By Nazlee Maghsoudi from the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy and George Murkin from Transform. (This article was first featured on the Huffington Post.)
As more and more places legalize and regulate cannabis, the wider implications of bringing the trade above ground have inevitably attracted scrutiny. A growth in tourism related to the drug is one such implication, and it's dividing opinion.
A Native American tribe in South Dakota, for example, has just announced its intention to legalize cannabis on tribal land (a right that the federal government has decided to grant to all Native American tribes), and its main motivation for doing so is to draw in cannabis consumers from all over the state, to generate extra revenue for those who live on the reservation.
In other jurisdictions, however, an influx of such visitors is more often seen as a cause for concern. The worry is that cannabis tourism means legions of cannabis users from "elsewhere" descending on a newly legalized market, bringing an array of social problems with them. But this concern overlooks some critical facts.
First, the outcome of cannabis policy reform depends entirely on the regulatory rules set by government. In Uruguay, where plans to legally regulate cannabis were approved in 2013, proactive steps are being taken to prevent the possibility of cannabis tourism. According to Julio Calzada, Secretary-General for the Uruguayan National Assembly on Drugs, "the objective of regulating the purchase of marijuana to residents is to minimize, to the highest degree possible, the potential for Uruguay to become a 'marketplace' for cannabis."
In 2012, the Netherlands attempted to prevent cannabis tourism by allowing only residents to purchase cannabis and requiring all "coffee shops" that sell cannabis to operate solely on a membership basis. According to Dr. Jean-Paul Grund, senior researcher at the CVO-Addiction Research Centre in Utrecht, the stricter regulations quickly led to an increase in illegal market sales.
"Due to privacy concerns associated with showing documentation or registering for membership at a coffee shop," Grund says, "residents switched from buying their cannabis at coffee shops to buying it in the illegal market." This undermined the overarching premise of Dutch cannabis policy: to separate cannabis from the market for "harder drugs."
Although some Dutch border cities (who saw the biggest influx of cannabis tourists) were in favor, other municipalities saw the new controls as an unnecessary imposition. The policy was therefore modified to allow, but not require, cities to impose residents-only restrictions, thereby letting jurisdictions pick the best system for their local context.
Such regulatory considerations aside, it's worth questioning the notion that cannabis tourism is inherently undesirable. For the roughly one in three visitors to Amsterdam that visit a coffee shop, it is not access to cannabis per se that is the attraction, as they have access to the drug at home. Instead, the crucial factor is the novelty of the coffee shops themselves. A comparison can be made with similar forms of legal drug tourism, such as tours of Amsterdam's Heineken beer factory. Here again, it is not the drug itself that is the primary draw, but the cultural environment. Indeed, tourist boards routinely promote cities on the basis of their drinking establishments.
The Heineken museum in Amsterdam
The question, then, is: What are the costs and benefits of cannabis tourism?
A recent review of the scientific evidence undertaken by the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy found little evidence to suggest that cannabis tourism has caused widespread negative health or social outcomes.
The main cost is the potential for social nuisance. However, Grund points out the apparent double standard. "Double parking, littering, sitting on private doorsteps, these are legitimate concerns, but we don't hear much about these for other types of commerce." In Amsterdam, most problems are largely confined to a relatively contained and manageable area in and around the city's red light district. And in fact, it is usually alcohol rather than cannabis consumption that is the main source of public disorder.
The obvious benefit from such tourism is increased revenue for cannabis coffee shops, hotels, shops, restaurants, and other businesses in the local tourist economy. And of course, there's the tax revenue, which goes to local and national government.
But for Steve Fox, co-author of the Colorado ballot initiative that legalized and regulated recreational cannabis, the primary benefit of encouraging cannabis tourism isn't the lucrative revenues. "Given that the harms associated with cannabis use are lower than that associated with alcohol, there is a public health benefit to building a society where cannabis is an acceptable alternative to alcohol," said Fox.
In fact, he's working on another ballot initiative that will allow cannabis tourism to flourish in Denver. Expected to be voted on this year, the ballot initiative will legalize public consumption of non-smokable forms of cannabis in establishments restricted to adults 21 years of age or older that choose to allow it.
It's time to shift the focus away from blanket opposition to legalization based on fears that it will lead to an influx of troublemakers intent on getting high. A regulated market would give policymakers the tools to combat -- or encourage -- cannabis tourism, as they see fit. The alternative is to allow organized criminals to continue managing the trade.