Travel

Hot topic: The rise of cannabis tourism

Canada recently legalised the recreational use of cannabis, and it's allowed in 10 US states — high time, therefore, to look at what this means for tourism in North America Monday, 8 April 2019

By James Draven

On 18 October 2018, Canada legalised recreational marijuana use across the whole nation, making it only the second country in the world to do so, after Uruguay in 2013. And while this legislative landmark may have had some locals queuing for their first legal hit of weed when the clock struck midnight, what it will mean for visitors is far from clear.

It is, understandably, not something tourism officials are keen to promote. "Cannabis tourism is not an area of focus for us," Destination Canada told me. "We don't speculate on the impact of [its] legislation on tourism."

However, across the border in the US, the 10 states that have legalised recreational cannabis use in recent years (most recently Michigan, in November 2018) have seen an impact — and it's not always a positive one.

"Lots of people come here on vacation just to smoke pot," a police officer in Denver, Colorado told me on a recent visit, pointing towards a group of tourists sporting garments emblazoned with cannabis leaves. The hazy effluvia of dozens of weed smokers wafts down the main drag, 16th Street, day and night, and although it's not actually permitted to smoke it in public, the police have a hard time enforcing that rule.

According to an official 2018 city report, marijuana-related lawbreaking accounts for less than 1% of overall crime in Denver, and has fallen each year since legalisation in 2012, but the police officer I spoke to said he was personally attending more cannabis-related crimes than ever before. "Cannabis legalisation is really about money," he added. "It brings in tourist money." And that it does. According to a report by Colorado's Department of Revenue, marijuana sales in 2018 had exceeded $1bn by August, generating $200m in tax revenue.

The state capital, Denver, has become known to the pot-smoking community as 'the Napa Valley of Weed', with numerous tour companies ferrying out-of-state visitors around head shops (stores selling smoking paraphernalia), dispensaries and farms, offering bong hits in the back of the vans as they go. Visitors can experience every conceivable ganja-related gimmick, from pipe-making lessons to cannabis cookery classes, and puff-powered pottery parties.

Yet, while Colorado helped lead the movement, Washington was the first state to legalise recreational cannabis use four days earlier, and since then various states have relaxed their laws.

Weed-friendly hotels from California to Vermont invite guests to stay and smoke, and there are even restaurants offering cannabis-infused cuisine. You'll find it in all sorts of edible forms — from barbecue sauce to fizzy drinks and packets of brightly coloured gummy sweets — which is bringing a new audience to the drug, from teenagers right through to septuagenarians.

"It's the edibles that tourists need to be most cautious about," the Denver police officer told me, describing an incident in which a visitor in their 70s was found in an incoherent state after eating half a cannabis cookie.

While potheads may be pleased about their newfound freedom, weed tourism is clearly problematic. Potential health implications aside, it doesn't exactly scream 'family holiday' — or even 'classy holiday' — to most travellers. Which is why it's unlikely we'll see destinations promoting their weed-based offerings in the same way they would their cultural, historical or natural attractions, any time soon. And for somewhere like Canada, a country awash with all of those draws, why would it ever need to?

Q&A

Which states have legalised recreational cannabis use?

Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington (Washington, DC has also legalised it).

Is it safe?
The cannabis compound CBD is being studied as a treatment for a variety of medical conditions, although the psychoactive constituent of cannabis, THC, is linked to a number of mental and cognitive disorders, with an October 2018 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry concluding that marijuana use in adolescents has significant negative effects on short- and long-term memory and perceptual reasoning.

Can I take it home?
Although Vancouver Airport allows cannabis use in designated areas, Canada has been placing signs at airports and border crossings warning travellers that taking cannabis out of the country is illegal. LAX airport in Los Angeles, however, is allowing passengers to fly with legal amounts of cannabis if compliant with state law, which is presumably only possible if flying to one of the other nine legal cannabis states.

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Published in the January/February 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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