Pot tourism looks to California for market growth

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Because California is already a popular destination, the state's potential for pot tourism is huge, said Michael Gordon of Kush Tourism.

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 & Convention Board.

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 property.

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 products.

• 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 the public.

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."

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