Danny King
Danny King

Three months after the most populous and most visited U.S. state become the ninth to allow for recreational cannabis consumption, traditionally conservative business school alumni clubs are far more enthusiastic about the subject than those promoting the city most associated with the hippie movement.



A March 24 email that dropped in my inbox promoted a Los Angeles-area alumni event called the "LA MBA cannabis business and investing panel," where "Five panelists & moderator represent law & regulations, strategy, products, marketing & investment in the cannabis industry."

Meanwhile, in the city whose Haight-Ashbury district continues to be synonymous with fearless marijuana toking more than four decades after the Summer of Love, the tourism board wants no part in promoting San Francisco's stature as a place where residents from less weed-friendly states can congregate and legally partake.

"San Francisco Travel will refrain from marketing or advertising the sale, distribution or consumption of cannabis, due to potential legal risks under federal law," said San Francisco Tourism spokeswoman Laurie Armstrong Gossy.

So goes the topsy-turvy world of marijuana consumption, where the federal government and many of the states it oversees can't get on the same page, forcing an awkward dance of sorts for any organization impacted by federal funding.

On Jan. 1, that divergence became all the more pronounced with the legalization of recreational cannabis consumption in California. If expectations are running high, it might be because in 2016, medical marijuana, which is much more restricted than recreational pot, generated more than $126 billion in travel-related spending, according to Visit California.

In most states where recreational pot is legal, people are allowed to smoke, vape or consume cannabis edibles only in private homes. The Golden State took it one step further, allowing cities to legalize and regulate cannabis lounges, establishments for on-site consumption, provided the lounges follow certain parameters.

Los Angeles' free LA Weekly publication didn't pass up the opportunity to celebrate (and tweak the Trump administration for good measure), plastering "PROHIBITION ENDS AT LAST!" on the cover of its Jan. 5 issue and dedicating most of the inside content to all things weed.

Some of the joy likely arose from the fact that the publication is now able to drink from a new advertising stream -- to wit, the two-page spread ad for Kurvana's Cosmic Glue-branded vape pens -- but there was also clear pride in Los Angeles' newfound place as a weed-culture mecca.

Still, while it's clearly too early to estimate how much people will spend on marijuana-related tourism, the growth prospects related to any sort of cannabis consumption are pretty astounding. Five years after becoming one of the first two states (Washington being the other) to legalize recreational marijuana consumption, Colorado last year recorded a 16% jump in marijuana sales, to $1.51 billion, including $1.09 billion for "adult" (i.e. recreational) use.

More notably, the resort town of Aspen reached a milestone of sorts last year by becoming what's thought to be the first U.S. city to record more revenue from marijuana sales than from alcohol.

At seven times Colorado's population and with about seven times the tourism spend, California could be poised for a similar trajectory, only on a far larger scale. Business Insider last month cited cannabis-industry research firm BDS Analytics in estimating that in California, spending on recreational marijuana will reach $3.7 billion this year and more than $5 billion -- equivalent to the state's total beer sales -- in 2019.

It is against that backdrop that San Francisco and West Hollywood are preparing regulations for on-site consumption permits.

Those establishments would represent the closest thing the U.S. has to Amsterdam's "coffeeshops," which specialize in selling cannabis to tourists and locals alike.

Still, should those businesses catering to the California tourism industry be hoping for legal weed to bring in an influx of travelers, tourism officials in both San Francisco and Los Angeles have nipped that idea in the bud. Consistent with San Francisco Tourism's assertion, Ernest Wooden Jr., president and CEO of the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board, told Travel Weekly earlier this year that recreational cannabis legalization won't have "any major impact on inbound tourism to Los Angeles."

Such an attitude presents a missed opportunity, according to Michael Gordon, whose Seattle-based Kush Tourism publishes an online travel guide for cannabis tours, shops, accommodations and activities in states where marijuana is legal.

"If tourism agencies embrace this as an opportunity, tourism will thrive," Gordon said. "This can be accomplished by supporting businesses that are targeting travelers, cannabis tours, accommodations, working with events and working to permit cannabis lounges. If there is no support from larger tourism entities, the impact will be small."

Even in states where recreational cannabis is legal, the federal government's continuing classification of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug (highest risk of abuse) makes it illegal to smoke, vape or consume edibles in airports or national parks.

As a result, pot tourism remains a work in progress.

That's not lost on the state of California, which among other requirements states that any lounge-type room that allows on-site cannabis consumption must be out of public view and can't share a location where alcohol or tobacco is sold.

Meanwhile, with recreational cannabis consumption in public almost universally outlawed, hotels and other accommodations providers also appear to be caught in the middle when it comes to developing in-room consumption policies. Kush Tourism lists just 11 "marijuana-friendly lodging" places in California, almost all bed and breakfasts. By comparison, the company lists 17 in Washington and 13 in Colorado.

Still, other facets of the tourism industry are catching on. In LA Weekly's early-January edition, longtime and well-respected Los Angeles chef Neal Fraser was profiled for his efforts to launch tasting menus that will pair various types of cannabis with certain dishes at his Redbird restaurant in downtown L.A.

Moreover, spend some time in cities in states that are less weed-friendly than California -- Dallas, for example -- and the prevalence of weed, whether medical or otherwise, is unmistakable, and that may be an indicator that more states will join the nine currently allowing recreational consumption.

Indeed, BDS is forecasting a market whose sheer numbers present a scenario that won't likely continue to be ignored by state and local tourism officials. The firm says North American cannabis purchases will jump fivefold, to $47.3 billion, within the next decade, with recreational use accounting for 66% of that total.

If that doesn't get tourism bureaus to take notice, it should at least get the attention of travel agents, according to Brian Harris, who owns Brian Harris Travel in Aspen.

"Some of our best clients have been our marijuana business owners because all of their money is in cash," said Harris, alluding to the fact that federal prohibitions prevent banks from doing business with cannabis industry players. "It's legitimate money, but they can't turn it into a credit card to buy an airline ticket."
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