By all accounts, Denver's cannabis tourism economy is thriving. As highlighted by a recent New York Times article, potheads are gallivanting about the city, dabbing on minibuses, visiting cannabis concierges, and reclining poolside with joints at cannabis-friendly lodgings. PotGuide.com lists more than a dozen cannabis-friendly hotels in Denver alone, plus bed-and-breakfasts and Airbnbs, as well as more than a dozen "social lounges" in Colorado, but no such businesses in Washington State. Why?
Our regulatory climate has a lot to do with it. While there are certainly bed-and-breakfasts and Airbnbs in Seattle that advertise as cannabis-friendly, they aren't legally allowed to do so. That's because any business—even a business operating out of a private home—that advertises itself as cannabis-related must have a cannabis business license with the city. "If a hotel were to advertise marijuana-specific rooms, it would likely bring them under the umbrella of the city licensing ordinance, which allows for it with a license, but those licenses cannot exist under current state law," said Julie Moore, communications director for the city's Finance and Administrative Services department. Public consumption is illegal under state and city law.
According to David Watkins, general manager of the Inn at the Market and a former board member of the Seattle Hotel Association, hotels don't advertise themselves as cannabis-friendly but simply look the other way. "No hotels downtown have smoking rooms," he noted. "If we smell marijuana in the hallway, we will ask the guest to stop smoking. We have to do that every once in a while. We won't call the cops. But if someone's eating an edible cookie in their room, that's their business."
In Colorado, lodging facilities are allowed to let guests smoke marijuana in up to 25 percent of their rooms, according to David Rowland, citywide communications adviser for the City and County of Denver. However, they cannot charge guests for marijuana, nor can they offer free products to guests by charging $100 above market rate for a room, as one cannabis bed-and-breakfast was doing. In fact, Denver has clamped down on illegal consumption, raiding at least two cannabis lounges recently. (In Seattle, hotels are also allowed to designate up to 25 percent of their rooms for smokers, though actively allowing cannabis consumption is verboten.)
There's also the matter of city pot tours. Denver boasts about a dozen tours, while Seattle has only three. Rowland said Denver's law regarding cannabis consumption inside vehicles is similar to open container laws. "If you're in a limo or private shuttle or something like that, the driver obviously can't have it and no one in the front passenger seat," he said. "But the back of the vehicle, that is allowed for."
In Washington, passengers of commercial vehicles are not allowed to have open containers of pot, let alone smoke it. Pot must be in the original sealed container and stored behind the backseat or in the trunk.
On a recent Kush Tour in Seattle, I spent three and a half hours in and out of a van, looking at pot, talking about pot, and thinking about pot, but was strictly prohibited from actually smoking any pot. At the end, my guide announced the tour was over, ushered us to a well-ventilated lounge area in the privately owned Seven Studios building, informed us that we were cordially and privately invited by the glassblowing studio to "hang out," and then left.
"The official answer is 'I have no idea what you're talking about," said Michael Gordon, cofounder of Kush Tourism, when asked about the work-around. "When the tour ends, it's no longer our responsibility, but they do have that lounge up there and people do seem to meander up that way."
David Blandford, vice president of communications for Visit Seattle, said that while he'd like to market the city as a cannabis destination, his hands are tied: "Visit Seattle and other marketing organizations have to be cautious about how they advertise or promote to travelers. Legally, we're not in a position where we can promote usage other than home-based. It does create a lot of challenges for a marketing organization."
Seattle's restrictions on pot tourism are yet another unintended side effect of the Cannabis Patient Protection Act (SB 5052), which specifically prohibits cannabis consumption in any business. Regardless of Seattle's feelings on the matter—City Attorney Pete Holmes is a notable advocate for well-regulated, responsible public consumption facilities—state law takes precedence and the city is obligated to enforce it.
In the meantime, Seattle is leaving a whole lot of cash on the table—although how much is hard to say. "Marijuana tourism is so new that there really is very little [data] out there, it's all anecdotal," said Blandford. The evidence, however, points to stacks on stacks. "April is the highest month in revenue for legal marijuana in Colorado," he said. "[Four-twenty] brought an influx of travelers to Colorado for this marijuana holiday."
The time to update Washington's laws on public consumption is, said Gordon, within "the next year and a half, because California is going to go [legal]."
"We have the opportunity right now to brand ourselves as a tourism destination," he continued. "It's obvious that we're failing when you look at the tourism dollars coming into Colorado."