When Washington state legalized recreational marijuana use last July, Seattle’s tourism industry saw a new opportunity. Could Seattle become a hub for pot tourism, with eager visitors piling into local hotels and Airbnbs for an opportunity to try some of that famous Pacific Northwest weed? The answer, in a word: yes. But not without a struggle.
Before Seattle could become another Amsterdam, local businesspeople and tourism agencies had to (and still do) deal with some unexpected issues. Building a marijuana tourism mecca, it turns out, isn’t as simple as sparking up a spliff.
In Seattle, the epicenter of Washington’s tourism industry, marijuana is legal to buy in small quantities for personal use. But it’s new for both government and entrepreneurs, so the situation is, in many ways, uncertain.
A guide for marijuana smokers put out by Seattle’s city government says adults over 21 can buy up to one ounce of marijuana, 16 ounces of edibles (think "hash brownies," or Dixie Elixirs & Edibles' higher-end munchables), 72 ounces of liquid marijuana, or seven grams of marijuana concentrate per visit to a state-licensed store. You can’t smoke your marijuana in public view, and you can’t take it out of state with you. And don’t even think of driving high.
But just because it’s legal doesn’t mean you can do it anywhere. Smoking regulations mean you can’t just light a pipe inside most hotels or hostels; the same smoking provisions that ban cigarettes also ban smoking marijuana. Insurance companies may also prohibit marijuana use inside, say, a restaurant or coffee shop. Meanwhile, not one person I spoke with for this story quite understands what "public view" means. Is it illegal if you smoke it by a window? Is a rooftop illegal? Entrepreneurs—and eager smokers—are trying to figure it all out.
To find out more, I called David Blandford, vice president of communications for Visit Seattle, the city’s tourism agency.
I quickly learned that Blandford and his organization see pot tourism as a puzzle that, once solved, could draw tourists to the city and become a valuable draw for the local economy.
"We’re trying to decipher what’s possible for tourists," Blandford says. "There’s no national market research. In addition, just because it’s legal here, it doesn’t mean you can just walk down the street and smoke. It’s for private consumption. The vast majorities of venues have no smoking policies of any kind, so it’s an interesting challenge."
Right off the bat, Visit Seattle said that one of the most likely prospects for marijuana tourism—pot-smoking cruises on the Puget Sound—would be impossible because they fall under the jurisdiction of the Coast Guard rather than Washington state. Advertising of any sort also becomes an issue because of conflicting federal and state regulations on marijuana use. And, Blandford adds, many established companies simply don’t want to risk negative PR by offering services geared towards pot tourists.
Other prospects are still evolving, Blandford added, because the supply of legal marijuana in Washington state is still relatively low. As growers switch to legal compliance and a new wave of "weedpreneurs" begin businesses, they still have to navigate bureaucracy that outlaw illegal marijuana growers and distributors don’t.
The tourism agency views marijuana smokers as a niche audience similar to convention attendees, LGBT travelers, and wine tourists. In time, Visit Seattle thinks that they’ll also benefit the city just like those other groups have.
"Marijuana tourism is the wild west, and we’re trying to glean best practices," Blandford told Fast Company. "We’re stumbling into it, keeping an open mind, and hoping it’ll grow."
In the meantime, entrepreneurs are doing what they do best and finding hustles that fly under the nose of the law. For Seattle’s marijuana industry, that means bus tours and visits to dispensaries.
A number of companies offering bus tours of marijuana farms, shops, and interest sites have popped up in the past year with names like Cannabus, the Weed Bus Club, and Kush Tourism. All of these businesses take advantage of two facts: Washington state regulations allow smoking on buses that have glass partitions for passengers (the same law that lets you smoke in the back of a limo), and that private buses fall outside the purview of the "public space" regulation in the state law. Passengers pay dearly for the privilege; most of the tours I looked at charge customers an average of $25 an hour.
For businesspeople, bus tours also have one distinct advantage: much like winery or brewery tours, they allow operators to steer customers towards specific venues and build business relationships with these places. Guests, meanwhile, get to regale friends and family back home in Canada or Chicago about their legal weed vacation.