Cannabis tourism: Welcoming travelers behind the Redwood Curtain

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California’s new cannabis industry is valued at $7 billion. With such a large green pie on the table, it’s no surprise that legal marijuana comes with a dizzying amount of red tape. Many farmers and business owners are still learning what permits they need and which regulations to follow as the ink dries on the page.

In this climate of cultural change, legal ambiguity is rampant; the federal government maintains a stalwart (and occasionally threatening) attitude toward cannabis. In 2018, opening a cannabis business is roughly akin to a scavenger hunt with clues written in invisible ink. Success is far from guaranteed, and it’s hard to say how the green pie will be divided up.

But for those treading the uncharted waters of California’s growing cannabis industry, it’s an exciting time of innovation and opportunity. Cannabis is being decriminalized across California, saving taxpayers millions of dollars each year and shifting community relationships with law enforcement. Cultural change has started easing the stigma around cannabis use. Gwyneth Paltrow is slipping CBD tinctures into her cocktail and Whoopi Goldberg’s company offers an entire line of “pot-for-PMS” products.

Hundreds of miles north of burgeoning marketplaces in L.A. and the Bay Area, Northern California’s fabled Emerald Triangle is the historic home of cannabis. It’s mystical corner of California bordered by the rugged Pacific Ocean and tooth-picked by stately redwood trees. Growing cannabis has been a way of life here since the hippies moved north in the countercultural ’60s. Since then, countless working-class locals and fortune-seeking outsiders have taken up the trade.

Today, it’s estimated that one in every four dollars comes from cannabis in the Emerald Triangle. Speculation that mounting tax rates and corporate interests will ruin mom-and-pop farms is widespread. In this grim forecast, some are pinning their hopes on 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 cannabis-friendly lodging company.

Roby purchased the domain in 2002, gambling that an end to marijuana prohibition was imminent. Colorado and Washington state were the first to legalize recreational cannabis in 2012. Twelve years after he bought the domain, Roby launched Bud & Breakfast in Boulder, the country’s new playground for recreational cannabis. With California’s Prop. 64 passing into law in 2018, Roby says he has watched the number of properties on Bud & Breakfast triple.

Operating as an online platform for 420-friendly hosts, Bud & Breakfast currently advertises listings in six U.S. states, Canada, Jamaica, Uruguay, Colombia and Spain. While the cannabis component at several Bud & Breakfast properties is simply a designated smoking area, more elaborate listings offer estate-grown bud or cannabis-infused cooking classes. With rentals listed at an average of $250 per night and new properties joining daily, Roby says business is booming.

In Northern California, Lonely Planet recently named “California’s Redwood Coast” the No. 1 place to visit in 2018. Heralded for its stunning coastline and slow pace of life, this region is attracting international attention.

While Humboldt and marijuana are known synonymously, cannabis has always been prescriptively removed from the tourist experience. Tourists staying in bucolic Ferndale or bohemian Arcata are unaware of what happens “on the hill,” as locals say. Most tourists could probably guess the meaning of a fully loaded, off-road truck picking up supplies at Costco. But outsiders have never been welcomed into the secretive world of Northern California cannabis growers – until now.

A cannabis advocate and outdoor enthusiast, Matt Kurth launched Humboldt Cannabis Tours in 2017. Committed to helping cannabis farms thrive in this legalized market, Kurth’s company offers tours of legendary Humboldt County cannabis farms. Like Lonely Planet, Kurth is effusive about what Humboldt has to offer. The oysters, funky and open-minded community, redwoods and rugged Pacific beaches are what he calls the “real Humboldt County.” Kurth stresses that his tours “aren’t for stoners,” but also wants nothing to do with the bachelorette party bus scene that is ubiquitous in wine country.

Many of Kurth’s affiliated farmers are still navigating a convoluted licensing process. Farms need to not only be fully legal and compliant to allow tours, but must also provide state-mandated amenities such as restrooms. Rural cannabis farming has rarely afforded such luxuries.

Still, interest in cannabis tourism is on the rise. It’s been aided by several factors: increased national media attention on legalization, hints of a Humboldt marijuana television series starring John Malkovich, and the success of similar ventures in Oregon, Washington and Colorado.

At Emerald Queen Farms in Willow Creek, Hannah Whyte and her husband, Riley, grow Girl Scout Cookie, Sour Diesel and Skittles strains using regenerative farming methods. In the process of getting licensed by Humboldt County and the state, Whyte says the farm plans to offer yoga and infused cooking classes. Both skateboarding, snowboarding and river enthusiasts, the couple spend as much time outdoors as possible with their two sons.

“We want to incorporate recreational activities and spending time in nature with cannabis tourism,” Whyte says. She imagines that one day her farm will grow flowers and medicinal herbs in addition to cannabis. Like Kurth, she views cannabis tourism as a key opportunity for small family farms.

“Being the largest production area [Humboldt County] in the state, we have a huge opportunity to create and develop a sustainable industry for our area,” says Whyte.

As the cannabis industry emerges from the shadows, rural Northern California holds its title as the original green paradise. Visitors to the Emerald Triangle will soon have more opportunities to legally smoke, eat, drink or otherwise enjoy cannabis products before hiking in the redwoods or going out for oysters. It’s a brave new world for cannabis behind California’s Redwood Curtain.