It was a Thursday afternoon in mid-February, and everything seemed relatively normal inside Magnolia Oakland, a cannabis shop at the corner of 3rd and Adeline streets: Customers were waiting to buy product while regulars hung out on couches and nearby chairs. But there was also a palpable sense of anticipation in the air. Then, a proclamation: “They’re here.”
Moments later, about a dozen people waltzed inside, flanked by a TV news crew, two photographers, and at least three reporters. The group didn’t include anyone famous; they just happened to be attendees of the first-ever tour put on by Emerald Farm Tours, a brand-new cannabis tourism company based in Castro Valley.
Debby Goldsberry, Magnolia’s executive director, greeted the highly documented group. She started by asking people where they’re from.
“San Francisco.” “Alameda.” “London.” “Finland.”
Their answers were indicative of whom California’s burgeoning cannabis tourism scene appeals to: locals and out-of-towners, newbies and seasoned users — everyone, basically. And their sizable media entourage reflected the promise — and, perhaps, the hype — that comes along with recreational legalization.
Victor Pinho, founder and CEO of Emerald Farm Tours and a longtime cannabis activist and advocate, said the goal of his company is to “be an ambassador for the industry … and bring very much into the forefront of the conversation this fact that cannabis is legal in California and we have to start normalizing this around the world.”
Of course, cannabis tourism is also big business. After Colorado became one of the first states in the country to legalize recreational cannabis in 2014, it experienced a surge in visitors to the state’s capital. Just how much of that was due to legalization is uncertain, but cannabis is clearly a cash cow: Pot sales in the state topped $1.5 billion last year, up 13 percent from the year prior. In Colorado, there are several pot tourism companies offering private limo tours, vacation packages, dispensary tours, cooking classes, and more. You can even get a cannabis massage.
While medical marijuana has long been legal in California, full legalization is drawing curious newcomers and longtime users out of the shadows. At Emerald Farm Tours’ inaugural “seed-to-sale” tour, attendees got a behind-the-scenes look at the cannabis industry, from the farm where the plant is grown to the manufacturing facility where it’s processed and, finally, the retail store where it’s sold. Goldsberry gave the group a brief introduction about Magnolia’s history, offerings, and philosophy. They also got a lesson in dabbing and vaping and enjoyed a discount on Magnolia’s products.
Pinho said he came up with the idea for Emerald Farm Tours in early December and began doing private tours for a couple weeks before launching his first official tour — the seed-to-sale tour, which sold out — on Feb. 15. He followed that with two more dispensary tours: one in the East Bay and another in San Francisco. He said he’s planning on launching tours in the Los Angeles and Sacramento markets within the next six months. “And then within the year, who knows what could happen,” he said. “This has been taking off pretty quickly.” (Pinho said the fact that he can finally advertise on Google and Facebook has helped him spread the word.)
CannabisTours.com — which started in Denver in 2014 and has expanded to eight locations around the country — launched its “Wine & Weed Tour” in the Bay Area in September. The tour includes stops at a cannabis grow, dispensary, and two wineries.
Heidi Keyes, president and co-founder of CannabisTours.com, said she expects demand for cannabis tours in California to grow and plans to offer the wine and weed tour weekly beginning in April. A new “Oaktown Essential Cannabis Tour” — which will include visits to a cannabis grow and two dispensaries — has a targeted launch date in time for 4/20. “They say in 2018 cannabis could be anywhere from a $4 billion to $11 billion industry in California alone,” Keyes said. “It’s definitely growing and there will be a lot of tourists coming here for it.”
Whom do such tours appeal to? “There’s no stereotypical stoner anymore,” Keyes said. “There’s so many people of different ages and backgrounds who just want to celebrate legal cannabis. People are excited and have been waiting for this for so long.”
Another element of the company’s business model is its “puff, pass, and paint” classes, during which attendees can get stoned and paint at the same time. In Oakland, CannabisTours.com offers painting, pottery, and cooking classes five days a week at its Oakland Cannabis Creative event space. On Friday and Saturday nights, about 70 attendees show up to smoke and paint, according to Keyes. “People are very excited about legal cannabis here,” she said.
Class prices range from $39 to $83, while the four-and-a-half-hour wine and weed tour costs $99 per person. No cannabis is supplied, but attendees can ingest or smoke whatever they bring with them, and they can purchase from the pot stores they visit.
Emerald Farm Tours is a bit pricier. The four-hour, seed-to-sale tour costs $295 — it includes travel in a luxury van, discounts and special offers from retail stores, bottled water, “healthy munchies,” and an Emerald Farm Tours gift box — while the dispensary tours are $195 each. Again, no cannabis is supplied.
So why pay to go on a tour when you can just walk into a dispensary and buy cannabis on your own?
“I think they’re wanting to learn a little bit more about the plant,” Keyes said about those who sign up. “They don’t know much about it. With how many people purchase and consume cannabis, there’s so much they want to know about what they’re putting in their body.” There’s also the novelty of consuming pot in a group setting — and legally, she said.
Ultimately, these tour operators say they hope their efforts will help to further normalize cannabis and encourage full-on legalization at the national level. “My main concern is that people stop going to jail for this,” Pinho said. “In this world, some of us have the privilege and right to consume it, and others are going to jail for it.”
At the same time, he wants to encourage adults to consume responsibly. “We want to make sure we’re a proper conduit for proper harm reduction,” he said. “Emerald Farm Tours is teaching you how to be a responsible consumer in a responsible environment.”
And, yes, get stoned in the process.