Cannabis tourism: a cause for concern?

According to reports, Colorado is experiencing a boost in tourism as a result of its decision to legally regulate cannabis for non-medical use. A number of companies have even begun offering ‘cannabis tours’ for those interested in seeing the state’s new, legal cannabis industry and sampling its products.
 

A CNN interview with the founder of My420Toursa company offering cannabis tours in Colorado 


A typical ‘cannabis tour’ could include a stay at a ‘cannabis-friendly’ hotel, free samples, transportation from the airport, visits to dispensaries and growhouses, and various workshops such as ‘cooking with cannabis’.  
 

These images are from a company offering 'cannabis tours' in Colorado 


The situation in Colorado may well be attributable to the initial novelty factor of a legal non-medical cannabis industry, but high levels of cannabis tourism are a legitimate concern, even if they are not a particularly forceful argument against legal regulation. 

Below is a chapter from our recent major publication, 'How to Regulate Cannabis: A Practical Guide', which looks at the issue of cannabis tourism in more detail and offers recommendations for how to manage it. We welcome discussion on the issues raised in the comments section below.

Challenges of cannabis tourism

  • Identifying and minimising potential problems associated with cross-border trade between jurisdictions with differing regulatory approaches to cannabis

Analysis of these challenges

  • More traditional destination tourism related to cannabis is relatively non-problematic and can bring economic benefits for the destination
  • More localised cross-border trade between jurisdictions that have legally regulated cannabis and those that maintain cannabis prohibition may present a greater problem, but is likely to be a relatively small-scale phenomenon
  • Border enforcement responses are likely to be expensive, ineffective and counterproductive
  • Rationing sales and/or restricting access to markets to residents only (with membership- or ID-based access controls) may help moderate cross-border trade, but if overly restrictive may incentivise a parallel criminal market

Recommendations

  • Cannabis tourism is a problem that can only really be addressed by legalising and regulating cannabis on both sides of a border
  • In the absence of this, it is a challenge that has no obvious solution - enforcement responses will make things worse, and while localised market regulation may moderate the problem, it is unlikely to eliminate it
  • Realistically, it is a problem to be tolerated and managed pragmatically -  the focus should be on responding to any real social harms that emerge, rather than targeting cannabis users through punitive enforcement measures
  • For the most part, this is likely to remain a marginal and localised problem and should not be overstated in the policy debate

The potential problem of ‘drug tourism’ is often raised by opponents of cannabis regulation, frequently implying that post-reform, legions of cannabis users from other jurisdictions will descend on any newly legalised market, bringing an array of social problems with them. This proposition is generally ill-defined, and often heavy with misplaced hyperbole that taps into a rather unpleasant streak of prejudice against drug users, foreigners, youths and ‘otherness’ more generally. However, experiences with some pioneering cannabis regulation models (most obviously in the Netherlands), as well as experiences with alcohol and tobacco, demonstrate that there is potential for real problems to emerge when jurisdictions that share borders adopt different regulatory approaches to drug markets, particularly when this difference is as stark as legal vs. prohibited.

When thinking about this problem, it is first important to try and put the likely scale of the potential challenges in perspective. Cannabis is already cheaply and easily available in most jurisdictions via the illegal market. In this context, relatively few cannabis users would expend significant resources travelling to neighbouring jurisdictions, let alone travelling further afield, just to buy or consume cannabis. Of those who would do so, experience from the Netherlands suggests they are comprised of two fairly distinct groups, associated with quite different challenges.

The first are those who are drawn to the Netherlands’ cannabis coffee shops, primarily in Amsterdam. For this group, it is not the access to cannabis per se that is the attraction - they will mostly be existing cannabis users and have access to the drug at home- but the novelty and exoticism of the coffee shops themselves (for those who have never experienced a range of cannabis products legally available in a licensed venue), specifically in the context of a vibrant and beautiful European capital. Surveys have suggested that roughly 1 in 3 visitors to Amsterdam visits a coffee shop during their stay, and approximately 1 in 6 visits the city specifically because of the coffee shops. The question then is what are the costs and benefits of this ‘cannabis tourism’.


A cannabis coffee shop in Amsterdam 


The main cost is the potential for social nuisance. However, among such visitors problems are marginal, with issues that do arise largely confined to a relatively contained and manageable area in and around the city’s red light district. In fact, most problems are related to alcohol rather than cannabis consumption. Cannabis users are rarely violent, and these ‘cannabis tourists’, if they can really be called that, are only temporary visitors, staying for a few days at most.

The obvious benefit from such tourism is increased revenue, not just for the cannabis coffee shops, but for the hotels, shops, restaurants, and other businesses that make up the local tourist economy. This benefit is a substantial one, and it explains why the authorities in Amsterdam have resisted the imposition of the residents-only ‘wietpas’ scheme (see below). For them, cannabis tourism is not a problem, it’s a net benefit. A comparison can easily be made with similar forms of legal ‘drug tourism’, such as tours of Amsterdam’s famous Heineken beer factory, Scottish whisky distilleries or vineyards in the Rhine Valley. Indeed, tourist boards routinely promote cities on the basis of their drinking establishments. Here again, it is not the drug itself that is the primary draw (people can buy Heineken or Rhine Valley wines in their local supermarket, just as coffee shop tourists can buy cannabis on their local street corner) - but the cultural environment.
 

Interactive map showing how municipalities in the Netherlands enforce restrictions on access to the coffee shops. Green indicates that tourists are permitted


The second, and potentially more problematic, form of cannabis tourists are those who cross borders between prohibitionist and legalised cannabis jurisdictions for the sole purpose of procuring the drug. The Netherlands again provides a useful example of this phenomenon, with buyers visiting from neighbouring countries (mostly Belgium, Germany, and France) simply to buy cannabis from the coffee shops and then return home. This process has been facilitated by the nature of the European Union, which has meant that border controls are either largely tokenistic or altogether non-existent.

The scale of this problem again needs to be put into perspective. The advantage of being able to buy cannabis from a Dutch coffee shop rather from a local illegal market in Belgium or Germany has its limits: people will only be willing to travel so far, especially given the restrictions on sales (5 grams) from any one retailer. The phenomenon is therefore largely contained to those Dutch cities with coffee shops near the border, such as Maastricht, and the area foreign tourists come from does not stretch far into mainland Europe.

The problems created for these cities should also not be overstated. In some cases, complaints have been quite parochial - such as a lack of city centre parking due to a high number of coffee shop visitors. There have also been issues with some aggressive unlicensed dealers who, spotting a market opportunity, have gravitated towards these locations in order to sell to cross-border visitors outside the constraints of the coffee shop system - for example, on the lay-bys of major roads between the border and coffee shops in the destination cities. Despite the money that such visitors contribute to the economy via coffee shop sales, the fact that they mostly purchase cannabis and then leave reduces local economic benefits (relative to the more conventional tourists who visit Amsterdam’s coffee shops, for example).

As a response to this problem, the Dutch government has introduced the ‘wietpas’ scheme , which requires that access to coffee shops be restricted to residents of the Netherlands. Not all municipalities with coffee shops have implemented this policy - indeed, Amsterdam has chosen not to do so. Where the scheme has been implemented, and even where total number of visitors seeking to buy cannabis is reported to have fallen, there have been dramatically increased problems with social nuisance relating to the street dealers who have moved in to sell to visitors no longer allowed access to the coffee shops. Clearly, part of the problem with the wietpas, aside from the overtly political dimension of the decision-making process, is that it was an attempt to reverse-engineer a ‘solution’ into an already well-established market. Rather than eliminating the market, it has largely displaced it from licensed and taxed premises to illicit street markets.
 

The 'wietpas' 


The town of Venlo, in the south of the Netherlands, made the decision to move some coffee shops closer to the border, situating them in a less residential area. This significantly reduced levels of social nuisance caused by drug tourists. Maastricht has had plans to do the same, while in some neighbourhoods in Amsterdam, coffee shops employ street-based staff to minimise public disturbance.

By contrast, Uruguay’s model of cannabis regulation is unlikely to allow such problems to emerge. For example, by enforcing a residents-only restriction on cannabis sales from the outset, there will be no expectation from cross-border visitors that they will have access to the new legal market - the situation for them will essentially be unchanged. In addition, a system of rationed availability via licensed pharmacies is much more functional and intrinsically less attractive to potential visitors than the Dutch coffee shop system The extent of issues in the US with Washington and Colorado and cannabis tourism from other states remains to be seen, but is likely to be more of a challenge. Not only are there greater near-border populations to contend with, and relatively few border controls, but non-residents are allowed access to the markets (although in Colorado, sales to non-residents are limited to a lower volume of no more than a quarter of an ounce in a single transaction), and the markets themselves will be far more sophisticated in terms of available products.

Similar problems have long been witnessed at borders between jurisdictions that maintain alcohol prohibition and those that do not, and the reality is that relatively little can be done to reduce them. The cost-benefit analysis of instructing border customs officials to use increasingly heavy-handed enforcement responses looks no better than with enforcement responses to drug markets historically. It would be expensive, interdiction is likely to be marginal at best, and there would be various negative impacts, above all a counterproductive expansion in the criminalisation of small-time users and buyers. In the context of US state or internal EU borders, it would also potentially represent a dramatic change in the nature of what are currently very open borders, with wider cultural and economic impacts.

Rationing sales to small-scale purchases for personal use may serve to moderate the problem, and residents-only or membership club-based sales could also help if put in place from the outset. But caution is needed with these options: any model that restricts legal-market access in too arbitrary a fashion is likely to lead to parallel illegal markets emerging to fill the void, with all the attendant negative consequences that would involve.

In conclusion, this is a relatively marginal problem, but one that is inevitable while cannabis prohibition continues in some jurisdictions. The obvious solution - for once a genuine silver bullet -  is of course to legalise and regulate on both sides of the border. Until this happens, a degree of pragmatic tolerance combined with cross-border coordination and intelligent regulation of emerging markets will help moderate any problems.
 

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