In our new series, we explore what it takes to land—and work—the world’s coolest travel jobs. Previous installments featured interviews with an avalanche forecaster, wildlife photographer, polar scientist, and undercover hotel inspector. Next up: a cannabis travel guide.
More than two dozen states, plus the District of Columbia, now have laws broadly legalizing marijuana in some form. Michael Gordon is the cofounder of Kush Tourism, a Seattle-based travel resource for the cannabis-curious. Gordon started the company in 2012 because he saw a need: People wanted to know where they could legally consume pot, sure, but they also wanted to learn more about the industry and how it was evolving. In addition to leading behind-the-scenes tours of grow operations and dispensaries in six states (Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Alaska, Nevada, and California), Kush Tourism produces digital travel guides that highlight 420-friendly lodging, lounges, and activities. We caught up with Gordon in Seattle to chat about the unique challenges of jumping headlong into this still very young segment of the travel industry.
Let’s start at the beginning. Did you grow up in Seattle?
“I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, a place where the cannabis industry is more gangster and Mexican brick weed. Very low-grade. I moved out to the Pacific Northwest for college and, to be honest, for whitewater kayaking. I’ve been paddling for 18 years. My business partner came from a professional whitewater background, too—that’s how we met. After college, I was working in the paddling industry when I was like, ‘Holy heck! We’re in one of the two states—Washington and Colorado—that just legalized recreational cannabis’.”
What made you decide to leave paddling and jump into the cannabis business?
“Opportunity recognition. I always like to ask the question, ‘Do you know anybody who has been to Amsterdam?’ People don’t go to Amsterdam because of windmills and bicycles—they go because they are interested in the coffee shops. And traditionally, Amsterdam has been very anti-tourism. They moved their coffee shops into red-light districts. They tried to make rules that if you weren’t a resident, you couldn’t buy cannabis. That’s really the opposite approach from what we’ve taken here in Washington. People are traveling halfway around the world to experience legalized cannabis, so let’s build the infrastructure for people to come to Washington State and have a good time. That means giving people things to do and a safe place to stay, where they can be treated like a professional who happens to enjoy smoking pot. We’re not selling weed to people. We aren’t getting kids high. All we’re doing is providing resources to responsible travelers to enjoy cannabis in a legal manner. It’s no different than drinking a cocktail.”
Your company focuses on ancillary tourism. You don’t buy, sell, or touch pot. Was that to help mitigate risk?
“Absolutely. The unfortunate truth is that cannabis is still federally illegal—and it’s Schedule I, which is wild. That was too much risk for us at the beginning. We’ve crossed a threshold now, where there is no going back as a country. Cannabis is here to stay. There are tens of thousands of people gainfully employed in this industry, and it’s generating hundreds of millions of dollars for our community and our education system. But the risk still exists. As much of a businessman as I am, I don’t want to go to jail. So we took a conservative approach.”
But you must have sensed a need. It can be overwhelming for travelers coming from states that don’t have legal recreational cannabis to ones that do. Where do they begin?
“Right. States have not done a great job educating people about what they can and can’t do. It’s not uncommon for me to run into somebody in Washington even who doesn’t know that we have legal pot. One of the ways we combat this is by distributing informational brochures we call the Washington Cannabis Tourism Map. Heck, we probably distribute upward of 500,000 at hotels, tourist attractions, car rentals, rest stops, you name it. The brochures detail what you can and can’t do in the legal cannabis industry and give people a basis of knowledge about how to make smart decisions. There was one reporter out here who famously ate an entire bar of chocolate when it had 16 doses; they thought time had stopped and the world was going to end. [Laughs] That shows there is a lack of education, especially if you haven’t tried pot in 30 years. Pot is so much stronger nowadays—so how do you regulate your dose? You wouldn’t take a shot of Everclear in the same way you would Fireball. Everybody knows that! But people don’t know that when it comes to cannabis.”
Your company is quite diversified now: You have the guidebook, the marketplace, the tours. . . . What did you focus on first?
“The cannabis tour. I thought it was important to break down the social stigma. To give you an example, Jeff from Dawg Star is one of our wonderful tour guides. He is a master grower and a professional arborist for 30 years, growing bamboo and things like that. Jeff has been doing tours at the Butterfly House, he sits on boards of directors, and when you meet Jeff and walk into a grow operation, the social stigma disappears. Jeff is a human being. And that’s such an important step—putting a human face on the industry. If you go to any state that doesn’t have legalized cannabis and you say, ‘Oh, nice bag! I’d really like to meet the grower,’ they would laugh at you. They’d say, ‘No way, that is never going to happen.’ And that sort of barrier, that level of protection, makes it feel black market and makes you assume there is something bad being done. It perpetuates the social stigma. Through tourism, we can break down those walls.”
A big part of your approach is normalization through transparency. And it must be working—you’ve said in interviews before that Kush Tourism attracts a lot of doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, couples . . .
“So many couples! Oh my gosh, the love birds love us. The husband has been sneaking bowls in the back and the wife is like ‘Well, I don’t like this pot thing, but it’s your birthday so let’s go on a cannabis tour.’ And we get all sorts of folks who are just interested in learning more. I mean, who hasn’t been on a winery or brewery tour? This is the same thing.”
But pot still has an image problem because it’s still black market in so many states. You can actively court doctors and lawyers and couples, but if you can’t ultimately regulate who joins a tour, how do you change that image?
“A lot of it has to do with the first contact you make with a potential customer. For us, that would be our website or cannabis tourism map. When you pick it up, there is a picture of a couple. The gentleman has got his arm around his girlfriend and they’re looking out at the Seattle skyline. These are normal people. We use clean, professional branding. We don’t have photos of scantily clad women smoking joints, because I think that’s the wrong image to be portraying in the cannabis industry. It’s like talking to your kids for the first time about drinking alcohol or doing drugs or having sex. You don’t start the conversation by showing somebody passed out drunk or showing them pornography. You approach these situations delicately. It’s still a new thing and it’s an uncomfortable subject for a lot of people.”
So when you were first assembling the kush guide and putting together the mobile app, it’s obvious why a retail shop would want to be listed. But how did you get the bed-and-breakfasts on board?
“We literally called every single bed-and-breakfast in Washington State and asked, ‘Hey, do you guys accept medical marijuana travelers? Would it be OK if someone consumed edibles or cannabis at your home? Where is your comfort level? Because we have travelers and we believe they deserve to be treated like professionals.’ It’s a lovely opportunity to be progressive, especially with the popularity of Airbnb, and we see a lot of folks opening up their homes and trying to differentiate themselves. And goodness knows we’ve helped so many small bed-and-breakfasts bring in more customers. In fact, I was just out at Spokane, staying at the 1899 House, when I met some cannabis travelers from the South who found the place through our website. The husband was smiling ear to ear. He said, ‘Why don’t we share a joint in the courtyard?’ And right there in the privacy of 1899 House, we had a blast, oh my gosh! He was on Cloud 9, coming from a state so conservative—I don’t know that he’s had a better vacation in his life.”
When the B&Bs you called said no to being listed, what was their reasoning?
“A lot of folks still have moral obligations. Some were concerned that their other guests would be turned off, or that there is going to be smoke wafting from underneath the doors. This is still a very, very new industry. Every business in cannabis is a start-up business. So we don’t pressure bed-and- breakfasts to house cannabis travelers. If you say no, it doesn’t matter why. We say, ‘No problem. When you are up for it, please reach out to us and we’ll put you on our website’.”
Obviously, you watch the state laws very closely. How do you know when legalization in a state has become stable enough to justify putting resources into coverage of that state?
“Trial and error? [Laughs] Whenever there is a transition from medical to recreational cannabis, there’s a ton of volatility. And out of volatility comes opportunity. Our role in the industry is to build a bridge a between travelers and businesses. So we look at the number of licensees out there, how many stores are open, and is it enough to support our resources. I’ve got friends down in Nevada—with NuLeaf, Essence, and Reef Dispensaries—who are seeing 10 times the growth since July 1st. I’m sure all of the snack stores and restaurants down there have also been enjoying the boost in business. Room service, through the roof!”
Have state-run tourism boards been open to talking with you about kush-centric tourism campaigns?
“That’s a really big challenge. I worked with Visit Seattle for two-and-a-half years, trying to break down this wall. We’re an ancillary company, we’re a licensed business, we’re legitimate in every way across the board—so why won’t you accept us as a business resource for travelers? It took a long time and a lot of bandwidth, but I’ll be dang, they finally accepted our application! ”
Yeah, but it’s one thing for a tourism board to let you put a brochure out and it’s another to actively promote Seattle or Colorado or wherever as a destination for cannabis tourism. Do you think that’s still a good five years off?
“I don’t think Visit Seattle is ever going to go out there and say, ‘Come to Seattle and smoke pot!’ Although it’s a big opportunity missed. Champagne is branded champagne, and that’s a wonderful thing for their region.”
Or wineries in the Finger Lakes, Asheville with its beer crawls . . .
“Sure. You’ve got the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky, you’ve got Napa. To think that cannabis isn’t going to evolve in the same way—it is, it’s inevitable. This is just a timing issue. Visit Seattle has this opportunity to promote cannabis and drive more tourism to Washington State in a responsible manner, and it has chosen not to pursue that opportunity. And that is literally their mission statement: to bring more tourism dollars into our state. It’s disappointing, for sure.”
Are there other companies in the industry that bug you because you feel like they’re doing things that go against your mission to normalize cannabis tourism?
“Companies that operate in the black or gray markets are frustrating. Of course you can find success by breaking the laws and giving away weed or doing illegal deliveries. But it makes it a lot harder for people trying to do it right. For example, I have competitors who have allowed smoking on their buses. That’s a class C felony in Washington State.”
When you tell guests that there is no smoking on your tour bus, do they respect that?
“Yes. What makes our tour special is not smoking weed in the bus, it’s the fact that we get you unprecedented access to grow operations or glass-blowing studios or processing facilities, and you can ask questions to people who know all of the answers. Smoking weed in the bus is so unimportant by comparison. If you want to consume cannabis, smoke before. Smoke afterward. No big deal. It’s legal here in Washington State. But we do ask that you abide by the law while you’re on the tour—for our sake, so we can continue doing what we’re doing for everyone out there. It’s been a non-issue so far.”
What advice do you have for people who want to get into this industry?
“It’s not easy owning a business and it’s no easier in the cannabis industry. You have to expect red tape and challenges. One of the most interesting challenges is the constantly evolving legal landscape. Just because a law was made doesn’t mean it’s set in stone. In Washington State, they originally said they were going to issue X number of licenses, and then that number changed multiple times. So if you invested $2 or $3 million dollars in a retail store and all of a sudden your list of potential competitors grows from 150 to 300, it’s a totally different landscape! The opportunity has changed.”
Do you have a direct line of contact to legislators, or do you stay out of politics?
“I think it’s important to have a voice if you see legislation that is poorly written. Because once something is written into law, it’s very, very difficult to change. Lawmakers need feedback from business owners about how to legislate in our best interest.”
Tell me about the best cannabis vacation you’ve ever taken.
“[Laughs] Let me speak generally. Anybody who is a regular cannabis consumer, it doesn’t matter where you go. These guys are like MacGyver, they’re gonna find pot. So if we’re in Jamaica or Europe or South America or Texas or Idaho, you’ll follow your nose. But, OK, there’s this place in Portland, Oregon, called Bridge City Collective. They have glass cases and great strains grown in-house. It’s the Willy Wonka experience, a great freaking time. Another nice thing about Oregon is its rolling sanctuaries. Our friend Wayne [Oppenheimer] runs wine and cannabis tours through the Potlandia Experience and he’s the biggest character I know! He wears a purple suit and hat and when he presses a button, smoke starts flying out of the bus. It’s so much fun! He takes you to places like the Northwest Cannabis Club, which is one of very few lounges in the United States where you can sit down and consume. We took some clients down there and were able to smoke joints inside, play foosball and pool, and listen to music. This is a great time to be a cannasseur—have fun, learn. It’s history in the making.”