For Caitlyn Hunter’s 21st birthday trip to Las Vegas last month, her mother booked spots on a “Las Vegas Cannabis Tour,” a business started during the pandemic that guides tourists through marijuana dispensaries in that city. Ms. Hunter, of Houston, Texas, expected an educational afternoon where she, her mother and grandmother could smoke marijuana together, and her grandmother could learn about different marijuana strains that might help her with knee pain.
What they got instead, Ms. Hunter said, was a “crazy experience,” involving a guide in 4-inch pink stilettos cracking dirty jokes, a raucous van ride around the Las Vegas Strip (with a sober driver), the consumption of multiple cannabis products, a shopping bag full of decorative bongs to use as flower vases back home and, at one point, a grandmother unable to speak without bursting into uncontrollable laughter. In short, Ms. Hunter concluded, a perfect celebration.
Sharon Erick had a different experience in Vegas. Vacationing there from Atlanta in May, she and her small group of friends, all in their 30s, had to work to find outdoor dining where they weren’t overwhelmed by the odor of cannabis. “We had no idea weed had been legalized in Nevada,” she said. “We smelled it everywhere.”
So did Judi Durand, on a recent business trip in Arizona. She encountered the telltale aroma outside the Phoenix airport, on the shuttle bus to the rental car area and even when she checked in to her lodging. “I didn’t expect to be in a family-friendly hotel in Chandler, Ariz., and get a vague waft of marijuana in the room,” said Ms. Durand, who was visiting from her home in North Carolina (where the substance is not legal).“People are getting bolder with it,” she said. “It’s not very fair.”
More states light up
During the year many people spent cooped up at home, cannabis legalization expanded dramatically across the United States, and some segment of the traveling public has embraced the changes. Whether you call it pot, weed, marijuana or cannabis, that can mean that these days travel can look, feel and definitely smell a bit different.
In November 2020, New Jersey, South Dakota and the big tourist states of Arizona and Montana approved legal recreational cannabis use. Mississippi approved medical use. In 2021, lawmakers in 31 states where cannabis remained illegal to use recreationally filed bills to legalize it. Of those, New York, Connecticut, New Mexico and Virginia have signed their bills into law. Others legalized medical cannabis (Alabama) and decriminalized marijuana possession (Louisiana).
The new states joined 11 others, plus Washington, D.C., that had already approved recreational marijuana use. Another 19 more allow its medical use.
“We’re seeing an unprecedented number of legalization bills being filed across the country,” said Tom Angell who tracks marijuana legislation for Marijuana Moment, a cannabis news site, “with more and more of them actually being prioritized by legislative leaders and signed into law by governors who are up for re-election.”
That doesn’t mean weed shops will be popping up immediately, Mr. Angell said, because it can take up to a few years for governments to grant operating licenses and establish retail sales rules.
In New York City, where recreational use of marijuana was legalized in April, some neighborhoods have embraced a post-pandemic party atmosphere — which often comes with a distinctive odor. Jared Hada Smith works at an upscale restaurant near Washington Square Park and said that the smell of cannabis periodically wafts into his workplace. “Every once in a while a big cloud will make its way into the dining room,” he said, “but it dissipates pretty quickly.”
In step with legalization: a robust growth in the business. Cannabis sales in the United States grew to $18.5 billion in 2020, up from $13.3 billion in 2019, and are expected to rise to $28 billion in 2022, according to the cannabis market research company Headset. Marijuana production and sales were also deemed “essential businesses” during the pandemic, with dispensaries remaining open in all states where the substance was legal.
Growth in cannabis-related tourism continues to expand. Brian Applegarth, the founder of the four-year-old Cannabis Travel Association International, said that the number and type of cannabis-related tourist activities are growing wherever recreational use has been approved. “There is an audience and an appetite out there,” Mr. Applegarth said. These include things like the cultivation tours at Huckleberry Hill Farm and Papa and Barkley Social, which offers a cannabis-themed spa, dispensary and consumption space, both in California’s Humboldt County, which had been known for growing cannabis long before the state legalized recreational use in 2016.
Another new industry focus is “cannabis pairing” Mr. Applegarth said, where tourists get advice on the strain of marijuana that might best enhance a hike or specific meal.
Tracey Smith, 51, a retired small business owner from Dayton, Ohio, said she enjoys city sightseeing to learn about history and try out new restaurants. She said she now only vacations to states like Michigan, Illinois and Nevada where recreational cannabis use is legal so she can make it part of her trip experience. Her home state of Ohio only allows medical use. “It makes food taste better to me,” she said, “and there’s less drama with people using weed than people using alcohol.”
People are relaxed when they use cannabis, Ms. Smith said. With alcohol, they are “more likely to go overboard and not realize it.”
Maxine Fensom, who organized Ms. Hunter’s birthday outing, created her cannabis-themed tour company in Las Vegas last year when her other sources of income dried up during the pandemic. The two-and-a-half-hour tours run daily and cost $150 per person. Private group tours that include a helicopter ride (“to get really high,” quips Ms. Fensom) cost $375 person and last about three and a half hours. All participants must be 21 or older. She said she has hosted more than 1,000 tourists already.
Las Vegas has the potential to become “the new Amsterdam,” she said, especially now that cannabis consumption lounges (like bars, but specifically for cannabis) are coming to the city.
Opinion among travelers is split. Among those who have traveled in the last six months, about 12 percent said cannabis legalization had a positive impact on their travel and about five percent said it had a negative impact on their travel, according to a survey of 8,400 of people by Branded Research, a market research firm.
Some cannabis companies are betting on future tourists. In Florida, which currently only allows medical marijuana use, the cannabis company Trulieve has already opened dispensaries two to three times the typical size near “key tourist attractions” in Orlando, Dayton and Key West, according to the company, in anticipation of future recreational use approval.
Cannabis consumption rules vary by state where the substance is legal, and those rules can be confusing. Smoking in public is generally prohibited. It is illegal to possess cannabis on federal land such as national parks, and it can’t be legally transported across state lines. Hotels and Airbnbs can fine and evict guests who break no-smoking rules. In Arizona, you can eat a cannabis-infused brownie in Phoenix but not in Grand Canyon National Park and you’ll have to buy it locally.
It is also illegal to bring cannabis onto an airplane. Transportation Security Administration agents and domestic inspection canines are looking for explosives rather than drugs, however, so while agents are supposed to report cannabis they find to local law enforcement, marijuana is generally ignored or at worst thrown in the trash, according to passengers who have experienced that sort of contraband discovery.
Kolbe Rose, the sales director at the Stoney Moose, a cannabis company in Ketchikan, Alaska, said she has flown several times with small amounts of cannabis and has “never been stopped or questioned about it.”
But even in states where cannabis has been legal for years, the rules on its consumption are still evolving. Alaska voters ushered in legal recreational marijuana use in 2014. Still, on the Alaska cruises restarting this summer, passengers can buy cannabis at ports of call but can’t bring it back to the ship because they sail in federal waters. They also can’t smoke it in town, or take it kayaking, fishing or on a hike onto federal land, said Ms. Rose, who added that she hoped consumption lounges would be allowed in the future because currently, “you tell people it’s legal to consume, but there’s nowhere to do it.”
Hotels generally have “no smoking” rules for all substances. But based on complaints about odors posted on the Trip Advisor review site, guests don’t always take them seriously. The MGM Grand in Las Vegas has multiple posts on the topic, including one that said, “Hotel hallways reeked of marijuana smoke 24/7. Not really a place for kids.” Brian Ahern, director of media relations at MGM Resorts International, said in an emailed statement that “marijuana is explicitly prohibited at all MGM Resorts properties, and this policy is clearly communicated to guests and visitors.” Violations can result in fines and eviction, he said.
Legal status of the substance doesn’t seem to matter in this case — there are complaints from all parts of the country, including states like Texas and South Carolina where smoking cannabis is illegal. A reviewer at a hotel in Garland, Texas, claimed that when they complained, staff tried to pass the smell off as incense, but “I know what pot smells like,” the guest wrote. A reviewer in Columbia, S. C., complained of their hotel: “It smells marijuana all over. I just don’t understand the management doesn’t do anything.”
As cannabis continues to gain acceptance, travelers may be more likely to incorporate into their vacation plans. Jesse Porquis, a 31-year-old-corporate software instructor from Denver, wasn’t specifically looking for lodging that allowed marijuana use when he embarked on a recent camping trip. But he decided to try out Camp Kush in southwest Colorado, after reading its description, which included an artist in residence as well as communal hang out spaces where guests could smoke weed.
On site he mingled with guests, including a couple in their 50s from South Carolina consuming legally for the first time. It was a comfortable and relaxed experience, he said, “that just happened to include marijuana and meeting interesting people.”
The attitude was, “hang out and leave the rest of the world behind,” Mr. Porquis said. And he’d like to do it again.
Jennifer Steinhauer contributed reporting.
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