Last updated: 03:04 PM ET, Fri June 13 2014

Marijuana Tourism Comes to Washington

Destination & Tourism David Cogswell June 12, 2014

Marijuana Tourism Comes to Washington

Photo courtesy Thinkstock

Move over, Colorado. Washington is about to take its place center stage in the ongoing drama of marijuana tourism. Licensed marijuana stores are set to begin opening in July, and where marijuana is legal, it inevitably creates implications for tourism. There will be entrepreneurs looking for ways to exploit those potentials.

On Jan. 1, Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. It was the only place in America where people are allowed to smoke marijuana legally without a prescription, at least under state law, though it remained illegal under federal law. Now, seven months later, Colorado will begin sharing its position with Washington State.

Washington’s Initiative 502 decriminalizing marijuana was passed in November 2012. It mandated a regulatory regime similar to the state’s liquor laws and went into effect in December 2013, when marijuana-selling businesses could apply for licenses.

The state’s legalization of stores selling marijuana goes into effect next month. Pot stores are gearing up for their openings, and battle lines are being drawn as some communities exercise their rights to restrict, regulate or ban the weed in their communities. It is already legal under state law to possess an ounce of marijuana, but not to sell it.

It will continue to be illegal for people under 21 to possess marijuana, for anyone to use it in public, to transport it out of state, to drive under the influence, to produce it without a license or to possess more than a specified amount. It is still illegal to use it on federal lands, such as national parks and forests.

Marijuana possession is still illegal under federal law, which puts it in an ambiguous legal no-man’s land: legal under the state’s legal code and illegal under federal law. But the ambiguity may be easing as the House of Representatives recently approved a measure offered by Republican Dana Rohrabacher of California that forbids the Justice Department from enforcing the federal prohibition in states where it is legal.

The Senate will have its say on the matter before the House measure, part of an appropriations bill, will go to the President for his signature.

While tourism officials of Visit Denver took a stand-offish attitude toward the possible effect of marijuana legalization on tourism, asking for a one-year moratorium on promoting marijuana-related tourism, Seattle officials are less reluctant to allow the effects of marijuana on tourism to take their course. Seattle Business magazine reported that Seattle officials proclaimed their support of marijuana tourism as far back as June 2013.

A Grassroots Industry

Washington has a fledgling organization called the Washington State Cannabis Tourism Association that posts a listing of cannabis tourism enterprises in existence and several more being created.

A group of marijuana-based companies have joined together to present Canna Con, which is billed as “The Nation’s Largest Cannabis Expo,” Aug. 14-17.

The Original Canna-Bus is a 30-foot mobile lounge, “a sanctuary for your amusement and pleasure,” according to its website. The company offers a package it calls The Original Cannabus Tour, that provides a glimpse into Seattle’s Cannabis Culture, including a cannabis cooking demonstration, a visit to a medical marijuana growing facility, a look at an operating dispensary, a trip through a glass shop that sells marijuana-related accessories and a stop for some local cuisine.  The three and a half-hour tour costs $100 per person. The company will also rent out its limo for private parties.

Kush Tourism offers Seattle marijuana tours. The Seattle Cannabis Culture and Medicine Tour is a four-hour program priced $150. The tour offers “an intimate and informational perspective of Washington’s Cannabis culture,” with a visit to a cannabis speakeasy and opportunities to learn about glass blowing, making hash, and using cannabis as medicine.

Kush Tourism also offers an Organic Farm Experience, a one and a half hour trip to a legal marijuana cultivation site. The company is also offering private tours and vacation packages.

A crop of private clubs are springing up for marijuana users, including Boomer Buds and Mary Jane Member.

The Official Quandary

Meanwhile on the official levels of government there is interest as well as caution. Visit Seattle, the tourism marketing agency for the city, is gathering information and watching how things shake out before deciding on any actions.

David Blandford, vice president of communications and public relations for Visit Seattle, told TravelPulse, “Here [at Visit Seattle] we do not have an official moratorium or an official stance. I guess basically it’s a working direction. We’re waiting to get more information since it is so legally ambiguous, especially the difference between state and federal law, the interpretation of it, enforcement of it, crossing borders, moving through airports, things like that.”

Though there is no official moratorium, Blandford believes it will be a year before there is enough clarity for the agency to devise a policy upon which to move ahead.  

“We don’t have the concept of marijuana tourism in our marketing plan yet, for example,” he said. “We’re not changing our budgets midstream to put money into it yet. It’s not on our marketing landscape for 2014 unless something were to change that would make it more compelling. So in short we’re not there yet. There are still so many questions to be answered.”

Washington has some catching up to do, said Blandford. “Colorado is further ahead in terms of issuing business licenses and so forth. They already have some businesses that are offering a product that tourists can be a part of, whereas here we don’t have that yet. So there isn’t really anything for us to promote yet.

“I think a year from now we might have a better idea about first of all whether there is product and second whether there is a market that is interested and wants to come here. So those are a couple of big question marks right now. We’re conceptually open to it if there is a compelling reason to proactively market to it. As yet I just think it’s a bit early."

Although Washington does already have legal medical marijuana, Blandford said, “There is a lot of disclarity about where medical meets recreational, and since recreational hasn’t really manifested yet, we just don’t know yet how that all works, how many licenses will be in Seattle versus elsewhere in the state, what those licenses are to be used for, are they something that a traveler could conceptually be interested in, or is that much more geared to residents who live here and off the tourist map.

“All of those things are question marks at this point. It’s difficult for us even to explain to a traveler what the rules are, what they are allowed to do when they fly into Seattle or cross a border, the Canadian border or a state border. There are so many questions to be answered and we’re just not in a position to do that yet."

But Seattle tourism officials are not inherently opposed to working with the market as it develops.

“It’s all very exciting as it does unfold and we watch it unfold," said Blandford, "but for us it’s still so early that it’s very hard to carve out any kind of a marketing program behind it.”