DENVER — Every seat filled, the little tour bus navigates the busy streets of booming Denver, whisking its passengers to a glassblowing demonstration. Or they can choose a painting class. Or a cooking lesson. Or visit a farm.
If this sounds like a comparatively unexciting way to see the Mile High City, look closer. Or, better yet, take a whiff.
This party bus is filled with smoke and happy people, and smells like an art-school dorm. The tattooed glassblower is crafting high-priced bongs and pipes. The cooking class is for gourmands who want to flavor their cuisine with an herb you probably don’t have in your spice rack. The painters’ creativity is whetted by weed. And the farm is the 40,000-square-foot “cultivation facility” of one of Colorado’s top cannabis producers.
It’s the budding next phase of legalized pot: marijuana tourism. And it’s reaching new highs in Colorado, Washington State, and Oregon, as travelers from states (including Massachusetts) frustrated by the slow pace at which the marijuana legalization movement has been drifting east fly west to the places where it’s already gotten rolling.
“It’s crazy how many people are coming here for this,” said Heidi Keyes, an artist who runs the Puff, Pass, and Paint class for Colorado Cannabis Tours, which is now expanding into Washington and Oregon.
The 21st-century version of the wine-tasting road trip, marijuana tourism provides a way for entrepreneurs to capitalize on legalized marijuana without the hassle of regulations that control the growing and selling of it directly (and who, not incidentally, come up with really clever names for their businesses).
That includes transportation (the Cannabus, Seattle; Mary Jane Tours, Telluride), accommodations (the Bud and Breakfast; the Wake & Bakery Inn, both in Denver), personal guides (Colorado Cannabis Concierge), and fairs and festivals (the Cannabis Cup, Portland, Ore., and elsewhere). Ski Buds Shuttle Service will liven up your ride to the slopes in Vail, vaporizers included; 420 Airport Pickup will drive you from your flight to Denver to a retail marijuana store before you’re even dropped at your hotel. There are also plans in Colorado for winery-style “weederies” with gift shops and restaurants, and a pot-friendly camp-style resort scheduled to open next year.
“For somebody who’s, say, in their mid to late 20s, who enjoys cannabis, the idea that they can go somewhere where they can do it legally and aren’t going to be treated as a criminal for doing something that’s demonstrably less dangerous than drinking alcohol — that’s appealing,” said Kris Krane, a legalization advocate and Boston-based managing partner of 4Front Advisors, a consulting company that works with marijuana-related businesses.
Selling marijuana for recreational purposes is now legal in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon, and is set to start in 2016 in Alaska. (A referendum to legalize the recreational use and sale of marijuana will be in front of Massachusetts voters in 2016, and the potential tourism benefits are among the arguments backers plan to make in favor of it.)
Some $700 million in marijuana was sold in Colorado last year, and Oregon predicts $257 million in sales this year. Advocates say marijuana tourism helped draw a record 15.4 million visitors and $4.6 billion to Denver alone last year — triple the national increase — though civic officials won’t make that connection; they’re prohibited from marketing the city based on the availability of pot.
“These are the new Amsterdams of the world,” said Eli Bilton, owner of Attis Trading Co., a marijuana dispensary in Portland, who is also starting a tour company and looking for locations to open a 420-friendly bed-and-breakfast. And while business is just getting going there — recreational marijuana only became legal for sale in Oregon Oct. 1 — “We’re already seeing a lot of out-of-towners,” Bilton said.
Restrictions such as Colorado’s ban on interstate advertising are among many obstacles faced by this nascent industry. Another? No-smoking laws, which mean that while visitors can buy weed, they can’t smoke it in their hotels.
True to form, wily would-be stoners have figured out ways around that: They find 420-friendly accommodations on Airbnb or through companies including Colorado Cannabis Tours, which Keyes said booked 1,700 pot-friendly rooms between July and September alone.
The people who come defy stereotypes, travel operators said. “It’s all over the place,” Keyes said. “Business professionals, couples from maybe 35 to 55. We had a woman in her 20s come with her grandparents, who were in their 80s.”
Ninety percent of the passengers on Seattle’s Cannabus are from out of state, said marketing director Nate Johnson. “We get a lot of people from Boston and New York.” And while officials there debate whether to allow Amsterdam-style coffee shops or lounges, where people would be able to smoke freely, the Cannabus conveys its passengers to a cultivation operation, then a retail dispensary where they can sample different strains and edibles, then to a “viewing spot” that overlooks the city, where they can enjoy what Johnson calls “the high point.” Then it drives them to a restaurant.
“A lot of people don’t want the headache of taking a cab and not knowing where to go,” Johnson said. “We take the pain out of that, and take you someplace if you have the munchies.”
That’s even better than a wine tour, said Keyes, who went on a wine tour once herself on which she remembers someone threw up on the bus. “That doesn’t happen with marijuana. People are calm, they’re laughing, they’re having a good time.”
Boosters say that marijuana tourism is helped by the fact that most places where pot is legal also have other draws — hiking and skiing in Colorado, fishing in Washington and Oregon.
“People attracted to outdoor activities tend to be a little bit more attracted to cannabis generally,” Krane said. “If pot were suddenly legalized in central Siberia, you probably wouldn’t see a huge uptick in tourism.” States including Colorado boast of “a lot of beautiful things to do to start with: the mountains, hiking, downtown Denver. And now you add to that the opportunity to try out this whole new environment of recreational marijuana,” said Chris Carroll, co-owner of Denver’s 2 Girls Tours, which also runs marijuana tours and whose Wake and Bakery Inn is scheduled to open in April.
Advocates say there’s also something adventurous about visiting cultivation operations travelers once saw only on cable news and in bad mob movies.
“People who go to a winery want to see how the wine’s made. You’re going to have that naturally with cannabis connoisseurs too,” Krane said. “Add to that the fact that here’s an industry that’s been illegal for so long, that’s been in the shadows and in hidden spaces and warehouses and garages. This has not been something where people have been invited in to see the process. And now they have an opportunity to see it in a way that was just completely impossible until now.”Jon Marcus can be reached at email@example.com.