Legal Weed is for Sale, but it's Barely Affecting Tourism

Recreational marijuana is booming, so why is cannabis tourism lagging behind?
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Explaining that he has had a heart attack and needs medicine for the pain, Dimitrias Manoulidis raises a fat, smoking joint and takes a deep drag. Frankly, he was not what I had in mind when I envisioned what our state’s newest tourists would look like. A stout, 60-something, ruggedly handsome, mustached man in a faded olive green down vest, this guy looks like he just walked off the docks of a Greek fishing village. Maybe he did.

“I am from Greece,” Manoulidis confirms. “I come here and legally get my joints. And I feel more nice and not depressed.”

Manoulidis is one of a growing group for whom Washington isn’t just a vacation—it’s a trip. In our state, if you are over 21, you can possess as much as an ounce of dried pot. That applies to visitors, too. I’ve interviewed people from Chicago, Arizona, Canada, Salt Lake City, Queens, Florida, Pennsylvania, Idaho and Greece who all said they are here because they want to come out of the shadows and buy marijuana without the fear of arrest bumming their high.

“In Greece, this is not legal,” Manoulidis fumes while firing up. “They bust you and they put you in jail! It is crazy!”

Manoulidis is seated comfortably at a café table in an outdoor adult lounge, a 21-and-over area that’s a new attraction at Seattle Hempfest. Across the way, pretty Maddy Turner, with long blonde hair and tasteful makeup is showing people new ways to get high.

“You are going to inhale just like a bong hit,” she instructs, while a young guy from Portland in white sunglasses sucks in a vapor, then blows it out, coughing and smiling.

Turner works for Have a Heart, a medical marijuana dispensary. “This is our first-ever recreational smoking station,” she says, gesturing down a line of eager patrons sitting at a bar inhaling through various contraptions.

Outside the fence that encloses the adult lounge, tens of thousands of revelers at Myrtle Edwards Park are demonstrating the power and the glory and the absurdity that is Hempfest. It’s parttrippin’ trade show and part beach party, with housewives, hipsters and hippies hanging out on driftwood logs, their collective smoke rising into a flawless August sky.

In this western frontier of pot pioneers, there’s a lot of hazy logic, fuzzy statistics and funny outfits. Then there is Hempfest general manager Sharon Whitson: clear-eyed and dead sober as she rolls out hard figures on how many tourists are here for Hempfest and how much money they are spending.

“Twenty percent of our just over 120,000 attendees are from out of state or another country,” Whitson says. “If we shrink the distance to traveling more than 100 miles to Hempfest, that number jumps to 30 percent. Thirty-three percent of our attendees are staying in hotels or rental homes, and 30 percent of those are staying four or more days.”

When you tally up the money spent not just by Hempfest attendees but also by vendors, speakers and all those reggae bands, “This puts our annual economic footprint in the tens of millions of dollars,” Whitson asserts.

As far as general cannabis tourism goes, there are no official statistics, and I’ll tell you why in a minute. But here are pot numbers you can take to the bank: The Washington State Liquor Control Board says the state’s retail marijuana industry sold more than $63 million worth of pot in 2014—impressive, especially considering that sales of legal, recreational marijuana in Washington state only began on July 8, 2014, and the supply was laughably low because the Liquor Control Board hadn’t licensed many growers.

Brian Smith, a spokesperson for the Liquor Control Board, says there’s now an abundance of recreational cannabis and stores where consumers can buy the herb at fair prices.

So, with plenty of legal weed for sale, will 2015 be the Emerald Summer of Washington tourism? There will be new offerings, such as a tour of a big grow operation in West Seattle, a puff-and-paint art class, and awards shows where locally grown indica and sativa strains will be judged and described like fine wine. But considering that government surveys show more than 20 million Americans get high in the course of a year and that there are only two states where you can do that legally (with Oregon and Alaska joining the club in 2016), the number of travel offerings hasn’t exactly been a gold rush. More like a pale green trickle. One reason: The traditional tourist industry is not on board.

“We are actually members of Seattle’s Convention and Visitors Bureau,” says Hempfest’s Whitson. “I was dismayed that at their annual convention they made one snicker joke about cannabis tourism, but had no strategy or thought put into it other than that one snicker joke.”

Tom Norwalk is the CEO of Visit Seattle. He makes no secret of the fact that he’s focused on his bread-and-butter constituency, which includes conventioneers, cruise ship passengers and families. And some visitors have told Visit Seattle they don’t want pot and they don’t want to be around folks who are high.

“We have gotten calls from people who are worried because they think there will be people smoking pot on every corner,” Norwalk says.

While that is an exaggeration, many of us have whiffed more of that skunk-like smell on Seattle streets since recreational shops opened in July. Which highlights something else that’s holding pot tourism back: There is no place for travelers to smoke it legally.

They can’t smoke marijuana in any public place: not in a park or even a back alley. Because of laws created to regulate tobacco, they can’t smoke in any business with employees, such as a restaurant or nightclub. The only truly legal places for out-of-towners to light up are at a smattering of 420-friendly bed-and-breakfasts and a nano number of hotel rooms in which weed smoking is allowed.

A bed-and-breakfast in tony North Capitol Hill demonstrates what could become the new norm of upscale cannabis travel. At the Bacon Mansion, you won’t find any rainbow posters or batik-covered futons. Beyond the handsome entryway of this grand old house there are glittering chandeliers, a sweeping staircase, a formal dining room, and a glorious private and really big, shaded patio, where guests just might be indulging via tiny and portable vaporizers. Co-owner Daryl King says the golden rule at his bed-and-breakfast is being respectful of your neighbors.

For now, King is patching a gap that Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes is trying to bridge. The city is acutely aware that visitors—and many renters in Seattle whose landlords forbid smoking pot—are getting high in public. Holmes is working to create a third place for pot. According to Holmes’ office, Seattle could have “coffeehouses,” sort of like those in Amsterdam except they won’t sell cannabis or alcohol—just provide a legal place for visitors and locals to vape, maybe with snacks. But to make coffeehouses happen, laws will need to be changed.

That’s the big conundrum here—legal marijuana isn’t exactly legal. Pot is hitting a wall of laws that wasn’t built for cannabis. Just ask the owner of the Cannabus. Last summer, the luxury bus was riding high, touring the city filled with toking tourists. Then the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission sent a notice banning smoking on board, because people on the street could see through the bus’s windows (avert your eyes, kids!) and because it polluted the driver’s workplace.

It takes guts to be one of the first pot tourism companies in America. It takes optimism. It takes a chess master’s smarts to anticipate the many ways “the man” might call checkmate on your business plan and life savings. It takes someone like Kush Tourism’s Michael Gordon.

There is no smoking in Kush Tourism vans, which is one reason this tour is still rolling. Wearing a neat polo shirt and a wide grin, his dark hair cropped short, Gordon barely looks old enough to legally smoke marijuana. He assures guests that he is of age as he confidently zips small groups around town, taking them behind the scenes to meet some of America’s first legal ganjapreneurs.

“We are at 7 Point Studios,” Gordon announces as he walks through the doors of a soaring SoDo warehouse. “Here are some of the best pipe blowers in the world.” Just then, a tall, bald, bearded and tattooed man fires up his blowtorch to demonstrate his artistry.

At the next stop, products such as THC-laced zucchini bread and cannabis oils are lined up for testing. CEO Brenton Dawber, in a white lab coat, explains that the first job at Analytical 360 is to test products to make sure they are safe to consume and then to drill down into what kind of high the product will produce.

“With the testing, we can figure out—just like wine—this is a ‘Merlot,’ and I enjoy a ‘Merlot’ and the effects it kind of gives me,” Dawber says.

And speaking of highs, Kush vans always include a stop at a recreational store. On this tour, the store is Cannabis City in Sodo, where Mike Villada, a locksmith visiting from Queens, is like a kid in a candy store. Later, on the last stop of the tour, at Kerry Park, the satisfied customer takes subtle hits from a portable vaporizer as the sunset casts a rosy glow on the Emerald City.

“If I can do what I do outside and not worry about being tapped and getting into trouble,” Villada says, gesturing to his sleek vape pen. “I am all right with that.”

Before flying home to New York City, Villada has already made plans for a return trip to Seattle. Which raises the possibility of an unintended consequence of pot tourism: an influx of ganja-loving residents.

Case in point: Back at Hempfest, our visitor from Greece is getting misty-eyed. Dimitri Manoulidis gazes dreamily at the rainbow of revelers, takes a hit from the chubby doobie in his left hand and leans over conspiratorially. “I really want to leave my bones here! You know what I mean? And I mean it.”