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Chronic Issues: Challenges and opportunities in cannabis tourism

Oregon’s 500-plus licensed cannabis retailers are said to outnumber its Starbucks locations, and a stroll around Portland, its largest city, all but confirms it.

Pick a suitable starting point ­– say, Voodoo Doughnut’s flagship location in Old Town — and a few minutes’ walk in practically any direction reveals the breadth of Portland’s 200 or so dispensaries, from the Apple Store-like Serra, where the reception area could double for a resort spa’s, to the no-frills aesthetic of Rose City Wellness, where the entrance more closely resembles a pawn shop’s. Or cross the Willamette River and head to the city’s Lloyd district for the ’70s-stoner vibe of Electric Lettuce, where shoppers might find themselves grooving to Jimi Hendrix’s “Electric Ladyland” or any of the other LPs stacked next to a turntable and wood-grain stereo receiver.

Ambience aside, these shops have a couple of things in common. One is product variety: Nearly every dispensary stocks a selection of edibles (these are not your college roomie’s pot brownies), dabs (cannabis extracts) and pre-rolls (ready-to-smoke joints) as well as about two dozen strains of good old-fashioned bud, tantalizingly displayed in glass jars like penny candy, labels bearing whimsical names like Blue Dragon Desert Frost ($14 per gram at Serra) and Purple Punch ($70 for a quarter ounce at Electric Lettuce).

Another commonality is on-site ATMs. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 substance (“drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”), which makes it federally prohibited and thus a land mine for financial institutions. So in the District of Columbia, Oregon and the eight other U.S. states that have legalized recreational adult use, the cannabis industry is primarily a pay-in-cash endeavor.

The ATM at Electric Lettuce in Portland’s Lloyd district. Dispensaries are largely cash businesses because cannabis remains illegal federally. Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya
The ATM at Electric Lettuce in Portland’s Lloyd district. Dispensaries are largely cash businesses because cannabis remains illegal federally. Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya

And it’s a lot of cash: Last year, licensed retailers in the U.S. and Canada reported sales totaling $9.7 billion, according to “The State of Legal Marijuana Markets,” a report by Arcview Market Research using data from point-of-sale tracker BDS Analytics. That total represents a 33% year-over-year sales increase, and Arcview projects that the legal cannabis market in the U.S. and Canada will grow at a rate of 28% annually, reaching $24.5 billion in 2021.

Eager for a share of this bounty, a number of travel-oriented enterprises are catering to the increasingly lucrative market of cannabis-curious visitors. Generally, however, they operate without the support of the tourism industry at large.

DMOs just say no

A recent press release from Visit West Hollywood cheekily plays up the city’s risque side: “Whether you need to up your game or play some new games, there are no shortage of products and services to satisfy cravings and urges,” reads its opening paragraph, before offering a rundown of WeHo sex shops, strip clubs and tattoo parlors.

When it comes to the subject of cannabis, however, WeHo is decidedly demure: “While the city is very much developing new policy regarding cannabis, it is not something our organization is officially promoting at this time,” Anne Van Gorp, director of communications for Visit West Hollywood, wrote in an email.

Among destination marketing organizations (DMO), the prevailing strategy is to inform, not endorse. Typically a DMO’s website will have an FAQ about cannabis consumption, maybe list a few licensed dispensaries, but not much beyond that — even for those destinations with a reputation for indulging adult excess.

“Right now, we can only really explain the limitations of the law and that we don’t promote cannabis,” Maria Phelan, communications manager for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, wrote in an email.

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Published: May 09, 2018

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