Last updated: 12:53 PM ET, Mon August 04 2014

Marijuana Tourism: Now We Change Our Minds

Marijuana became legal in Colorado at the stroke of midnight Jan. 1, 2014, but the social transformation of cannabis use from a criminal act to an accepted practice will not happen overnight.  

The social transformation now being led by Colorado and Washington, the first two states to legalize discretionary use of marijuana, is more profound than we are likely to fully comprehend at this point, and it will be a long time before our society will have the perspective to see clearly the seismic shifts that are taking place underfoot.

But while the stigma of a century of outlaw status will not vanish instantly, the marijuana tourism business will move along at its own pace, determined by economic factors. And from the looks of things now it appears that with the dam broken by Colorado and now Washington, events are going to move quickly.  

As if to certify that change, last week the New York Times came out with an editorial advocating legalization of cannabis. When the New York Times, an institution so socially conservative it still calls Ringo “Mr. Starr,” gets on board with a radical change of that magnitude, it is a sure signal that establishment resistance is pretty much demolished. 

Some of the massive capital that used to disappear into a black market that supported drug empires south of the border has started to trickle into Colorado and Washington, where it can generate above-board economic activity and tax revenues. Other states with their own fiscal problems are looking on, and the infusion of money generated by the sale of marijuana has to be exceedingly tempting to them.

Washington’s joining with Colorado in legalizing marijuana seems to have accelerated the momentum of the trend. Acceptance is gathering force. Colorado is no longer one single maverick state, alone in all the world. Now there are two.

But while the stigma of a century of outlaw status will not vanish instantly, the marijuana tourism business will move along at its own pace, determined by economic factors. And from the looks of things now it appears that with the dam broken by Colorado and now Washington, events are going to move quickly.  

But while business interests will move toward wherever the money is, the social attitudes will lag. It is still difficult for people who have lived their whole lives in a society that imprisoned people for the mere possession of trace amounts of the dreaded weed to get their minds around the idea that it is no longer a criminal act, at least not in Colorado and Washington.

The Hidden Impact

It may be almost impossible to measure the actual impact of marijuana legalization on tourism. The people who are signing up to take marijuana-themed tours must only be a small sliver of it.

Gallup found that 38 percent of Americans confess that they have tried marijuana. A study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that 41 percent of the population, more than 100 million Americans, admit that they have tried marijuana. I don’t know how much consideration the study gave to the fact that this was a government study that was asking people to confess in writing to a crime. But even taking the numbers at face value, that is a large number of people; a huge potential market.

The first crop of cannabis tours put on sale to capture the newly opened market have already begun to fall into a standard configuration. They are structured around introducing visitors to the “420 lifestyle” and the fledgling marijuana industry, with such activities as touring harvesting facilities and retail establishments and taking cannabis cooking lessons.

Modeled loosely after wine tours, they focus on educating clients about the new culture and the business that has quickly taken root in the environment of legalization. They are “not just about a bunch of 20-something stoners getting high,” their operators assure us. They cater to a more sophisticated, upscale clientele.

But focusing strictly on the marijuana themed tours of this kind will surely miss the broader influence that legalized marijuana will have on tourism. The 40 percent of the population who were discreet about using marijuana when it was illegal will probably continue to be fairly discreet about it now.

Some of them may be interested in going to see where it was grown, but many more of them will just want to get a buzz and do the kinds of things they like to do anyway, such as go sightseeing, hear a band play, visit with friends in a bar, take a walk or go shopping, all the standard activities of tourism. And yes, have fun.

Most of the millions of people around the world who smoke pot don’t do so because they are ill and they don’t do it as an educational pursuit. They do it because it feels good, tastes good, enhances experiences and is fun. The vast majority of them are not in any way part of a subculture. They are not slackers or druggies, they are just ordinary Americans. Most of them are not any more interested in the production of marijuana or the “420 lifestyle” than other people. They just enjoy getting a buzz sometimes.

After living in an environment where you could be imprisoned for using marijuana, it is going to be jarring to experience an environment in which it is legal. This simple fact alone will attract some unknown number of curious visitors to Colorado and Washington. It will be one factor among many in the vacation decisions of millions of people. Not all of this is going to be measurable.

Marijuana Tourism as Cultural Tourism

In that sense, marijuana tourism is developing into a kind of cultural tourism. People will want to visit Colorado and Washington just to experience the cultural transformation that those states are leading through the legalization of marijuana. Colorado and Washington will be among the places in the world where people go to experience a unique cultural environment.

Some people go to South Africa to experience the heady euphoria of a country recently freed from the oppression of apartheid. Some go to Egypt to experience what it is like to be in the country where the Arab Spring was born and where social transformation it ignited is still in progress. And some go to Amsterdam to experience a culture that is liberal about cannabis consumption and prostitution even if they personally would never partake of either.

Colorado and now Washington, as the leaders into the new world of pot liberalization now are developing a unique new brand of cultural cache of their own. The legalization of pot and the culture it produces will be one of many things on the table when people consider visiting either of these states.

Meanwhile, while the social and business ramifications are playing out at their own speed, the old stigma still hangs. Operators of marijuana tours are eager to tell you that it’s “not just about getting high.” It’s not just a bunch of stoners and slackers looking to get wasted. It’s not just about fun, there is culture involved, education.

Because possession of marijuana is still a crime under federal law and under most state legal codes, it can’t be seen with quite the same attitude as other things. You can have wine with dinner and no one thinks twice about it. You can go on a wine tour or to a tasting and not risk losing your respectability. They don’t call it “recreational wine” and there is no presumption that you are a slacker or a deadbeat because you had a few glasses of wine.

I can’t help but wonder why we look down our noses at pleasure. Why do we feel we have to have some other justification for an activity besides pleasure? Should we tear down Disneyland?

But when it comes to marijuana, the stigma survives. Carrie Nation still lives. The Puritan sensibility that some of the first American colonists fostered is still a strong component of American culture. In the current environment, the marketing of pot, even if it is legal, has to be educational or cultural. It can’t be just about fun. That would not be quite respectable when we’re dealing with the killer weed. Even though it’s legal now, it just doesn’t seem right to be just enjoying ourselves. There has to be some higher purpose.

But when we are talking about tourism, we are usually talking about fun. That is usually enough. But what if it is just for fun? What then? Would that really be so bad?

I can’t help but wonder why we look down our noses at pleasure. Why do we feel we have to have some other justification for an activity besides pleasure? Should we tear down Disneyland?

Aren’t people constantly, restlessly, relentlessly seeking pleasure and happiness? Doesn’t our own American Declaration of Independence say that the nation was established to ensure the recognition of “inalienable rights … Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”?

Don’t people suffer enough? Do we have to begrudge them their efforts to seek some happiness and pleasure when possible?

Author Norman Cousins showed in his book Anatomy of an Illness that fun itself is good for health, and laughter helps to cure disease. So why are we so afraid of fun?

If 100 million American marijuana users, not to mention people from overseas, like the idea that it is possible to have a toke of marijuana without risking prison and they feel more comfortable in an environment where that is possible, that’s enough. And Colorado is well deserving of their tourism dollars.

For many people, having a toke of marijuana is like having a glass of wine, just a mild mood elevator or stress reliever. They may just enjoy the feeling that they can do that without fear of arrest or scandal.

So let them.

Andrew Weill, the noted health author, wrote that the physical effects of marijuana are so mild as to be almost unmeasurable in laboratory tests, and he therefore dubbed it an “inactive placebo.” It seems to trigger a change in mood for many users that makes them feel more receptive and more able to enjoy some of their normal activities. That’s about it. It’s enjoyable. Fun.

So what is wrong with that?