While the 2016 election was dizzying for millions of Americans for various and obvious reasons, there was one particular ballot issue that became lost in the clamor: Four more states approved recreational marijuana initiatives in 2016, doubling the number of those that have decriminalized cannabis. As of this writing Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington — all states with huge outdoors industries — have decriminalized recreational marijuana use, as has the District of Columbia.
The push to decriminalize cannabis represents a sea change in how Americans view and interact with recreational marijuana. According to an October 2016 report from Pew Research, 57 percent of U.S. adults say that marijuana use should be legalized, with only 37 percent saying it should remain illegal; for reference, only about 32 percent favored legalization a decade ago.
A 2016 study found that cannabis had already become a $1 billion industry in Colorado by 2015—just three years after it was decriminalized; for context, the state’s lauded craft beer scene represented a $1.2 billion industry that same year.
Given the industry’s novelty and ongoing struggles with legality, cannabis-specific tourism studies are few and far between. That said, a 2017 research paper from the University of Southern Denmark suggested that as many as 70 percent of Denver dispensary customers are from outside Colorado, underscoring the rise in cannabis tourism.
On a broader level, cannabis is poised for extraordinary growth in coming years, especially as dispensaries open in states where the plant is newly decriminalized.
Researchers and experts alike point to Colorado as an industry bellwether. A 2016 study conducted by three Colorado State University researchers found that cannabis had already become a $1 billion industry in Colorado by 2015—just three years after it was decriminalized; for context, the state’s lauded craft beer scene represented a $1.2 billion industry that same year. The researchers also estimated that nationwide cannabis sales could approach $22 billion by 2020.
As the industry explodes, here’s a look at how hotels, travel and outdoor brands, tour operators, and more are coming to grips with cannabis tourism; who’s signing up for those experiences; and what’s next for the nascent industry.
Before They Go: Finding Lodging
As the cannabis tourism industry grows in coming years, travelers will find themselves awash with lodging options.
Colorado-based Bud and Breakfast hopes to help travelers stymied by restricted consumption laws. The listing and booking service advertises cannabis-friendly accommodations around the world—think Airbnb, but for the cannabis crowd—and claims to list more than 160 properties, including apartments, spare rooms, hostels, and ranches.
More mainstream outlets are looking to capitalize on cannabis tourism, as well.
The Portland, Oregon-based Jupiter Hotel has long offered packages that engage travelers looking for the classic Portland experience: The Jupiter’s various packages connect tourists with local tattoo artists, showcase the city’s craft breweries and distilleries, and offer free goodies at the infamous Voodoo Doughnuts.
Its latest promotion, introduced in May 2016, continues that trend. The hotel’s Dope Magazine 420 Experience includes a copy of Dope Magazine, a vape pen, coupons for local dispensaries, munchies, and a rotating selection of 420-themed goodies.
Jupiter Hotel assistant general manager Nick Pearson said the hotel’s brain trust wrestled with how to cater to a real and growing sector of the tourism industry while, at the same time, encouraging “conscientious consumption.” Says Pearson, “We had a way to promote responsible cannabis tourism and really lend a legitimate hand to the industry as a whole in Oregon, as it grew up.”
According to him, the hotel has since sold hundreds of packages. “We’ve gotten great responses from the end users and our partners,” Pearson says. “It really provides an avenue that takes the taboo away from the cannabis industry, and it adds a little legitimacy to it.”
Those visitors aren’t necessarily who you’d expect, either. “It’s more or less impossible to stereotype the cannabis tourist who’s bought the package,” he says. “It’s not just your stereotypical stoner pothead coming in; it’s businessmen who are in town for work; it’s bachelorette parties; it’s an incredibly wide variety of people.”
Exploring the Cannabis Culture on Vacation
Once they arrive, visitors are finding new, engaging ways to explore and interact with the local cannabis culture.
Seattle-based Kush Tourism launched nearly four years ago, shortly after Washington voters made cannabis legal in 2012. The company’s signature, three-and-a-half-hour tour explores the history and growth of cannabis, breaks down the latest science on cannabis and THC, and introduces visitors to glass blowers, dispensaries, and grow operations.
Matt Bentley, tour manager and account executive with Kush Tourism, says the experiences usually attract “middle-aged out-of-towners,” about 75 percent of which consume cannabis regularly, by his estimates. “These are the kids of the ‘60s and ‘70s; they’re both fascinated by this and open-minded,” he says.
Bentley estimates that only a quarter of Kush tourists fit the younger demographic most associated with shifting attitudes toward cannabis use and legalization. “A lot of this information, cutting-edge as it is for the rest of the country, is everyday life for them,” he says.
That said, he speaks fondly of one college student who brought his parents on one of the tours. The student, hoping to open a cannabis farm one day, wanted to legitimize and show off his eventual career path. “This was him bringing his parents into his world, and that was one of the most fun tours I’ve ever done,” Bentley says.
Special Opps for Experienced Users
A number of outfits around the United States are offering more specialized experiences that reflect local culture, no different than cooking classes in New Orleans or architectural tours in Chicago.
Colorado-based My 420 Tours, for instance, goes beyond conventional dispensary tours to offer sushi-and-joint-rolling classes; grow operation tours; cannabis massages; all-inclusive, 420-friendly vacations; and more.
“Part of what I’m trying to do is change the stigma of cannabis. You can break a sweat, enjoy cannabis, and be very social.”
Elsewhere, entrepreneurs have given travelers a chance to sample the local flavor in unconventional ways. Puff Pass and Paint offers cannabis-friendly art classes in three cities throughout the United States; Lit on Lit promises a cannabis-friendly writing workshop, led by Denver-area authors; and Chicks With Knives delivers cannabis cooking classes in Los Angeles.
One of those entrepreneurs, Amarett Jans, launched a series of cannabis-friendly workout parties in (where else?) Portland, Oregon, in November 2016. With Mary Jane Fonda, she saw an opportunity to marry two of her passions—cannabis and fitness—while bringing people together. “Part of what I’m trying to do is change the stigma of cannabis,” Jans says. “You can break a sweat, enjoy cannabis, and be very social.”
Jans, whose classes attract roughly 25 participants per session, sees a natural connection between cannabis and yoga. “It can really deepen your practice, and you’re able to get into a mental zone that’s a little deeper,” she says.
Her parties speak to the mental health benefits associated with cannabis, but the plant has received widespread attention for its medical benefits in recent years. (Medical marijuana is legal in 29 states.) Scant research speaks to the medicinal benefits of cannabis—it’s still illegal at the federal level, after all—but signs indicate that some of the cannabinoids found in marijuana may help with seizures, sleeplessness, pain, and other medical issues.
Whether medicinally or recreationally, challenges persist as the cannabis tourism industry matures. California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada won’t open their first dispensaries until 2018; it remains illegal to purchase cannabis in Washington, D.C.; and Washington users may only partake in private areas—which means they can’t light up on the patio at their favorite bar.
Yet those in the industry see increasing opportunities for travelers to learn about, consume, and enjoy legal cannabis in coming years. “We’re here to be an ambassador to the cannabis industry, and we can do more than say, ‘Hey, isn’t it neat that we have cannabis stores in Washington?” Bentley says of Kush Tourism. “If you think about it, there’s an incredible user experience we can provide with cannabis tourism.”
Written by Matt Wastradowski for RootsRated and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].