, and what people do in the privacy of their own room is their own business. If we can’t smell it or see it, we don’t know it’s happened.”
Another issue is advertising. Ads on Google and social media outlets like Facebook are hugely important for hotels and many other tourist-focused businesses, but the companies severely restrict what cannabis businesses are allowed to do. “Coming from a background in cannabis retail, I can tell you it was really hard to market cannabis products on the internet,” says Victor Pinho of Emerald Farm Tours. Because his company doesn’t actually sell cannabis, he says, “Our business is all outside the purview of all these regulatory bodies in California. We don’t permit smoking on the bus, but we take people to permitted consumption zones. I don’t want to be the case study that tests the law. There are no rules for this. We’re following the rules as we understand them: That’s kind of been par for the course in the cannabis industry.”
And as local brands start to succeed, they’re finding their growth stifled by the federal ban. Legal-marijuana businesses can only operate in one state each, since transporting the substance across state lines is a felony. “If you make T-shirts and you have to have a separate T-shirt factory in every state you want to operate, that makes it really complex,” Eichenberger says, explaining that Groundworks is focused for now only on expanding within Oregon.
For now, state and local tourism-promotion organizations have stayed mostly silent on cannabis and tourism, but there are hints of change there, too. “We have a lot of experience leveraging substances as a reason to visit the city,” says Marcus Hibdon, director of communications and public relations for Travel Portland. “I think from the mayor on down, we see cannabis as an industry not unlike some of the other industries that have made Portland famous. We love our craft breweries—we promote that all the time—and we have so many craft distilleries. Alcohol is a drug as well.”
That said, Travel Portland’s internal policy is that it will not fund any cannabis-related activities or accompany media members to dispensaries. The organization is funded by local hotel taxes and municipalities with no federal monies, so there’s no legal issue; it’s just the current policy, Hibdon says. “We also have a ban on things like bringing journalists to a strip club, for example. We don’t have any objections to that industry; we just feel like that’s not the best use of our budget. I don’t think it’s out of any fear of reprisal from the federal government.”
Hibdon says he’s been approached by many writers with cannabis-related questions, and Travel Portland is embracing that as far as it can at the moment. “We’re happy to talk about it. We have no moral objection to cannabis, we speak openly and frankly with journalists who ask about it, and we’re looking forward to the partnerships that are starting to emerge,” Hibdon says. “From Travel Portland’s perspective, it’s very likely that someday we’ll be talking about recreational cannabis and strains that are only available in Portland and we’ll talk about it in the same way we do our farm-to-table cuisine.” There aren’t yet ads urging visitors to come use marijuana in Portland, but Hibdon thinks they might not be too far off. “If you want to come to Portland to get high, we’re a great place to do it, and you can do it legally,” he says. “It’s not the kind of thing you have to feel bad about.”
At the moment, the legal-cannabis business is kind of the Wild West, with a patchwork of unclear regulations that vary from state to state, and even city to city. But a market is emerging, and big business is coming. The Canadian arm of Southern Glazer’s, the largest liquor distributor in the US, recently launched a major marijuana-distribution partnership north of the border, and America’s current cannabis pioneers are honestly a bit scared. “We’ve accomplished so much, but how do you continue to grow that,” Moon worries, “before big business shows up and blows us out of the water?”