Flying High: Will Marijuana Legalization Affect Tourism?
Posted on November 19, 2012 by
When Colorado and Washington both successfully voted in favor of ballot measures to legalize recreational use of marijuana a few weeks ago, my Facebook page lit up (no pun intended) with friends, acquaintances, and friends of friends joking that they wanted to move to one of those states. If these measures are not challenged by the Federal Government, the states will now decriminalize personal possession of the drug for personal use. There is no requirement for the possessor to be a resident of that state. So, will these states see an increase in tourism due to their relaxed policies?
If you wanted to speculate how this affects a tourist industry, probably the first place that would come to mind is Amsterdam, The Netherlands. In no country is marijuana officially legal, including The Netherlands. Many countries have varying degrees of relaxed restrictions and unofficial views on the drug - from decriminalization to tolerance - but usually only in the case of small amounts deemed for personal use. In a large percentage of those countries, even if possession is overlooked, cultivation or distribution is not. Which is a strange contradiction. Even a repressive country like Iran allows the use of the seeds for culinary purposes, but strictly forbids using for psychoactive reasons. Anyway, back to Amsterdam. Even though not technically legal, personal possession has been tolerated since the 1970s. There are over 700 coffee shops that sell marijuana to guests and allow them to smoke up on premises. It's estimated that 1.5 million foreign tourists each year visit the coffee shops, representing 1/3 of the 4-5 million total visitors to the city. Foreign tourists account for 90% of income for the coffee shops. The conservative party routinely attempts to revoke this officially sanctioned tolerance, most recently passing a ban that would create a "weed pass" that only residents could acquire. This ban was softened before going into effect, essentially giving local authorities the final call on implementing the ban. Amsterdam's Mayor has already said he will not impose the ban, obviously seeing the harm this would have on tourism. But will Colorado and Washington now attract some of the 1.5 million annual Amsterdam "marijuana visitors"?
Tourism is already Colorado's #2 ranked industry, thanks to its picturesque mountains, world-class ski slopes, and 300+ days of sunshine. Even before the ballot measure passed, the ski towns already turned a blind-eye toward personal use of marijuana. Not surprisingly, those same districts overwhelmingly voted for the ballot measure. Medical marijuana had been legal since 2000, and medical dispensaries can be found in abundance. Dispensaries were allowed to sell for medical use, but customers were not allowed to smoke at the facilities. No changes have been made yet to the regulations on dispensaries, but it is believed the existing facilities will be allowed to dispense recreation weed and possibly be allowed to provide smoking lounges. Colorado Governor Hickenlooper (love the name, by the way), who was opposed to the measure, thinks legalization may hurt the state's reputation and keep organizations from having conferences in the state. Our guess on the tourist impact - it's a wash. Colorado has enough perks to attract visitors and probably won't see more visitors as a result.
In Washington State, tourism is ranked 4th in the state's GDP, and provides about 10% of its total jobs. Medical marijuana was legalized in 1998, and Seattle officially placed marijuana at the bottom of its law enforcement priority. The largest marijuana festival in the world, Seattle Hempfest, has been held since 1991 and draws between 200,000 to 300,000 attendees each year. And of course, this is where Grunge began. But with pot now legal, will that put a damper on attendance to the Hempfest, which had been dubbed a "protestival"? Possibly!
It's too early to really know if these measures will have an affect on tourism to the respective states. It could have a similar dynamic as another contentious issue - gambling - where states reconsider their own restrictions for fear of losing potential tax income to neighboring states. It's safe to say that other states will be keeping an eye on Colorado and Washington to determine if they want to follow.
Whether you visit one of these states specifically to partake in marijuana use without fear of being busted, Or it's just another "to-do" item on a pre-existing planned trip, just make sure you do NOT try to bring any home with you.
Weigh in: Will the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington affect your choice to visit (or not visit) these states? Leave comments!