Watch Out, Wine Country: The Coming Boom in Weed Tourism

Inside Colorado's marijuana economy.
Jan. 8 2014 11:47 PM

New Amsterdam

Is Colorado—and its pot supply—ready for weed tourism?

Open Vape cartridges.
Open Vape cartridges

Courtesy of Ry Prichard/CannabisEncyclopedia.com

Matt Brown stands amid the lush green foliage of a 14,000-square-foot indoor marijuana grow facility and spins his vision of marijuana tourism. It resembles a trip to wine country.

Out-of-state visitors, picked up from the airport in 30-seat passenger limousine buses (on which smoking will be permitted), will disembark in this warehouse district of Denver and receive an all-access tour of the growing operation, which is owned by a friend of Brown’s: The “mother” room, where the clones are born; the grow rooms, where the plants mature; the trim room, where the final product is sliced and diced. Afterward, there might be time for the group to take a pot-cooking class at a nearby cooking school—just so long as they make it to the private facility that’s been rented out in time for the tour’s daily “happy hour,” occurring promptly at 4:20 each afternoon.

This isn’t wishful thinking. Brown is the owner of My420Tours, one of a handful of operations that are launching to cater to all those visitors from out of state (and out of country) hoping to experience for themselves Colorado’s marijuana experiment, which became legal on Jan. 1. He says 4,000 people have signed up to be notified when he announces his first slate of four-day “Colorado Cannabis Sampler” tours, which will cost between $1,200 and $1,400, not including airfare. He’s hoping to appeal to marijuana connoisseurs, rather than just frat boys hoping to get high, since the latter need more chaperoning and tend to break stuff. It’s why, among his themed tours, he’ll be offering a swanky romantic getaway over Valentine’s Day weekend, which will include ballet tickets, a couples’ massage, and a glass-blowing class where people can make wine glasses or personalized bongs, for a per-couple price of $3,000 to $5,000.

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Sure, visitors don’t need all this rigmarole to sample Colorado’s pot, but who wouldn’t want an all-access, behind-the-scenes tour of the first place to legalize marijuana? “It’ll be like going to the zoo for the first time as a kid,” says Brown.

Brown, a stylish young guy who formerly worked as a college recruiter for Bloomberg and a consultant for Accenture, knows a good business opportunity when he sees one. Unlike the state’s retail marijuana operations, which have to build and staff grow facilities and shops while navigating a state regulatory labyrinth, Brown’s enterprise has very little overhead or oversight. He’s essentially free-riding on a system being built by state regulators and industry stakeholders. So far, he hasn’t bothered with advertising, since extensive media coverage (including this Slate story) has spread word of his venture far and wide. Brown is fond of boasting, “We will make as much profit on a four-day tour as a marijuana dispensary makes selling a patient a year’s worth of pot.”

When it comes to marijuana tourism, there could be a lot of profit to go around. Colorado is already a major tourism destination: In 2012, the state made nearly $17 billion from a record 60 million visitors. In the coming year, let’s assume that a modest 5 percent of those visitors come here to check out the legal marijuana market. That would be 3 million new marijuana consumers, which could translate into a lot of money. The average American tourist spends more than 180 euros, or nearly $250, per person per day in the world’s other major marijuana destination, Amsterdam. And over the last fiscal year, Colorado dispensaries made $329 million in revenue from medical marijuana, while serving just the state’s 113,000 registered marijuana patients.* “These are really exciting statistics,” says Tripp Keber, owner of the marijuana-infused soda company Dixie Elixirs. “There is going to be a huge economic boom.”

Still, Brown knows the pot tourism business can’t be a chaotic free-for-all. “Colorado is a special place, but it is not Oz,” he says. “There are rules.”

So what are the rules for cannabis tourists and the companies that will cater to them? Marijuana businesses are allowed to advertise in Colorado media outlets, so long as there’s evidence that no more than 30 percent of the audience is under 21. That means there can be marijuana guides catering to tourists throughout the state. And David Maddalena, founder of high-end local magazine the Hemp Connoisseur, says every Denver hotel he’s talked to, other than the Ritz-Carlton, has been eager to stock copies of his publication at their concierge desks. “They’ve fielded questions from their guests about it on a regular basis,” he says. “Some have said, ‘Thank god there is something we can supply them.’”

The Hemp Connoisseur.
The Hemp Connoisseur

Courtesy of Christianna Lewis

State-licensed marijuana businesses—growers, marijuana-infused product manufacturers, and marijuana retailers—can’t advertise out of state, so you won’t be seeing Releaf Center ads in Condé Nast Traveler anytime soon. But there’s nothing to say that nonlicensed, marijuana-related entities, such as weed-themed travel agents and hotels, can’t do so. Thus, My420Tours can advertise anywhere it chooses because it doesn’t sell marijuana to its tour members. Visitors on Brown’s tours will either buy their own product from licensed growers or receive it as a gift from My420Tours. While only licensed entities can sell pot, Colorado law permits individuals to give away up to an ounce of marijuana without remuneration. The enterprising Brown plans to offer “free” samples of up to a couple grams to his tour participants. 

Tourists arriving in Colorado will find a number of rules that apply to them as well. (Many of these rules are helpfully explained in a glossy, bilingual handout required at all Denver points of sale and detailed in a discouraging city website.) Nonstate residents, for example, can only purchase up to a quarter-ounce of pot at a time, compared to the full ounce Colorado residents are allowed to buy. And while people are allowed to visit grow facilities, there has to be at least one employee present for every five guests, which means that if Brown wants to bring a 30-person tour group to a grow house, there will have to be at least six grow workers on hand. Ever notice how folks in the Netherlands are often spotted smoking their marijuana remnants at the last train stop before entering less pot-friendly Germany? You might see something similar on Colorado’s borders, as visitors can’t bring their leftover pot home with them as a souvenir. There are already enough accounts of law enforcement in neighboring states like Kansas looking for drivers leaving Colorado with marijuana that both Colorado rule-makers and marijuana advocates are considering purchasing warning billboards at the state line.

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