Even as attorney general Jeff Sessions last week was
overturning an Obama administration policy discouraging prosecution of federal
marijuana laws in states where cannabis has been legalized, stakeholders in
California were debating what impact the state's newly legal pot sales will
have on tourism.
On Jan. 1, California became the most populous of nine
states where the recreational use of marijuana is now legal. But while the
cannabis industry is expecting a flood of visitors to the state looking to
light up, California tourism officials say the uptick in travelers due to pot
tourism won't likely be that massive -- at least not at first.
"We do not anticipate the statewide legalization of
cannabis to have any major impact on inbound tourism to Los Angeles," said
Ernest Wooden Jr., president and CEO of the Los Angeles Tourism &
Wooden cited a 2015 study conducted by the travel and
hospitality marketing firm MMGY Global that found the legalization of marijuana
for recreational use in Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon was likely to
have minimal impact on leisure travelers' interest in visiting those states.
That survey and another conducted by Strategic Marketing
& Research Insight group showed that "recreational cannabis is of
limited interest to U.S. leisure travelers and is not a motivator of travel to
a destination," Wooden said.
But Michael Gordon, CEO and co-founder of Kush Tourism,
which serves as a travel guide for cannabis tours, shops, accommodations and
activities in states where marijuana is legal, said cannabis tourism is on
track to be big business.
"Tourism has been a part of every cannabis industry,
whether it's Colorado or Washington or Oregon, in a substantial way,"
Gordon said, adding that his clients have reported that as many as 30% to 40%
of their cannabis customers are tourists.
"We see it through tours, art classes, bed and
breakfasts that there's an industry springing up around the travelers coming to
states for [marijuana]," Gordon said. "I think it's tangible, I think
it's substantial, and I think people are having fun with it. ... People are
still warming up to it. There's just a growing population getting used to the
idea of legal pot."
Part of the reason that pot tourism isn't likely to take off
quickly in any of the places where recreational marijuana is now legal --
Alaska, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Washington
and Washington, D.C. -- is because of some of the complications surrounding
where and how people can consume it.
Emily Gant, a lawyer with Seattle firm
Garvey Schubert Barer, who counsels clients in the alcohol and cannabis
industries, said that in Washington state, businesses with a liquor license
risk losing that license if they allow patrons to consume cannabis on their
Another speed bump is the fact that because pot remains
illegal federally -- and, thanks to Sessions' announcement last Thursday, its
use is again prosecutable -- banks are refusing to do business with cannabis
retailers, meaning sellers cannot accept credit cards.
Although California governor Jerry Brown has talked about
starting a state-chartered bank to serve the marijuana industry, at the moment
sellers are limited to all-cash transactions.
In California, there are additional considerations, as well.
San Francisco Travel is assembling a list of basic facts that visitors
interested in experiencing marijuana should know. It is posted on the
destination marketing organization's website.
Those facts include:
• You must be age 21 or older to possess, purchase or use
recreational cannabis. This includes smoking, vaping or eating cannabis-infused
• It is legal to consume cannabis on private property but
not in public places (additionally, property owners may ban the use of cannabis
on their properties).
• You cannot consume or possess cannabis on federal lands
such as national parks -- including Alcatraz, the Presidio and Muir Woods --
even if the park is in California.
• It is illegal to transport purchased cannabis across state
lines, even if traveling to another state where cannabis is also legal.
• It is illegal to consume cannabis in locations where
smoking is illegal, such as bars, restaurants and buildings that are open to
SF Travel refers visitors to its website to find out
everything they need to know about cannabis consumption in the state.
Despite all the speed bumps and loopholes, a quick
online search for California pot tours reveals a host of new businesses that
have been created for the specific purpose of giving visitors the opportunity
to experience California's weed culture.
For Gordon, the fact that California, the most
populous state in the country and one of the top tourism states, has "gone
legal" means that, despite the Trump administration's latest move to undo
states' laws, there is no turning back on the growing trend to legalize
marijuana. Consequently, he said he believes we will likely see more
tourism-related businesses embrace it.
Gordon noted that California is already
extremely popular with tourists and has a lot of experience in courting them to embrace experiences such as wine country. For that reason, he said,
California has even more potential than other states where marijuana is now
legal to become a favorite pot-tourism destination.
If anything, he said, California's biggest challenge will be
making sure that supply keeps up with demand.
"There are certain choke points when an industry is
developing," he said. "So I don't think supply will be an issue the
first year, but [the demand is] going to ramp up extremely fast."
Even so, he added confidently, "I don't think you're
going to run out of weed. It's California."