Cannabis Tourism Offers A Growing Industry For Rural California
A social and economic experiment still in its infancy, California’s shiny new cannabis industry will have impacts no one yet sees. As the provisions of Prop 64 are incrementally unrolled, both traditional and state-of-the-art cannabis operations are slowly opening up shop across California. While a few towns saw crowds lining up to purchase legal bud on January 1st, the majority of businesses wanting to enter the fray struggles with a convoluted permitting process. Industry veterans speculate that between the web of red tape and a combined county/city/state tax rate that tops 30%, cannabis farmers are an endangered species. Yet, new business models like collectives, where small farmers share bureaucratic resources under one license, are bolstering prospects for survival. Another avenue for preserving farmer livelihoods lies in branding; cultivators strive to distinguish themselves as boutique producers of “premium” or “sun-grown” cannabis, strengthening their value in the competitive marketplace. Despite these efforts and innovations, the forecast for Northern California’s famed marijuana farmers is still bleak. One great green hope remains—cannabis tourism.
“It’s not the miners who got rich during the gold rush, it was the guys selling shovels and picks,” says Sean Roby, founder and CEO of Bud & Breakfast, a fast-rising start-up.
As the name suggests, Bud & Breakfast offers cannabis friendly lodging for tourists and travelers who want to smoke, vape, or dab without shame. Quickly dubbed the Airbnb of Weed, Bud & Breakfast operates as a platform for hosts to advertise their properties in states and countries where marijuana is legal. Hosts offer a variety of cannabis infused experiences; some are as simple as designated smoking areas, while more interactive properties offer estate-grown bud or cannabis-infused cooking classes.
Roby grew up in Northern California’s wine country, which taught him from a young age that tourists can often equal economic survival. An early adapter to new opportunities in the cannabis industry, Roby purchased the Bud & Breakfast domain name in 2002. Twelve years later, legalization finally arrived, and Roby officially launched the company. He settled his family in Boulder, Colorado, the epicenter of cannabis tourism and the first state (along with Washington) to legalize recreational cannabis. Since Prop 64 opened the recreational market in California, Roby has seen Bud & Breakfast listings triple. The company currently offers cannabis-friendly lodging in six states, Canada, Jamaica, Uruguay, Colombia and Spain.
While Colorado’s tourists are well pampered, choosing from cannabis-infused sushi rolling classes to CBD-oil massages, cannabis tourism is just breaking ground in California. In the heritage communities of the Emerald Triangle (a well-known nickname for the green counties of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity), growing marijuana has been a way of life since hippies headed to the hills in the 1960s. The lifestyle has long since been appropriated by working class families, immigrants, and those who by virtue of their politics or personalities are best suited to the outlaw life. Today, researchers project that 30-50% of the Emerald’s Triangle’s economy is generated by marijuana cultivation; the ancillary services tied to the cash economy are immeasurable.
Despite the dominance of cannabis farming as a way of life, died in the wool locals often point ethically charged fingers at farmers, vilifying them as cash-hungry transplants who ruin everything in pursuit of profit. More credible critics are conservationists; the ugly environmental impacts of unregulated cannabis farming can make any land-respecting citizen cringe. With growing practices going unchecked, some illegal cultivators have polluted rivers and wildlife with synthetic fertilizers, rodenticides, and unpermitted grading (causing erosion). Many articles have been written decrying the environmental treasons of the cannabis industry, and for good reason. But typecasting all cultivators as what the state now calls “bad actors” is unfair characterization of a diverse industry. Little has been said about farmers who practice and promote sustainable farming, the modern day “back-to-the-landers.” In a paradoxical turn of events, legalization is emerging as the platform for alternate stories about the cannabis industry to emerge.
Though the unregulated black market will undoubtedly persist, cannabis farmers who stand to profit from tourism will be licensed by CalCannabis, a division of California’s Department of Food & Agriculture. Using environmental standards from California’s landmark Environmental Quality Act of 1970, CalCannabis has stated that cultivation must be conducted in accordance with applicable laws related to land conversion, grading, electricity usage, water usage, water quality, woodland and riparian habitat protection, species protection, and agricultural discharges.
“These new laws are an important step to begin rectifying the environmental destruction that has become associated with unregulated cannabis cultivation, and to provide a legitimate framework for legal economic activity that can benefit farmers and the general public,” says Tom Wheeler, Executive Director of the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC). An environmental watchdog group, EPIC has worked to protect Northern California’s forests and waterways since 1977. Today, EPIC is working closely with cannabis farmers, helping them to “grow legal, grow green.”
In this unheralded era of transparency for the cannabis industry, Matt Kurth is stepping forward as a powerful storyteller for the cannabis industry. An energetic California native and cannabis enthusiast, Kurth officially launched Humboldt Cannabis Tours in 2017. Kurth has spent years in preparation, painstakingly negotiating with Humboldt County, who was unsure how to license a cannabis business that neither cultivates nor sells cannabis. But like Kurth, Humboldt County is vested in creating pathways for cannabis tourism to thrive in the economically disadvantaged North Coast. Kurth believes that as legalization favors big businesses that can stomach the overwhelming costs of permits and taxes, tourism will be the only way for small farmers to survive.
“Living in Quincy, I saw what happens to a town when an industry leaves. Most of the kids leave; if they stay, they’re addicted to drugs. Every other house is for sale. That could be very well be Humboldt. We’ve already lost logging, and fishing is on its way out,” says Kurth. This fear is oft repeated throughout the Emerald Triangle: If the cannabis industry dies, what then?
When Kurth first visited Humboldt County in 2010, he says cannabis tourism came to him like a flash. With a degree in Recreational Administration from Chico State, Kurth spent twelve years on the American River as a whitewater rafting guide. He thinks getting tourists into Humboldt County’s wild and scenic places is what cannabis tourism is all about.
“I don’t want us to be Napa. I want to be clear about that. I want us to be Humboldt County,” says Kurth. “We want to show off the old grandpa on the porch with chickens in the yard and reggae blaring, talking about protecting the earth.”
Kurth is endlessly effusive about what Humboldt County has to offer tourists, the food, the culture, the redwoods, and the rugged Pacific beaches. The “real Humboldt County” is what Kurth hopes to show tourists as they’re shuttled from dispensaries in Eureka and Arcata (where they can legally purchase personal cannabis supplies) to farms throughout the Emerald Triangle. While Humboldt Cannabis Tours is ready for action, many of Kurth’s participating farmers are still waiting on deck in the permitting process. But interest in Humboldt Cannabis Tours from both farmers and tourists has been huge; Kurth is fielding calls and emails every day. By spring, Humboldt Cannabis Tours hopes to be in full swing, showcasing what a real and legal California cannabis farm looks like to visitors from across the world.
While the legacy communities of Northern California hope tourists will make the trek behind the redwood curtain, cannabis tourism is already burgeoning in the Bay Area and Southern California. At the Oakland Cannabis Creative, patrons can sign up for a variety of 420-friendly classes, including ‘Puff, Pass, Paint,’ where creativity gets high. In San Diego, California Cannabis Tours shuttles Golden State tourists from a recreational dispensary to a glass-blowing workshop to a demo on edibles. In San Francisco, Sheila Ash recently listed her 3-star bed & breakfast, Noe’s Nest, on Kush Tourism, a site for cannabis tourism in Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Alaska, and most recently, California.
“I provide hospitality to everybody, not just ‘marijuana people,’ but families with children,” explains Ash.
In blue-green California, it’s hard to remember that in forty-one states of the U.S., it’s illegal to give your neighbor a nug or smoke a joint in your backyard. In twenty-one states, a medical patient has no access to medical cannabis. In this landscape of political polarity, Northern California beckons to travelers as a cannabis-friendly paradise. Bringing new opportunities to the most economically strapped corners of rural California, cannabis tourism is a fruitful avenue for small family farms and entrepreneurs. It also might just offer a good time.
Nora Mounce is a freelance writer specializing in telling stories about food, wine, recreation, cannabis and community. When not writing, Nora runs a vacation rental in her Victorian home in Eureka, California. Her perfect day includes a run in the redwoods, antique shopping with friends and making a pot homemade soup for dinner. She believes in working to preserve the beauty of Humboldt County by writing about local farms and food, rivers and redwoods, and strength of the community.