By: Nazlee Maghsoudi & George Murkin
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 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.
MORE ON HUFFPOST:
It's no secret that people tend to enjoy fast food after smoking marijuana -- blockbuster movies have been built on this premise. But most fast food companies have been reluctant to explicitly cater to the stoned market, for fear of driving away their more conservative patrons. Taco Bell has been more open than most about its friendliness to such customers -- and has found tremendous success with this strategy, selling billions of dollars worth of reefer-friendly dishes like Doritos Locos Tacos. As the stigma around marijuana wanes over the next decade, other chains are sure to follow suit.
Food delivery companies like Seamless have already become famous for releasing funny ads that highlight the advantages of ordering meals delivered to your house rather than going out to eat. So far, most of these ads have focused on relatively tame obstacles to leaving your house, such as bad weather. But these companies have already branched out into racier territory by advertising on pornographic websites, so it's only a matter of time before they do the same to lazy stoners.
Walk into any decent marijuana dispensary in Denver or Los Angeles, and you'll find a plethora of marijuana-infused edibles that go way beyond the classic brownie. Faux Sour Patch Kids, sodas, chocolate-covered blueberries, you name it. These goodies have traditionally been pretty homespun: A dispensary employee might make them, or they might be contracted out to a home baker. But increasingly, edibles are made by large companies that sell to many dispensaries, and they have sophisticated branding and packaging that would be right at home on any supermarket shelf. As legalization spreads, this will only become more common. It wouldn't even be out of the question for some food conglomerate -- a Hershey's, PepsiCo or a Unilever -- to get in on the action at some point.
Want to know the secret recipe for the most delicious healthy snack? Smoke weed beforehand. Though most people associate the munchies with greasy, fattening foods like nachos, jalapeño poppers, or chocolate chip cookies, the truth is that smoking marijuana makes almost every food taste better -- including raw fruits and vegetables. Seriously, if you put a platter of crudité in front someone who's high, without giving them an alluring cheesy alternative, they will glut themselves with the healthy foods. Over the past 10 years, people have been smoking more weed and becoming more health-conscious. These two trends are on a collision course that will surely lead stoners to embrace healthier choices when they have the munchies.
This one sounds crazy. After all, didn't those first four changes all rely on the assumption that marijuana makes people ravenously hungry? Yes. And it does. Usually. But there are actually a few chemicals that naturally occur in cannabis plants that seem to suppress rather than increase appetite, notably tetrahydrocannabivarin, or THCV. So weed cultivators have started to explore the idea of crafting a new strain of marijuana that not only doesn't give you the munchies, but actually gives you a kind of reverse munchies, nipping hunger in the bud, so to speak. If done right, this could even be a promising treatment for obesity at some point in the future.
For years now, pioneering chefs like Roy Choi and David Chang have explicitly credited marijuana and its taste-heightening properties with fueling their creativity. They've created countless dishes that taste amazing when you're sober but even more amazing when you're stoned. So in the future, if marijuana were more socially acceptable, they might start highlighting these dishes on their menus. Maybe they'll create special "Stoner's Menus," analogous to children's menus, or put little marijuana leaf icons next to certain dishes, like the symbols some restaurants already use to point out dishes that are spicy, vegan or gluten-free. After all, everything has a way of sounding delicious when you're in a certain state, so some guidance would be much appreciated.
This one isn't new, strictly speaking. In 2010, after Colorado legalized medical marijuana, a man named Steve Horwitz opened a cannabis-focused restaurant called Ganja Gourmet, where he served marijuana-infused foods to certified medical marijuana patients, even allowing them to spoke joints while they dined. But it was shut down in 2011 after the City of Denver passed a law banning on-site consumption of marijuana. Horwitz, however, thinks it's only a matter of time before he and others in the marijuana industry return to the model he pioneered back in 2010. "It was the future of cannabis about 10 years too soon," he told The Huffington Post. "It's not going to happen in 2016, but maybe by 2020, we'll have legal marijuana in the whole country and we'll start to see more marijuana restaurants open up." A whole corps of talented chefs around the country have already started preparing for such a future by developing recipes for truly delicious marijuana-infused foods, and famed cannabis cook Matt Gray is even writing a 200-page cookbook of all-gourmet dishes containing marijuana. The most likely scenario would be that only special marijuana-focused restaurants would ever serve their patrons salads with weed-infused vinaigrettes or cannabis-laced cheesecakes -- at least in the immediate future. But maybe, years from now, "normal" restaurants will get in on the action as well.
These last three predictions are verging on science fiction territory; the marijuana legalization movement would have to accelerate rapidly for any of them to happen in the next 10 years. But the movement already has a great deal of momentum, so none of them are out of the question. The first, and most urgently wished-for, is the mainstreaming of weed sommeliers. These trained experts in marijuana -- employed by either dispensaries or restaurants -- could point people to specific strains of marijuana that, because of their psychotropic effects or their aromatic qualities, could pair particularly well with certain foods. But for the position to really be effective in restaurants, patrons would have to be allowed to smoke or otherwise consume marijuana on the premises.
You already know that marijuana can be easily infused into fats and oils. Less well-known, though, is the fact that it can also be infused into alcohol. A few stoners have already taken to infusing their own marijuana tinctures, which are sometimes called "the green dragon," a reference to absinthe's nickname, "the green fairy." It's not totally inconceivable that at some point, marijuana laws would be relaxed enough to allow restaurants and bars to make and serve such tinctures as well. Horwitz, however, doesn't see it happening soon. "There's so much regulation right now that it seems very unlikely," he said. "Restaurants already have to apply for a liquor license if they want to serve alcohol. And even if the laws at some point allow on-site consumption, they would probably still have to apply for a marijuana license if they wanted to serve marijuana, and I can't see a restaurant that has a liquor license being approved for a marijuana license as well. They'll probably have to choose one or the other." There are also serious concerns with intoxicated driving. But hey, stranger things have happened.
Remember smoking sections? Those parts of restaurants and bars where you were allowed to smoke inside? They're a distant memory across most of the country; not even bar-happy New Orleans has them anymore. And marijuana can expose bystanders to harmful secondhand smoke, just like tobacco. So the pendulum would have to swing very far indeed for marijuana smoking sections to pop up in many restaurants. Perhaps a more likely scenario would be the rise of vaping sections open to those inhaling marijuana using vaporizers and inhaling nicotine using electronic cigarettes. The vapor they exhale does contain some odor and chemicals, but at much lower levels than traditional smoke, so some people are in favor of their spread. On the other hand, more and more cities have started to ban the use of electronic cigarettes at indoor public places like restaurants, so this, too, seems like a long shot.
Follow International Centre for Science in Drug Policy on Twitter: www.twitter.com/icsdp