While some tourists may prefer a trip to a historic site or art museum, others are increasingly drawn to a different type of sightseeing: one that involves cannabis.
With the legalization of medical cannabis in more than half the country, and four states that have also legalized for recreational use, Americans continue to seek cannabis culture experiences. Whether it’s the chance to purchase cannabis from a dispensary in Colorado, or go on a bike tour in Oregon that ends with a gifted joint, it’s now legal to experience cannabis first-hand–even if it’s illegal where someone lives. And with legalization on the ballot in five states, including the nation’s most populous, California, cannabis tourism might see a big boost.
Dispensary tours, cannabis clubs, and 420-friendly lounges, are all mentioned by author Mindy Sink in Avalon Travel’s latest edition of “Moon Denver, Boulder & Colorado Springs.” A member of Perseus Books Group, Avalon produces independent travel guidebooks, including a more distinct series with the Moon Travel Guides. The Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs guide was released in May of this year, and includes multiple sections about cannabis tourism, including information about places to buy cannabis, and private locations to use it.
“This is something that was off limits for so long and to be able to legally give it a try, and it still has that little bit of naughtiness to it, that makes it even more appealing,” Sink said.
The guidebook’s sections on cannabis tourism are tucked away into the chapters on Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs and Fort Collins.
“It’s not just one blanket experience across the state, so that’s how we treated it in the book,” Sink said, referring to the patchwork of cannabis regulations that exist, even within a state. Some counties choose to embrace cannabis, while others might ban its sale outright. “Within each of those chapters, we include a variety of tips. So it might be 420 friendly lodgings [or] dispensaries in that city to go to.”
“Moon Denver, Boulder & Colorado Springs” is one of the first mainstream guidebooks to include sections on cannabis tourism, and Sink said that the feedback has been positive. Yet, she added that the stigma associated with cannabis, and Colorado’s law against consuming it in public, may hinder cannabis tourism from becoming mainstream.
“Say you go to the microbrewery and you are like ‘Oh, I’m going to have a flight of beer,’ well you can’t walk down the street with that. There’s limits. It’s the same thing with cannabis, so that kind of keeps it in the realm of ‘this is a behind the scenes kind of thing,’” she said.
But the editorial director for Frommer’s, a travel guidebook series, believes that cannabis tourism has already integrated into the country’s conventional tourism culture, especially in Colorado.
“I think it’s already a mainstream thing. From what I’ve read, Colorado has experienced a 25 percent uptick in the number of visitors and I don’t think that’s just from skiers,” said Pauline Frommer, who is also the daughter of Frommer’s creator, Arthur.
Although Frommer’s has yet to publish information about cannabis tourism in any guidebooks, the topic has been covered on their website. One article, “How Tourists Can Buy Marijuana in Colorado,” offers a how-to for tourists interested in buying adult-use cannabis in the state. The coverage includes information about how to buy cannabis at a dispensary, places that permit and prohibit smoking, and the legality of traveling with the drug.
Frommer said the article, which was published around a year and a half ago, did very well with website users.
“We kept it up for a long time because it got so many hits,” Frommer said.
Since Frommer’s does not publish a new Colorado guidebook every year, the state’s last guide was published before the cannabis law changed, so the tourism aspect was not included. So far, the company has only focused on cannabis tourism in Colorado.
“We’ll cover it wherever it’s legal because we do feel, and I don’t think we are alone in this, that marijuana has been driving visits to states where it’s legal,” Frommer said. “We’ve concentrated on Colorado at this point, but I’m sure we’ll hit the topic again because our Colorado [coverage] was tremendously popular.”
Survey results from the Colorado Tourism Office in December 2015 support Frommer’s view. According to the office, of the more than 3,000 respondents, 11 percent of visitors came specifically because of legal cannabis, and four percent had visited a dispensary. In addition, 23-percent of those surveyed considered legal cannabis an influence on their decision to visit.
“It could become like gambling. Las Vegas had to reinvent itself as more and more states got legalized gambling. Why go to Atlantic City when you can gamble much closer to where you are? I think it will be the same with pot,” she said. “I think what will eventually happen is the tourism aspect will disperse as more and more states legalize it.”
Much like Frommer’s, another guidebook company, Lonely Planet, has also published how-to information about legalized recreational cannabis on their website. But, Lonely Planet has included states in addition to Colorado.
According to Alex Howard, the destination editor for Lonely Planet, the company has focused on reporting the facts about legal recreational cannabis use in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington. Lonely Planet combines information about safe consumption of cannabis, legal requirements, and also might offer reviews of places where cannabis can be purchased in those states.
Examples of Lonely Planet’s coverage includes online articles with headlines like “Legal marijuana arrives in Washington DC,” “Colorado’s relaxed pot laws draw tourists with tours,” and “No influx of tourists to US states after marijuana legalisation,” among others. The company also plans to include information about cannabis in upcoming publications.
“We began reviewing recreational marijuana dispensaries in our recent Pacific Northwest content update, which is currently in production. We include information on legal restrictions as well as point of interest reviews. We expect that the same approach will apply when we update our Colorado content next year,” Howard said.
While major travel travel guidebook publishers are slowly stepping into the world of cannabis tourism, the owner of City Sessions Denver, a cannabis tourism company in Colorado, says that tourist’s interest in cannabis is nothing new.
The owner of City Sessions, Goldie Solodar, said that cannabis tourism started to pop up in Colorado after cannabis sales began in 2014.
“It was slower to ramp up just because I think the country was coming around to what this was all about. So, year over year we have definitely seen an increase in people coming to the state and tour to experience the plant on the recreational level,” she said.
The company offers a variety of tour packages aimed to educate people on the plant, either through a tour of a commercial grow facility or a dispensary visit.
“This is a little bit different than other tour companies on the market. Some of these others are doing these big bus tours that are social smoking. We are really focused on the education aspect,” Solodar said.
City Sessions is not promoted by Visit Denver, which is the city’s tourism department. According to a representative from Visit Denver, it is illegal to advertise cannabis to people out of state, so the tourism department does not promote cannabis tourism options. However, Visit Denver’s website does include information about recreational cannabis use in the state, providing information about how to use cannabis safely and legally, including one article titled “Retail Marijuana FAQ.”
Despite the lack of advertising, Solodar said she has not had an issue with attracting customers.
“The world is kind of seeking it out on their own right now,” she said. “I do think this is going to be mainstream.”
The tourism department for Portland, Oregon does provide information about cannabis tourism in the city. Laura Guimond, the senior public relations manager for Travel Portland, said that although the department does not have any statistics on the number of tourists who visit Portland specifically for cannabis tourism, there are options for those interested.
“As for specific tours, Pedal Bike Tours offers a daily Portland Pot Tour–no imbibing during the tour, but participants receive a joint for private consumption. And High Five offers private tours including two that stop at grow sites,” she said.
Much like Visit Denver, Travel Portland has not advertised any of the cannabis tourism companies on their website, but they have published an article with information about the Do’s and Don’ts of cannabis use in Oregon.
While cannabis is not yet legal for nonmedical use in Nevada, one company is trying to get ahead with a perhaps unusual move: medical cannabis tourism. 420 Tours in Las Vegas helps people secure a medical cannabis card, which is a state issued ID that allows patients to obtain cannabis from a dispensary. After patients are issued a card, 420 Tours provides transportation to dispensaries. 420 Tours is not alone. Billboards from other businesses advertising medical cannabis can be seen along the highway near exists for the Strip, where casinos, clubs, and restaurants are densely packed.
420 Tours owner Drew Gennuso hopes that cannabis tourism could open up in Nevada if cannabis becomes legalized for recreational use, which will be voted on in November.
“Unfortunately, the Nevada market is not really designed for tourism right now just because there is still that barrier where you need to have a card to get into a dispensary,” said Gennuso.
The state health department published on its site a “bus tour warning” that says that the tour website incorrectly lists the requirements for obtaining medical cannabis, and that businesses who provide medical cannabis to tourists who haven’t obtained the necessary documents might lose their registration.
The tour itinerary includes the offices of Senator Tick Segerblom, who has said he hopes the medical cannabis program will be a draw for visitors. And now Segerblom is the co-author of Nevada’s full legalization initiative that will be on the November ballot, which, if passed, might give Gennuso the opportunity he’s been trying to seek through the medical program.
“This is going to be more of a tourism thing than a local thing,” Segerblom said, of the potential forthcoming legalization. “We’ll advertise all over the world: come to Nevada, get stoned, have a great meal, go to a great concert.”
Nushin Rashidian contributed reporting.