In 2018, when California’s Prop. 64 officially legalized adult use of cannabis, San Francisco seemed poised for a green rush. Since then, more than 40 dispensaries have popped up around the city providing a growing array of cannabis products.
Out of that excitement emerged a cottage industry that sought to transform San Francisco into the Napa of weed. The opportunity seemed ripe, given the city’s proximity to cannabis-producing farms in the Emerald Triangle, its many local dispensaries and its long history of cannabis activism dating back to Dennis Peron, Brownie Mary and the first-ever public dispensary in the U.S.
But the dream of turning San Francisco into a destination for cannabis hasn’t quite materialized.
“We get inquiries or a couple people here or there, but it’s not enough to run a tour every day of the week,” said Elie Sasson, owner of San Francisco Green Dream Tours, which operates bus tours to Wine Country, as well as cannabis walking tours of San Francisco.
In Sasson’s opinion, the success of the cannabis legalization movement became a double-edged sword. Currently, medical cannabis is legal in more than two-thirds of U.S. states, and recreational cannabis is legal in 19 states. That has made it less of a novelty and a draw, Sasson said.
Brian Applegarth, founder of the Cannabis Travel Association and one of the sector’s biggest boosters, said it’s still only early days for the industry’s growth. He argued that San Francisco in particular is set up to become a global leader because of its ingrained cannabis culture.
According to a national survey conducted by Applegarth’s company, Cultivar Strategies, 29% of active adult leisure travelers said they were interested in cannabis-related experiences while on vacation. The number was higher among millennials and Gen Z travelers, 44% of whom have traveled to a destination to have a cannabis experience.
In Applegarth’s mind, that population represents a large untapped pool of potential customers. He pointed to 2022’s inaugural Evergreen San Francisco as a positive sign. Centered around the 4/20 holiday, the weeklong festival in April consisted of a number of cannabis-related activities, including nature hikes, immersive art displays and a Hippie Hill celebration officially sanctioned by the city and promoted by the Chamber of Commerce.
“Creating spaces for community consumption is really important,” Applegarth said, pointing to the city’s collection of cannabis lounges. He said loosening licensing requirements to create cannabis spa experiences, wellness lounges or spiritual centers could be a way to draw additional tourism.
The lounge in the back of Hunt’s business is one in a limited number of indoor spaces where cannabis consumption is technically legal. The space features a multitude of big-screen TVs, gas-fed fire features and a powerful HVAC system to keep it largely smoke-free.
“A lot of them come in here as their first stop, we’re going to get our weed and we’re going to smoke it here. We have the red carpet literally rolled out for them,” Hunt said, gesturing to the floor in front of the entrance. “It’s always a fun experience to see the look on their faces, it’s like Disneyland for stoners, you know?”
Tourism activity is starting to return in San Francisco, with hotel occupancy inching towards pre-pandemic levels. But due to a lack of international tourists from Asia, who tend to spend more money than domestic travelers, overall tourism spending remains down.
City officials have started to evolve their approach to cannabis with a recognition that it could play a big role in boosting tourism, which accounts for tens of thousands of jobs in San Francisco and billions in spending.
“To me, cannabis has always been integrated in the San Francisco experience, but it was a very much a wink and nod type of experience before it became legal,” said Dan Rosenbaum, the senior director of global marketing for SF Travel, the city’s tourism board.
After the passage of Prop. 64, Rosenbaum said SF Travel has published a few articles meant to educate the public about legal cannabis use. He said those have become some of their most popular-ever travel resources.
“I think the number one challenge for us is education to the visitor, explaining what they can and can’t do, describing what the experience is,” Rosenbaum said. “Also, getting more businesses on board to evolve that cannabis experience past just showing up to a dispensary to something more holistic.”
Still, structural barriers at the federal level stand in the way of a robust cannabis tourism market in the city.
Misha Frankly, co-owner of Mendocino Experience Cannabis Tours, pointed to the way large social media platforms limit content around cannabis because of federal prohibition. That has also extended to third-party travel companies like TripAdvisor, where a large portion of tourists find and book activities.
“On Google we can’t advertise very clearly and we’re put in almost the same category as guns, strangely, or naked people,” Frankly said. “It’s severely hampered our ability to market to new people. Basically, the only way you can kind of find out about us if you have interest in the subject and you go looking specifically for it.”
Victor Pinho, the owner of Emerald Farm Tours, provided more of an optimistic take. His business provides walking tours of dispensaries, four-hour van tours and longer excursions up to Anderson Valley that packages wine tastings with a visit to a working cannabis farm and high-end dispensary The Bohemian Chemist.
While he said the pandemic was a negative inflection point for the industry, he also sees hopeful signs on the horizon such as legislative efforts to make it easier to pair cannabis with food products.
“It’s allowing these opportunities to be created and if they need regulation, then properly regulating for them,” Pinho said. “There’s plenty of money in cannabis tourism, but it doesn’t always look like people taking a tour.”
Kevin Truong can be reached at [email protected]