Pot-legal states dodge official tourist push

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Among the excursions offered by Kush Tourism in Seattle is the Dawg Star Tour-Garden Tour, a 90-minute tour of a commercial marijuana-growing facility.
Among the excursions offered by Kush Tourism in Seattle is the Dawg Star Tour-Garden Tour, a 90-minute tour of a commercial marijuana-growing facility.

During Kush Tourism’s signature half-day tour of Seattle-area marijuana businesses, guests admire leafy green plants at a growing facility and stop at a retail shop where anyone over the age of 21 can legally purchase up to an ounce of marijuana.

Kush owner Michael Gordon, who launched his company in January 2014, describes his tours as educational experiences that offer a behind-the-scenes view of a budding industry. Visit Seattle’s vice president of communications, David Blanford, agrees.

“I’ve taken the tour, and I found it fascinating,” Blanford said. “It is educational. I learned a lot, and I think it’s well done.”

In August, Kush became the first marijuana-focused business to join Visit Seattle, as a limited member. While Kush cannot advertise in Visit Seattle’s printed guides or on its website, its brochure is available at visitor information centers, where travelers interested in a marijuana tour can learn more.

However, working with businesses like Kush — and promoting anything related to recreational marijuana — poses challenges for destination management organizations in states like Colorado, Washington and Oregon where cannabis has been legalized.

Because recreational cannabis is not legal nationwide — in fact, it technically remains illegal in all states at the federal level — promoting the drug or businesses associated with it to out-of-state visitors puts destination marketing organizations at risk of breaking federal law.

“We’ve certainly been very dedicated to being a resource and answering questions and helping travelers understand the law,” Blanford said. “Marketing to [tourists] is just premature for us. It’s very difficult to work through the federal interpretation of promotion. It’s a very sticky issue.”

The question of to what extent pot is actually driving tourism is also a point of debate. Little data is available to quantify the level of interest in cannabis among visitors to states where it’s now legal, and in some cases, it’s too soon to know.

While Colorado has seen record visitation since the state legalized the recreational use of marijuana, that growth actually had began by the time pot was able to hit the market.

Research conducted in April by Strategic Marketing & Research Insights for the Colorado Tourism Office found that for 64% of visitors, marijuana had no influence on the decision to visit Colorado. Fourteen percent reported a negative influence, though they still visited the state, and 23% said it positively affected their travel decision. Once they arrived, 11% of travelers age 25 and over stopped by a dispensary.

While Blanford said he did not get the sense that travelers are coming to Seattle purely to partake in recreational marijuana, visitors are asking questions about usage and availability at info booths and hotels.

Answering those questions has become tricky in all the places where pot is legal.

“The law says these are products that are legal to possess, to buy and to use, but it doesn’t designate a place where nonresidents can legally use the products,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director of the pot advocacy group Norml (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws).

The need for answers about pot tourism is only likely to grow. In addition to Colorado, Washington and Oregon, legalizing recreational marijuana use is the subject of a statewide September referendum in California, where polls suggest it will pass easily. (California already has the country’s most lenient medical marijuana laws.)

If that happens, recreational use of pot would be legal on the entire West Coast of the U.S. as well as in Canada.

State laws forbid using the drug in public places such as on the street or in parks, while smoking bans put restaurants and bars off-limits. Many hotels have no-smoking policies in their guestrooms.

Guests on Kush Tourism marijuana excursions get up close with the product and see how it is grown and processed.
Guests on Kush Tourism marijuana excursions get up close with the product and see how it is grown and processed.

But the growing use of pot sold in e-cigarette form or smoked in almost-odorless vaporizers enables some partakers to skirt those restrictions, and marijuana brownies and other cannabis-infused edibles, regulated for sale in Oregon this summer, make consuming marijuana easier for those who don’t want to run afoul of state laws or hotel policies.

“We’re not going to promote anything contrary to the law,” said Travel Portland’s senior media and public relations manager, Marcus Hibdon. “With each passing month, it appears as though it’s getting easier for consumers to consume it legally, and that helps us from a promotional standpoint.”

Even as cities such as Portland and Seattle officially proceed with caution (Visit Denver declined to be interviewed for this report), businesses that serve cannabis-curious tourists are continuing to pop up.

In Colorado, three Bud & Breakfast locations — their motto: “We’ll keep the bowl burning for you” — offer weed-friendly accommodations and amenities such as a Wake ’n’ Bake breakfast and a 4:20 p.m. happy hour.

Denver’s My 420 Tours provides greenhouse and dispensary excursions, sushi- and joint-rolling classes and even cannabis-infused massages. Pedal Bike Tours offers an itinerary dedicated to the Portland pot scene that includes a dispensary and visits to head shops along with 11 miles of cycling and snacks.

Colorado Tourism Office representative Carly Holbrook said that in order for recreational weed to drive more visitors and have a greater positive effect on tourism it needs to be legalized in more states and ultimately by the federal government.

“There will be more opportunity to market it, and it will be less taboo, more widely accepted,” Holbrook said.

Travel Portland’s Hibdon said he sees legalized marijuana as just another asset among many that have the potential to appeal to Portland tourists in the same way craft beer or local wine might.

“There’s no aversion to marijuana,” he said. “We’ve been talking about craft beer for 30 years, we’ve been talking about our wine for 30 years, and this could be similar.”

Blanford said he envisions Visit Seattle promoting legal cannabis somewhere down the road.

“Our caution in entering the marketplace so far has been necessary,” he said. “We’re actually very open to the idea, and we’re actively exploring and looking toward the future.”

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