Some in the marijuana industry dream of vineyard-like tours and cannabis lounges, but so far pot tourism has been limited in Washington.
Jill Lane, master grower at Sky High Gardens on Seattle’s Harbor Island, uncaps jar after jar of golf-ball-size marijuana buds and allows her guests sniffs of Bubblicious, Super Silver Goo and Green Crack.
“What kind of high is that?” asks Louise Avery, gesturing to one of the jars.
“This is for daytime: taking a hike. Beach volleyball,” explains Lane to the group of visitors with Kush Tourism, a Seattle-based cannabis company. Lane continues describing strains as if the visitors surrounding the table were middle-age women in a Yankee Candle store.
Chocolate heaven, she tells the group, is “earthy and dank.” Seattle Haze is subtle: “If you have a joint in your purse or pocket, you’re not going to announce it to the world.” Dutch Treat “almost smells like B.O. … like somebody forgot to shower.”
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Avery, a concierge at a downtown Seattle hotel, was one of three people the tour company took to Sky High Gardens that recent day. The others were Alaskans Zach Craft and Conrad Schwartz, who are considering starting a marijuana business when commercial-marijuana sales begin there.
Since legalization, this state’s pot industry has dreamed of vineyard-like tours at pot farms in the rolling hills of Eastern Washington and cannabis lounges where visitors and locals commune over marijuana vapor wafting through the air.
But hotels have been hesitant to tout themselves as pot-friendly, visitors have few legal locations to consume and only a few tourism companies are operating.
As much as the industry hopes the scene at Sky High Gardens is a harbinger of tourism to come, it could just as well be a mirage.
Last summer, tourists made up much of the recreational market. Step into a pot store and you’d find wide-eyed Canadians in line before a Blue Jays game or mystified Midwesterners buying a couple grams just because they could.
Will outside interest in legal pot wear off with time? Are people coming to Seattle specifically for marijuana or just curious while they’re here?
Those are the questions David Blandford, the vice president of communications for Visit Seattle, wants answered. He said the tourism-promotion nonprofit is open-minded about pot and will see if tourists flock to shops this summer or if “the novelty has worn off” before considering a marijuana promotion or advertising effort.
“We don’t have the same data that we have about wine tourism, or LGBT tourism,” said Blandford. “Nor are we able to detect that there’s this untapped market.”
Blandford said legal ambiguity between state and federal governments on marijuana makes it “hard to know what we can promote and advertise.”
Seattle hotels are taking a similar stance.
“We as an industry haven’t figured out how to deal or get on board with marijuana tourism,” said David Watkins, president of the Seattle Hotel Association. “As far as marijuana goes, it’s just wait and see.”
Startups jump in
As key players hesitate, startups are filling the void.
The guide leading Kush Tourism’s excursion, Chase Nobles, founded the company with partner Michael Gordon. The two met kayaking and hatched the company in June 2013; they’ve since grown their business to seven employees. In addition to tours, the company markets pot-friendly lodging (mostly bed-and-breakfasts) and rents high-end vaporizers. The two also have launched a marketing company called Kush Creative Group.
Dressed in shiny dress shoes and a polo tucked into pressed khakis, Nobles looked more like a church youth-group leader than any marijuana stereotype.
For $175, he took the two Alaska men to four sites: A glass studio in the Chinatown International District; the grow operation; a pot-testing lab and Uncle Ike’s Pot Shop, a Seattle retail store. Some tours also conclude at the Bacon Mansion, a Capitol Hill bed-and-breakfast where those on tour can consume what they’ve purchased.
This isn’t a tour for those simply looking to get high.
“You can get stoned anywhere in this country,” said Nobles as he drove the Kush Tourism van. “Our tour’s more about education … we take you to see something you can’t otherwise see.”
Schwartz and Craft, for example, spent the Sky High Gardens portion of the tour grilling the growers on the finer points of marijuana cultivation.
Avery, the concierge, said she joined the tour at Sky High Gardens to educate herself and see a cannabis producer firsthand. She said she often gets questions about cannabis from guests and wants to have accurate information for them.
Throughout the tour, Nobles spoke with authority about complicated state Liquor Control Board rules and legislation working its way through the statehouse. He ably summarized a rather technical explanation of marijuana-lab tests.
Gordon said the company’s clientele is mostly 30- to 60-year-old professionals. Kush tours are designed to feel like a vineyard visit, where you “meet people in the fields.”
Said Gordon: “You leave feeling good about wine. That’s what we’re trying to do with cannabis.”
Wine as a model
The marijuana industry encourages the comparison to wine, a culturally accepted luxury good. The Washington State Wine Commission estimates wine tourism as a $1 billion industry in the state. Some in the pot industry see that as the model.
Longtime medical-cannabis grower Alex Cooley is developing his Solstice brand for the recreational market. Cooley sees low-end cannabis’ analog as beer, concentrates as spirits and top-shelf cannabis as fine wine.
“We personally identify Solstice with wine,” he said. “More romance, more about the region, more tannins and terroir — that passion that comes into it.”
Joby Sewell, a grower at AuricAG in Sodo, said a self-appointed marijuana bourgeoise chasing flavor profiles and particular kinds of highs is developing.
“Connoisseurs are sprouting up,” said Sewell, who left his job as a wine-sales representative to help found the grow operation.
Cooley said the trope of an elderly aficionado swirling a glass of wine translates to pot.
“Talk to me in 30 to 40 years: You’ll see me swirling a glass jar (of marijuana) and saying, ‘Oh my god, this is an amazing OG Kush: I can smell the region.’ ”
Josh McDonald of the Washington Wine Institute said he doesn’t see marijuana competing with wine.
“They’re basically just being born as an industry in the state of Washington, whereas we’ve been planting grapes for several decades and making wines for 30 or 40 years,” said McDonald. “People come to Washington to go to wineries and experience it. I don’t know if they’ll do that for marijuana.”
Some in the pot industry see the wine comparison as a stretch, too. Greg James, who publishes industry magazine Marijuana Venture, said the pot market is too focused on potency.
“Robert Parker doesn’t drink wine to get drunk,” said James, referring to the famous wine critic.
He also said the pot industry suffers from the disorganization that comes with birth on the black market. “Anyone can invent a strain,” said James. “There’s no one to verify what that actually is.”
Cannabis researcher Brad Douglass, the scientific director at The Werc Shop, a state-approved testing lab, said as the industry’s sophistication grows, so will consumers’ tastes.
His company tests for terpenes, compounds in marijuana (and also found in wine) that create flavor profiles. Aggregated terpene data, he said, can “fingerprint” strains. So far his company has identified about 100 strains, which could provide the industry a standard akin to heredity for wine varietals.
Douglass believes the pot industry needs sommelier-like education to create the luxury brands you see in wine.
“You can push that all you want, but it would fall on deaf noses, so to speak,” said Douglass.
Taking small steps
Growers say regulations would need to change for tourism to take off, too.
“You can’t smoke at the farm. It’s pretty boring after a little while. You can’t touch the plants,” said Jeremy Moberg, who runs CannaSol Farms, an outdoor grow in Okanogan County. “I’m having a hard time seeing the whole tourism thing.”
How could it work?
“You’re going to have to have retail at the farms to make tourism work,” said Moberg, adding that Amsterdam-esque coffee shops would help, too.
In Seattle, City Attorney Pete Holmes has been pushing lawmakers for marijuana-vapor lounges since before pot stores opened, but no proposal has materialized.
For now, though, pot tourism is taking small steps: Kush Tourism plans to distribute to hotels 120,000 tourism-map brochures with information on the difference between recreational stores and medical dispensaries. Avery, who is the vice president of the Seattle Hotel Concierge Association, plans to share what she learned with her fellow concierges at her organization’s next meeting.
“It’s a niche market. It’s not a massive boom,” said Kush Tourism’s Gordon.
Not yet, anyway.