Chronic Issues: Challenges and opportunities in cannabis tourism

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Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya

Oregon's 500-plus licensed cannabis retailers are said to outnumber its Starbucks locations, and a stroll around Portland, its largest city, all but confirms it. 

Pick a suitable starting point ­-- say, Voodoo Doughnut's flagship location in Old Town -- and a few minutes' walk in practically any direction reveals the breadth of Portland's 200 or so dispensaries, from the Apple Store-like Serra, where the reception area could double for a resort spa's, to the no-frills aesthetic of Rose City Wellness, where the entrance more closely resembles a pawn shop's. Or cross the Willamette River and head to the city's Lloyd district for the '70s-stoner vibe of Electric Lettuce, where shoppers might find themselves grooving to Jimi Hendrix's "Electric Ladyland" or any of the other LPs stacked next to a turntable and wood-grain stereo receiver.

Ambience aside, these shops have a couple of things in common. One is product variety: Nearly every dispensary stocks a selection of edibles (these are not your college roomie's pot brownies), dabs (cannabis extracts) and pre-rolls (ready-to-smoke joints) as well as about two dozen strains of good old-fashioned bud, tantalizingly displayed in glass jars like penny candy, labels bearing whimsical names like Blue Dragon Desert Frost ($14 per gram at Serra) and Purple Punch ($70 for a quarter ounce at Electric Lettuce).

Another commonality is on-site ATMs. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 substance ("drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse"), which makes it federally prohibited and thus a land mine for financial institutions. So in the District of Columbia, Oregon and the eight other U.S. states that have legalized recreational adult use, the cannabis industry is primarily a pay-in-cash endeavor.

The ATM at Electric Lettuce in Portland’s Lloyd district. Dispensaries are largely cash businesses because cannabis remains illegal federally.
The ATM at Electric Lettuce in Portland’s Lloyd district. Dispensaries are largely cash businesses because cannabis remains illegal federally. Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya

And it's a lot of cash: Last year, licensed retailers in the U.S. and Canada reported sales totaling $9.7 billion, according to "The State of Legal Marijuana Markets," a report by Arcview Market Research using data from point-of-sale tracker BDS Analytics. That total represents a 33% year-over-year sales increase, and Arcview projects that the legal cannabis market in the U.S. and Canada will grow at a rate of 28% annually, reaching $24.5 billion in 2021.

Eager for a share of this bounty, a number of travel-oriented enterprises are catering to the increasingly lucrative market of cannabis-curious visitors. Generally, however, they operate without the support of the tourism industry at large.

DMOs just say no

A recent press release from Visit West Hollywood cheekily plays up the city's risque side: "Whether you need to up your game or play some new games, there are no shortage of products and services to satisfy cravings and urges," reads its opening paragraph, before offering a rundown of WeHo sex shops, strip clubs and tattoo parlors.

When it comes to the subject of cannabis, however, WeHo is decidedly demure: "While the city is very much developing new policy regarding cannabis, it is not something our organization is officially promoting at this time," Anne Van Gorp, director of communications for Visit West Hollywood, wrote in an email.

Among destination marketing organizations (DMO), the prevailing strategy is to inform, not endorse. Typically a DMO's website will have an FAQ about cannabis consumption, maybe list a few licensed dispensaries, but not much beyond that -- even for those destinations with a reputation for indulging adult excess.

"Right now, we can only really explain the limitations of the law and that we don't promote cannabis," Maria Phelan, communications manager for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, wrote in an email.

In Aspen, Colo., the city whose tag line is "Defy Ordinary," cannabis sales reached $11.3 million last year, topping alcohol sales for the first time.

Julia Theisen, vice president of marketing and sales for the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, wrote in an email, "Now that several states have recreational cannabis, Colorado and Aspen do not have a unique offering, but anecdotally, we know that it certainly figures into the appeal of Aspen as a vacation choice for some visitors. Our philosophy is to the safe and responsible use of it, to ensure that visitors have a good experience."

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When I asked my friend who was visiting me in the Bay Area if she wanted to go on a pot tour while she was visiting, her first response was, "Oh my God, no! I'm not that into it." Then, a few minutes later, "Wait, hold up, tell me more about the pot tour. What is a pot tour?" READ MORE

Tom Norwalk, president and CEO of Visit Seattle, acknowledged that despite the city's progressive reputation, the organization is being "a little conservative" on the subject of recreational cannabis, an approach rooted in consensus among a "varied and mixed board of directors" with a range of opinions on weed.

But Visit Seattle's stance goes beyond the philosophical to the pragmatic: "I'm not seeing the industry yet as a demand generator or driver," Norwalk said. "I don't think that's necessarily why [visitors have] chosen Seattle; it may be a factor as they research the city. So we keep that in context: What is cannabis really doing from a demand standpoint?"

Visit Seattle's website provides an FAQ and lists the tour operator Kush Tourism as a Visit Seattle partner, though according to Norwalk, "It's not a tour where consumption is even part of it. It's really that educational piece. It's a great door-opener for those who are interested."

Education was a priority for Alaska, too, according to Jillian Simpson, vice president of the Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA). Ahead of the Last Frontier's first recreational cannabis dispensaries opening in October 2016, the ATIA met with a representative of Alaska's Alcohol & Marijuana Control Office. That meeting helped in the creation of infographics posted on the ATIA members website as well as the consumer-facing TravelAlaska.com.

But while the ATIA made it a priority to educate association members as well as visitors about cannabis, Simpson doesn't foresee it becoming an important part of the state's promotional efforts.

"It's not going to be a motivator for visitors to spend the time and the resources to come to Alaska," she said. "So we're going to focus on the things we know do motivate people to want to come here."

Travel Portland is similarly unconvinced that cannabis is a key driver of tourism. "I don't think there's anyone coming to Portland just for cannabis, because it's a relatively short transaction," said Marcus Hibdon, communications director for Travel Portland. "So we're focusing on all the other things you're going to do before or after going to a dispensary."

Serra, one of the 200 or so cannabis dispensaries in Portland, Ore.
Serra, one of the 200 or so cannabis dispensaries in Portland, Ore. Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya

Indeed, Travel Portland's 2017-18 visitors guide highlights the city's restaurants and craft breweries, its music and art scenes and its outdoor activities. For cannabis, the organization does go a step further than most DMOs, taking a relatively lively approach for its FAQ and discussing dispensaries with something at least approaching enthusiasm:

"Choices in Portland [range] from mom-and-pop shops to upscale destinations like Farma, where budtenders offer service and education in a boutique-meets-pharmacy setting," reads an article taking up about three-quarters of a page in the 108-page guide. "Oregon's Finest has two locations that could double as classy bars."

Not quite an endorsement, perhaps, but also not a rote listing. So is Travel Portland embracing cannabis tourism? "I don't know if it's a full embrace," Hibdon said. "Maybe it's a hug and a pat."

The organization is "still trying to figure out how much promotion is necessary and how much is the consumer able to figure out once they get here," he said, adding, "We also try to make sure that we're cognizant of where the expertise lies" -- that is, with dispensary owners and employees, tour operators and other cannabis-centric businesses.

Don't bogart that joint

Legalization has given rise to a slew of businesses specializing in weed-themed tours. In Portland, it led to Sam Rosenbaum's launch of High 5 Tours in 2015, a year after similar offerings began cropping up in Colorado.

High 5 is typical among cannabis tour operators in offering a number of itineraries: visiting local growers on Saturday mornings, for example, or Multnomah Falls on Fridays, both with dispensary stops along the way.

High 5 Tours’ bright yellow Cannabus waits for guests of its CannaPDX tour outside the Doug Fir Lounge.
High 5 Tours’ bright yellow Cannabus waits for guests of its CannaPDX tour outside the Doug Fir Lounge. Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya

Its flagship tour, CannaPDX, departs daily at 4:20 p.m. -- in cannabis lore, the universal time to toke. Guests visit two dispensaries, a brewpub and food truck hub Cartopia on a three-hour journey through the Rose City.

I tagged along as Rosenbaum conducted a CannaPDX tour. High 5's Cannabus, a tricked-out Ford Econoline, can hold up to 14 passengers, making it ideal for bachelor and bachelorette parties, which Rosenbaum said account for about a quarter of his business.

On the day I took the tour, two 30-something couples got onboard: one from Austin, Texas, the other from outside Indianapolis. The two stepbrothers and their spouses were on vacation, and all were experienced pot smokers. The Austin couple, in fact, were experienced cannabis tourists, having recently visited Denver and longtime weed mecca Amsterdam.

Of the last trip, "The real question that I had was, can you smoke in Vondelpark?" said the man from Austin, who requested anonymity for this article. "We did smoke in there, but we felt guilty about it."

For their Portland trip, the couples booked an Airbnb that was not 420-friendly. Fortunately for them, the Cannabus is: Following the Denver model of a roving pot-party bus, High 5 encourages guests to light up. Between stops, out came the Bic, bong and bud.

Passengers on the Cannabus are encouraged to light up between stops on High 5’s tours.
Passengers on the Cannabus are encouraged to light up between stops on High 5’s tours. Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya

Unlike in Denver, however, where businesses are granted licenses specifically for operating 420 tours, High 5 operates in what Rosenbaum acknowledged is "a gray area."

But with its canary-yellow paint job and prominent High 5 logos, the Cannabus is hardly trying to fly under the radar. And it apparently has earned a reputation locally, if an exchange I overheard between two 20-something women is any indication.

"Oh, High 5! I've heard of them," said one, spotting the vehicle parked along Hawthorne Boulevard.  

"Yeah," replied the other. "Everyone on there is, like, super high."

'I'm not a bed-and-breakfast guy'

One of Rosenbaum's predecessors, Michael Eymer, founder of Denver-based Colorado Cannabis Tours, has branched out beyond 420 bus tours, becoming practically a one-stop shop for cannabis tourism.

For example, Eymer is CEO of Puff, Pass and Paint, billed as "the first ever cannabis-friendly, all-inclusive art class," a variation on the popular wine-and-painting business model that offers an alternative to the bong-on-a-bus experience.

"In our events, what we noticed that's unique about them is people get high, and then they have something interactive to do with each other," Eymer said. "You don't necessarily need it with alcohol because it lowers your inhibitions, whereas with cannabis you can become quite introverted and introspective. It's kind of nice to allow people the opportunity to come out of their shell."

On the other hand, another component of Eymer's empire invites visitors to embrace introversion. Colorado Cannabis Tours enables users to book 420-friendly stays, and not just the home rentals and "bud and breakfast" accommodations typical of weed-friendly lodging.

"I'm not a bed-and-breakfast guy myself," Eymer said. "I don't have to get to know grandma making me eggs in the morning. That's weird, especially when I'm stoned."

So Colorado Cannabis Tours' website offers a variety of accommodations under descriptions such as "affordable centrally located hotel" or "picturesque mountain lodge with swimming pool and hot tub." The site lists amenities, starting rates and all the usual info -- everything but property names.

Guests call Colorado Cannabis Tours, which books the reservation on their behalf. Certain hotels -- some bearing familiar brand names, according to Eymer -- will supply guests with vaporizers, giving them a smoke-free, odorless (read: guestroom-friendly) alternative a la e-cigarettes. Some properties even permit pot smoking in designated areas.

Eymer is happy to keep the properties' 420-friendliness a secret.

"You can fill five rooms [in a bed-and-breakfast] with the current market of cannabis-friendly travelers," he said. "Can you fill a 44-room hotel? Can you fill a 200-room hotel? That becomes much more of a challenge: to cut off business travelers, family travelers, all that other stuff you'd be sacrificing by openly declaring your policy with cannabis. It's more of a risk than a gain."

That anonymity also affords Eymer a degree of exclusivity: He said the properties are "only cannabis-friendly through our net. You can't just call the hotel and ask, 'Are you cannabis-friendly?' and have them say yes."

The Jupiter Hotel’s Everything but the Weed package features coupons, stickers and a vape pen.
The Jupiter Hotel’s Everything but the Weed package features coupons, stickers and a vape pen. Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya

'Everything but the Weed'

One property that is openly cannabis-friendly, to the extent local laws allow, is Portland's Jupiter Hotel, a midcentury motel given a funky makeover in 2004.

The 81-room property offers a 420 package that includes coupons for dispensaries and related businesses (such as delivery of homemade cookies for when the munchies kick in), a T-shirt and stickers (my particular box featured an Adult Swim theme), a glass pipe and a personal vaporizer, aka a vape pen. "Everything but the Weed," as the package is called.

My reservation for my two-night stay at the Jupiter included the Everything but the Weed package. A staffer at the front desk said that if I wanted to vape in my room, "that's not something we frown upon."

I navigated the two-story property's concrete-and-metal steps and walkways and entered my courtyard-facing room, its motel DNA evidenced by its popcorn ceiling, stucco walls and rack of clothes hangers instead of a closet. A cup atop the air conditioning unit held three sticks of chalk alongside a note inviting guests to draw on their front doors ("Instagram it #jupiterchalkart").

Other amenities included a green condom wrapped in cellophane. Also earplugs, presumably for those whose neighbors might be using the aforementioned amenity, or for early risers whose slumber might be disturbed by revelers in the Jupiter's patio or at the adjacent Doug Fir Lounge, a live-music venue and the meeting point for High 5's CannaPDX tour.

The upcoming Jupiter Next, shown here in a rendering, will be more upscale but will retain the ethos of its sister property.
The upcoming Jupiter Next, shown here in a rendering, will be more upscale but will retain the ethos of its sister property.

Adjacent to the Doug Fir, the 67-room Jupiter Next is scheduled to open next month. Co-owner Tod Breslau said the newbuild will be "a little more upscale, a little higher price point" with "more of a government and business clientele."

But it will share its sister property's ethos as "a Portland hotel vs. a hotel in Portland," according to Jupiter general manager Al Munguia. And part of that ethos is embracing an aspect of Portland life that other hoteliers can't, or won't.

"When cannabis became legal in Oregon, we immediately started noticing people ... being very reluctant, shy to ask the question," Munguia said. "So we thought, how do we make it easy for our customers? How do we start the conversation and let them know it's OK to have the conversation? We reached out to our local partners and said, 'We want to embrace this. We want to promote conscientious consumption.' That's how we started our Everything but the Weed package."

Jayne dispensary in Portland, which partners with the Jupiter Hotel, a midcentury motel given a funky makeover in 2004, to offer discounts to guests.
Jayne dispensary in Portland, which partners with the Jupiter Hotel, a midcentury motel given a funky makeover in 2004, to offer discounts to guests. Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya

One of those partners is a nearby dispensary named Jayne, where all Jupiter guests receive a 10% discount, and those who purchased the Everything but the Weed package get a 20% discount.

Aaron Heisler, Jayne's marketing coordinator, said the Jupiter's business model "fits very well with ours because they are so cannabis-positive, to the limit to which they can be," and conversely, Jayne's ambience of approachability is ideal for a wide range of customers -- "a dispensary you would bring your mom to," as the Jupiter puts it.

"We're just a bunch of normal people who happen to sell cannabis," Heisler said as we sat on sofas in Jayne's homey reception area on a Friday night, Isaac Hayes' "Theme From Shaft" playing in the background. "It's nice because it doesn't put off people who want a nicer place, and it's not too over the top. You don't have to follow ballroom etiquette to buy weed, but also at the same time, it's not dingy or too relaxed."

At its Los Angeles properties, Standard Hotels sells Lord Jones edibles and lotions infused with CBD, a nonpsychoactive cannabis compound widely used as a medicinal substance.
At its Los Angeles properties, Standard Hotels sells Lord Jones edibles and lotions infused with CBD, a nonpsychoactive cannabis compound widely used as a medicinal substance.

In California, meanwhile, Standard Hotels is taking steps toward offering cannabis amenities. In November, the hotelier announced it would open a retail cannabis shop in partnership with high-end edibles maker Lord Jones at its West Hollywood property. While Standard has yet to set an opening date for the shop, the hotelier announced on April 10 that minibars in its two Los Angeles-area properties now sell Lord Jones edibles and lotions infused with CBD, a non-psychoactive cannabis compound that's said to have therapeutic effects and is widely used as a medicinal substance.

Corey Tuttle, Standard's marketing vice president, wrote in an email that the hotelier is also "rolling out a [Lord Jones] co-branded product in the coming months" at each of its five U.S. properties.

The Jupiter, too, will soon relaunch its 420 package to add CBD-only products, according to Munguia.

Into the light

Eymer of Colorado Cannabis Tours sees such initiatives as the future of cannabis in the hospitality industry.

"The next steps I can see in the travel arena around cannabis involve luxury brands incorporating products and flower into the experience at a deeper level," he wrote in an email following our phone interview. "Cannabis-friendly options, with breakfast catered to your room, with an open-flame policy on their balcony, mocktails available at the bar, cannabis-infused massage as an option in the spa, etc. ... My gut tells me the market may be reaching a point of maturity where these options will become sustainable, open policies."

The Jupiter's Breslau would like to see regulations evolve to allow on-property smoking in "pot patios" or similar spaces.

"Whatever's legal, fun, crazy and interesting, we're into," he said.

Any such steps would face a huge potential roadblock, given the anti-cannabis stance of U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions, who in January revoked Obama administration guidance encouraging federal prosecutors to take a hands-off approach in weed-legal states.

A guestroom at the Jupiter.
A guestroom at the Jupiter.

Victor Pinho, founder and CEO of California's Emerald Farm Tours, said it's part of the "lowest common denominator of challenges" that everyone in the cannabis business faces -- even those businesses that don't actually sell cannabis.

"There are opportunities you can't take advantage of, even as an ancillary business, because of the same set of problems everyone in this space has to face: the illegality at the federal level," said Pinho, who launched his tour operation in February. "The minute any insurance underwriter or bank hears you're doing something like this, their ears perk up and they immediately don't want to do business with you."

Nonetheless, Pinho said he is encouraged by recent moves in San Francisco and West Hollywood to regulate on-site consumption at dispensaries as well as by interest from entities such as the economic development board for the Bay Area's Alameda County: "I've spoken with them already, [and] they're interested in working together to cross-promote the county as a kind of cannabis region -- an appellation, if you will."

Rachel Giraudo, an associate professor of anthropology at California State University, Northridge, is studying a similar effort taking place farther north. That project centers on spotlighting the cultivation techniques that have been used for decades in California's Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties, aka the Emerald Triangle: namely, sun-grown cannabis, as opposed to the more common indoor cultivation.

Cannabis growers and others in Mendocino County "are interested in creating an appellation of origin system," she said. "So it's looking at the [gout de] terroir, or the taste of place ... similar to what we think of with wine."

And with that nod to regional diversity comes the potential for tasting tours and other attractions found in wine country.

"Many people who are involved with it are cultivators, and they're interested in preserving their heritage," Giraudo said. "There are thousands of them, even just in Mendocino County, and for decades they've existed in the shadows."

With a recent Pew Research survey finding that about six out of 10 Americans believe weed should be legalized, cannabis tourism, too, has the potential to step out from the shadows and into the mainstream. But until the recreational weed industry as a whole can operate free from the specter of federal prosecution, cannabis tourism awaits its day in the sun.

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