The marijuana industry has gone legit. The plant is still considered a Schedule One narcotic by federal standards, but cannabis is now legalized for either medical or recreational use to some extent by 46 states with no signs of slowing down.
The business of marijuana is now going far beyond just the dispensaries that sell cannabis products in a safe and regulated manner. The industry is poised to be a gamechanger in tourism, a distinction formerly limited to a very select number of international destinations like Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
The evolution couldn’t be more clear with the September 20 opening of Cannabition in Downtown Las Vegas. The attraction is billed as an immersive cannabis museum — a place where weed isn’t bought or consumed, but celebrated in all its glory.
“I think this is the perfect time,” says Cannabition founder JJ Walker. “I would say that we are just a hair early, which is exactly where I want to be.
Exhibits will include multisensory experiences where guest can recline on a cannabis seed bed, hug seven-foot-tall buds and be “exhaled” while sliding through a pair of oversized lips. There will also be terpene displays, the “world’s largest bong” and the famous “Red Shark” Chevrolet Caprice is on loan from the estate of Hunter S. Thompson.
Cannabition held a media preview on Thursday, not with a traditional ribbon cutting but a hemp-torching ceremony. The guest of honor was Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, just the latest politician who recognizes the economic benefits of the cannabis industry.
“There aren’t too many of my generation that’s here who have never smoked anything other than the conventional old cigarettes,” she says. “I know that pot is a little bit safer for your lungs. I’m not sure how much, but I know we’re a happy crowd in Las Vegas.”
Las Vegas is driven by tourism and its infamous “Sin City” image, but has experienced a push-and-pull relationship with marijuana over the years. Nevada was one of the earlier states to legalize marijuana for medicinal use in 2000, but didn’t approve dispensaries until 2013. After approval by voters in 2016, recreational cannabis sales got underway last year. But public consumption is still banned, especially at the resorts who don’t want to risk the status of state-approved gaming licenses at their casinos.
Yet there appears to be a growing cross-section between the tourism and cannabis industries in Las Vegas. Dispensaries are doing everything possible to attract out-of-town guests who just need to show valid identification proving age of 21 or over to buy cannabis products. Reef, Essence and Releaf are within easy walking distance of the Strip. NuWu, operated by a Native American tribe near Downtown has a drive-thru window to make purchases as convenient as possible. Acres has a museum wall dedicated to hemp artifacts, vintage High Times magazine covers and other historic items. Acres also has The Underground, a marijuana farmers market on Fridays and Saturdays that welcomes third-party vendors.
However, the best example is Planet 13, which is aiming to be the largest cannabis dispensary in the world when completed. At 112,000 square feet, the cannabis superstore will be a tourist attraction itself. Customers will control 15-foot-tall interactive LED flowers on the roof and watch a show featuring floating orbs on the hour, every hour. There will also be a sensory-activated digitally reactive floor, 3D projection images and laser graffiti, which allows guests to create their own temporary laser and light artwork on the walls. Planet 13 is expected to have the largest supply of cannabis and cannabis-related products in Las Vegas with 40 to 50 check-out registers ready to move sales along — almost like a Walmart. There’s even an on-property coffee shop in the works. The grand opening of the first phase is expected in late October or early November.
Las Vegas is taking its cue from Denver, a city that reinvented its image for tourism after Colorado legalized recreational cannabis in 2012. The mile-high city has embraced marijuana, offering everything from bus tours to edible-tasting dinners. Some hotels have even marketed themselves as being cannabis-friendly
“Colorado really jumped on the bandwagon as far as cannabis tourism, and the laws up to this point really allowed for the cultivation of it,” says Walker. “Cannabis tourism is pretty big in Colorado, but Las Vegas is on that verge (of reaching that level). If we figure out social consumption and (laws are approved) that actually make it seem like we can create profitable businesses out of it, the tourism aspect is going to be huge.”
The success of marketing cannabis in Colorado’s biggest cities, which also include popular destinations like Boulder, Colorado Springs and Aspen, hasn’t been lost on Mayor Goodman. “You fly into Denver and you walk the streets, you don’t even have to smoke anything,” she says. “You can smell it in the air.”
A major hurdle is getting the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority on board. “Since the approved statute limits the use of marijuana to private residences and does not allow use in public spaces or within the businesses in the resort corridor, the LVCVA has no plans to promote recreational marijuana use as a tourism attraction,” said a representative in June.
However, impediments seem to be softening. The LVCVA is active in promoting trade shows and business events, and Las Vegas has welcomed a few major cannabis-related conventions in recent years. Walker says he’s even heard from the LVCVA directly.
“We actually got a phone call from their sales department saying (Cannabition) is amazing and ‘We have a lot of different clients that would be really interested in hosting events in your space.’ so that barrier is starting to get crossed,” he says. “So it’s on us to prove this is going to be a professional mainstream kind of an experience.”
Once public consumption is approved in Las Vegas, lounges are expected to open immediately around town, including spaces at Cannabition and Planet 13. It could happen as soon as late 2018 or early 2019, depending on government officials in Clark County or the city of Las Vegas. Regardless, it’s clear cannabis tourism is just getting off the ground and could be an even larger economic generator than originally envisioned.