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. 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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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. 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. Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya