It’s no mystery that I care about the economy. Inflation, stock market multiples, GDP and the Treasury yield curve all point to tougher times ahead. Here locally, vacant storefronts, declining business revenues and conversations with displaced pot growers and ancillary business workers paint a similar picture.
As I wrote months ago, Humboldt must attract investment and tourists to maintain the economic dynamism that our region has grown accustomed to over decades of a cannabis bull market. Given Humboldt’s largely anti-business and anti-development bias that inhibits capital investment in the region, cannabis-related tourism stands out as the primary means of bolstering the local economy.
As our friends at Humboldt State University noted in their 2021 study titled Cannabis Tourism in Humboldt County – Moving Forward, cannabis tourism is “the act of traveling to a destination with the intention to consume, buy and learn more about cannabis in a legal way”. For those who live in prohibitionist states or nations, this freedom is something to admire and experience.
And the economic impact of cannabis-related travel is immense.
A recent Forbes article noted that cannabis tourism is a $17 billion industry and is still in its infancy. HSU notes that after recreation was legalized, Colorado saw a significant increase in the number of hotel rooms being rented, and the prices for those rooms also firmed up. Overall, Colorado has seen a significant increase in economic activity with an increase in cannabis-related tourism. Illinois dispensaries thrive on out-of-state purchases, and our neighbors to the south in Mendocino have calculated that every pound of cannabis produced generates significant total economic activity.
Humboldt could use the same now!
Retail, dining, leisure and other establishments would welcome an increase in foot traffic and Humboldt is uniquely positioned to take advantage of this growing new trend.
Brian Applegarth, founder of the Cannabis Travel Association International and co-founder of Cultivar Brands agrees.
I had the great pleasure of talking about cannabis travel with Brian recently and found his passion, sincerity and professionalism inspiring. Brian was born and raised in NorCal and moved back to the area in 2013 where he had his first visit to the dispensary. He knew then that cannabis-related tourism would be a big draw and retired from corporate life the following year to enter the space.
Since then he has formed the Cannabis Travel Association, the voice of international cannabis travel, as well as The Cannabis Trail, which shares cannabis terroir, craftsmanship and culture with tourists. Through Cultivar Brands, Brian helps destination marketing organizations and others with strategic planning and organizes marketing events for the industry. He believes that cannabis improves the human condition and sees cannabis legalization as a human rights movement in some ways, focused on sustainability, inclusion and personal freedom.
While areas like Colorado have a significant presence in the tourism space, and others like San Francisco, West Hollywood and Palm Springs have swanky urban consumer lounges, Applegarth thinks Humboldt, like Mendocino, offers an experience unique history that can cement our region as one. must-visit destinations for cannabis-related travel around the world. With its back-to-the-land movement, genetic library, and longstanding relationship with the culture, Humboldt is a true place to source with cannabis in its DNA. Additionally, Humboldt’s authenticity, innovation and environmental stewardship are all appealing to international travelers according to Brian.
Given this history and the unique cultural experience that Humboldt has to offer, we should unite with one voice, proudly sharing our history and cannabis heritage with the world. With a consistent, cohesive and thoughtful cannabis marketing program, we can attract millions of visitors and much-needed capital to the region.
As I shared in a previous article, I believe that Humboldt’s lack of unity in this area hampers our efforts. The fragmentation of the cannabis community, differing views and interests, multiple tourism organizations, and some entrenched anti-cannabis rhetoric do not serve us well.
We need one voice, one unified message that speaks to the diversity of Humboldt, the natural beauty of our region, and our affinity for sun-grown cannabis. Pretending to be something we are not or ignoring this important piece of our heritage is short-sighted and will only accelerate the economic challenges we face.
Mendocino has officially added cannabis as one of the mainstays of its county-wide marketing campaign for tourists and Humboldt is to follow suit.
Politically, changes are also needed for the cannabis tourism industry to thrive. Currently, on-site consumption and sale is prohibited to travelers at the farm level. In other words, travelers can visit a farm and learn about the products and processes, but they can’t taste or buy anything – it’s ridiculous and unfair.
Applegarth advocates a restaurant license, which is used in relation to alcohol to enable compliant consumption at events and drinking spaces. While AB 2844 failed on its first pass, Brian is seeking a cannabis restaurant license on the ballot that would allow a “licensee to serve cannabis or cannabis-based products at an event. private…that is not organized, sponsored or advertised by the caterer.” This could help farms introduce their products to potential consumers and could improve the consumer experience for those who come to our region.
Two other issues threaten the success of a thriving cannabis tourism economy in Humboldt. The first is that many off-grid outdoor farms are at risk of going bankrupt. It’s a shame too because organic and regenerative farms could be a real attraction for tourists. As Matt Kurth, owner of Humboldt Cannabis Tours, notes: People want to touch the plant and put their hands in the dirt. They want to learn more about Humboldt’s history and environmentally friendly cultivation practices. Let’s allow on-site consumption and sales and give our family farms the ability to engage consumers directly.
Additionally, as noted in HSU’s work on the subject, many Humboldt farms are tucked away in remote locations. Dilapidated mountain roads and lack of ADA compliance will prevent many farms from participating in this potentially explosive engine of economic growth. Nonetheless, farms with better access and resources to invest in ADA compliance could serve as anchors for tourism efforts and could proudly represent the history, heritage, and sacrifice that embody the culture in our region.
I just returned to town from SoCal where I had the privilege of visiting the state’s first greenhouse. The scale, ingenuity and resources deployed in the central and southern regions of the Golden State should not be underestimated. Production costs at these facilities are a fraction of what they are in the hills and the produce I reviewed was of good quality…maybe not the same level of exterior trichome as our mountain flower grown under stress, but visually appealing and certainly viable for commercial sales.
Trying to compete with these operations in wholesale markets will be a losing proposition and will bankrupt small farms in the Emerald Triangle. Our best hope is to market the love, history, craftsmanship and our unique approach to culture to a growing audience of consumers. A cohesive cannabis tourism strategy that showcases the unique and historic experience of farming behind the curtain of redwoods can help us preserve our heritage and maintain our presence in a booming global industry. More of the same will lead to widespread agricultural failure, significant and lasting disruption to the local economy, and a very unpleasant change in Humboldt’s way of life.
For my dime, the county should hire a cannabis tourism expert and follow Mendocino’s path of cementing cannabis into its formal outreach strategies. It would be a shame to miss this opportunity and let other regions monopolize a scenario that we have contributed so much to create together. I congratulate our friends in Mendo for their passion, their conviction and their ability to get things done. I hope we can do the same.
Humboldt has a small window of opportunity to act as our local operators navigate turbulent waters and try to hold their own. Cultivation licenses are returned, plots lie fallow and soon there won’t be much left of the local cannabis community. It is in every resident’s interest to support and embrace the industry that has given us so much. Failure to create a thriving cannabis tourism program will result in further degradation of the local economy, declining property values, and a sad departure from a legacy that so many admire.
Lots of love,
Jesse Duncan is a permanent resident of Humboldt County, father of six, retired financial advisor, and full-time commercial cannabis grower. He is also the creator of NorCal Financial and Cannabis Consulting, a free platform that helps small-scale farmers improve their farming, business and financial skills. Please check out his blog at, his Instagram at jesse_duncann and connect with him on Linkedin.