The Herb Column: Could Sacramento Attract Cannabis Tourists?

Inviting visitors who want to sample product could be a boost — but city leaders aren’t yet onboard

Back Web Only Apr 25, 2019 By Steven Yoder

Luke and Eliza Maroney want to bring more buzz to Sacramento, and not just the kind they sell. They’re spouses and partners in Lucky Box Club, a subscription service delivering curated cannabis products to customers monthly. But they’re out to fuse weed and other concepts too.

Luke Maroney wants to organize a cannabis-themed fall golf tournament, Golfing on the Green, with live music and onsite sales. Eliza Maroney runs wellness retreats and wants to infuse cannabis into the proceedings; she’s led cannabis yoga classes in the past.

These happenings would bring tourists to the city, says Luke Maroney. But neither the tournament nor the retreats can happen under city rules, which ban cannabis events anywhere except Cal Expo and forbid onsite consumption in legal dispensaries. Proponents say the city will be left behind in a high-dollar battle for cannabis tourist attention at a critical time when the product is still legal in only a minority of states and countries.

Tourism is an attractive economic development strategy because money from outside the area creates local jobs, a city council report noted last summer. But to date, Sacramento County generates relatively little tax revenue from tourism compared with others in the state, ranking 40th of 58 counties, it said. (No statistics comparing city-level tourism are available, according to nonprofit marketing organization Visit California.)

Cannabis industry proponents say weed-related tours could help. A survey of 3,000 tourists to Colorado in 2016, two years post-legalization, found 11 percent visited a dispensary, and 4 percent cited the ability to visit a dispensary as the reason for their trip. Those numbers seem modest until you consider the state attracted a Colorado record 82 million visitors that year.

Local industry boosters argue Sacramento’s proximity to where emerging brands are grown makes canna-tourism a natural fit. “If we go this route, we can develop a whole tourism industry around being able to say, ‘This cannabis is as fresh as it could be in terms of proximity to where it was picked and how recently it was picked,’” an offshoot of the area’s farm-to-fork initiatives, says Sacramento cannabis entrepreneur Daniel Conway.

If onsite use were legal, with consumption lounges attached to legal dispensaries, group visits could be advertised much like craft beer tours, says Mike Testa, head of Visit Sacramento. “If I can market 10 different things about Sacramento, then that’s valuable to drawing people here, because not everybody likes the same thing,” he says.

To get there, the city needs to change the rules on where cannabis can be used; most canna-tourists would come either to attend a cannabis-themed event or to visit dispensaries, sampling products along the way.

Under a new law in effect as of January, the state has relaxed its rules on where events can be held. They were previously allowed only on county fairgrounds, which in Sacramento meant Cal Expo. The city has so far permitted two events there, the latest last weekend’s Cannabis Cup

Now cities can determine where cannabis gatherings can happen. In December 2018, city cannabis regulatory office chief Joe Devlin said he planned to propose that the council authorize other venues. “Yes, that was true,” he says. Now, though, “I don’t think that there’s a lot of appetite at the council to [consider] events outside of Cal Expo. I think if we get a few more events under our belt, they might be willing to revisit that.” 

So for now smaller happenings like what the Maroneys want to do are off the table. But there’s more hope for a shift in onsite consumption policies at dispensaries. Devlin says he intends to bring a proposal allowing onsite use to the council’s Law and Legislation Committee this summer, in part because some tourists will want to use cannabis. “What do you say to the person in from out of town who can’t smoke in the street and can’t smoke in their hotel?” he says.

Even if that happens, there may be legal hurdles to official canna-tourism promotion. Visit Sacramento has pursued conventions and meetings on the marijuana business, says Testa. But marketing to individual users is different; his understanding is that it’s illegal to promote cannabis tourism to states that haven’t legalized. And law firm Davis Wright Tremaine notes that advertising or promoting cannabis arguably could be prosecuted under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Neither Los Angeles nor San Francisco’s official tourism sites include marijuana promos, though San Francisco’s includes a page about relevant laws. Travel Portland describes a range of cannabis experiences in the city, while Visit Seattle’s mentions marijuana only briefly.

Testa also worries about what cannabis marketing would do to the city’s image, at least until federal legalization happens. “One of the ways we’ve marketed Sacramento is as a family destination because of all the museums, because of the California history,” he says. “If [people] see Sacramento as a place where cannabis lounges are on every corner, that could pose a problem.”

Also, the city is up against more natural marijuana magnets in California — the Bay Area and Los Angeles. “I don’t think tourists coming to California think Sacramento when they think cannabis,” says Chris Vardijan, whose NorCal Tour Company takes visitors to the famed Emerald Triangle on the North Coast. “That doesn’t mean it’s insurmountable, but it means it’s a branding and marketing challenge for Sacramento.”

Still, the city is relatively rare in authorizing weed sales; only one-third of California municipalities have, thinning the competition. (In Sacramento County, only Sacramento city and Isleton allow sales, and sales are prohibited in the unincorporated county.) One proponent, Michael Eymer of Denver-based CannabisTours.com, says there are big opportunities because the product is still banned most places. For example, he claims that because only a small fraction of Japanese citizens have tried cannabis — the country’s laws mandate five-year prison terms for possession — “When they start coming, and they will, California’s going to see an absolutely huge boom.” After Colorado legalized in 2014, he says his company went from annual gross receipts of a few hundred thousand dollars to $2 million today.

Maroney calls portrayals of the industry as not family friendly “antiquated.” A 2016 survey of about 8,000 Colorado visitors asked about their views of states that had legalized; six in 10 said it hadn’t changed, with the majority of the remainder reporting more positive views.

Of the golf tournament, Maroney says, “We’d really like to do it in our own backyard since we’re from here.” The other option, he says, is to take it somewhere that allows onsite consumption and events — like Santa Rosa.

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