Seattle and Portland Just Say Yes to Cannabis Tourists

It's official: The Pacific Northwest is all good with a green rush.

With its recent legalization of recreational cannabis, the Pacific Northwest has emerged as a hub for international travelers in search of craft beer, artisan coffee, and—now—high-grade, no-legal-risk adult-use cannabis. In one sign of the weed industry's increasing acceptance within the Pacific Northwest's mainstream craft culture, local tourism booster Visit Seattle welcomed Kush Tourism, an online "Guide for Travelers Interested in Cannabis Culture," as a limited member in August 2016.

The Visit Seattle-Kush Tourism hookup marks the first time a destination marketing organization (DMO) representing a major U.S. city where recreational cannabis is legal has accepted a cannabis-themed business into its membership.

Since recreational cannabis became legal in Washington State in 2014, sales of cannabis products have passed the $1 billion mark. According to Kush Tourism, retailers report that 25 to 30 percent of those sales are driven by out-of-state tourists. Furthermore, based on Kush analytics, marijuana tourism web searches are up 19.5 percent in the U.S. from 2015 to 2016.

Kush Tourism Founder and CEO Michael Gordon interprets this acceptance from the biggest DMO in the state as an indication that Seattle is starting to cater to cannabis travelers. During the courting phase, Gordon took Visit Seattle's Board of Directors on Kush Tourism's signature tour, showing them an indoor grow, processor, analytical lab, and a dispensary. The tour apparently helped break down any preconceptions regarding the diversity of individuals interested in the cannabis plant. Customers booking Kush's general-interest cannabis industry and culture tours tend be couples from 28 to 60 years of age. Kush Tours also offers medical-themed expeditions focusing on the medicinal aspects of this plant for doctors and medical professionals.

Visit Seattle's David Blandford, vice president, communications, reveals that Kush Tourism was invited to join its 1,200-member roster because the tour company offers educational-based tours and is not tied to a retail establishment. As some discrepancies remain between Washington State and federal laws regarding cannabis use, Visit Seattle in restricted in how far it can go to promote and market marijuana tourism. With these limitations in mind, Visit Seattle extended Kush a membership that includes benefits such as listings in some Visit Seattle guides, but holds back advantages like advertising in its guides and on the website, which could cause legal problems for Visit Seattle.

Another challenge for Visit Seattle is the need to educate tourists about the laws governing consumption of recreational cannabis. In particular, Seattle's proximity to the Canadian and Oregon borders, coupled with the presence of an international airport, is a setup for unintentional trafficking felonies, given the current laws pertaining to interstate and international transportation of cannabis.

At present, state laws permitting recreational cannabis use often confine that consumption to a resident's home. Smoking cannabis remains banned in hotels, public parks, rental cars, and other public places. Visit Seattle's Blandford observes: "We're very open to marijuana tourism and where this could go and see where it can grow in the future. However, we need for the laws to change so we can have a little more room with what we can do."

Both Visit Seattle and Travel Portland continue to take a wait-and-see attitude as local, state, and federal laws evolve around the United States. 

Even though Visit Seattle now displays Kush Tourism brochures at its visitors centers, hotels, and other outlets throughout Seattle, Gordon notes that some travel planners and merchant services either will not carry Kush Tourism brochures or have removed its literature from display cases.

According to Marcus Hibdon, senior media relations & PR manager for Travel Portland, the City of Roses is known for its craft beer, wine and spirits. Hence, Portland is accustomed to promoting adult-use products that can intoxicate folks. 

Once recreational cannabis became legal in July 2015, Travel Portland moved to become an information resource for visitors. The organization put up a page on its website outlining what visitors need to know to participate in this new craft market while remaining within the letter of the law.

Like Seattle, even though any adult can purchase cannabis flowers legally as of October 1, 2015, tourists still cannot consume cannabis legally in public spaces or smoke any products in hotel rooms or restaurants. Limited edible purchases became legal in June 2016, and tourists are free to consume these products in their hotel rooms.

When one of Travel Portland's members, Pedal Bike Tours, expanded its cycling excursions by offering a Portland Pot Tour in the Fall of 2015, Travel Portland included this new experience in its monthly media newsletter. Also, the Visit Portland information center at Pioneer Courthouse Square offers a map of cannabis dispensaries created by Choose Local, which is one their members.

Oregon is on track to collect $43 million in taxes from recreational cannabis sales by the end of 2016. Currently, no breakdown show what percentage of this revenue comes from tourist traffic. Travel Portland's Hibdon notes, "We don't have the research regarding how many people are coming to Oregon because of marijuana and how many people are demotivated to come to Oregon because of marijuana."

Even though Colorado reports sales of close to a half billion dollars in the first five months of 2016, an email from Visit Denver indicates it is not currently promoting cannabis tourism. 

Both Visit Seattle and Travel Portland continue to take a wait-and-see attitude as local, state, and federal laws evolve around the United States. While the country moves toward normalization of adult-use cannabis, both of these Pacific Northwest destination marketing organizations are ready to support the forward motion of cannabis business.