According to Brian Applegarth, founder of the Cannabis Travel Association International, cities in California and Europe are currently leading the cannabis hospitality movement. But their lead isn't insurmountable, he says, explaining that other cities could catch up as their tourism industries accept that pot use isn't going away. As this comes closer to fruition, the CTAI is launching a chapter system, with Denver on the short list.
We caught up with Applegarth to learn more about the CTAI's plans and the future of cannabis travel.
Westword: What prompted the decision to expand beyond California, as cannabis travel and hospitality are still so young?
Brian Applegarth: In 2017 I was encouraged by a colleague to create an association, and I eventually founded the California Cannabis Tourism Association [later rebranded as the Cannabis Travel Association International]. It was dedicated to California, and our goal was to lead and advocate for safe and responsible cannabis tourism in a regulatory environment. I knew there would be a lot of work to do to build a bridge between the cannabis and travel industries. What we learned over three years was that people from outside of California and the country were repeatedly contacting us. It became obvious we could serve a higher purpose and a larger geographical footprint.
How about in states like Colorado, where cannabis has been legal for a while now but the hospitality and tourism side still isn't really acknowledged?
Colorado, specifically, is definitely an area where we want to develop a regional chapter. I'm not aware of a current association or organization dedicated to the travel discussion in Colorado. I know the consumption laws have been complex and hung up, but I believe there has been some great movement on that front. I recently spoke with Chris Chiari [owner of the Patterson Inn], and we know there's motion in Denver. As an association, we believe safe and responsible cannabis travel means very safe and clear areas and ways for visitors to consume — ways that aren't breaking the law, and are in a controlled space with tested product and knowledgable staff, especially when you have visitors from the area who don't have the training.
Which state or region is at the front of social cannabis use and hospitality right now?
San Francisco is really a leader in this. I don't know how many lounges are out there, maybe around fifteen, but there are a lot — and that's true to San Francisco's form. You also have Palm Springs and that greater area, including the Coachella Valley. There are a few cannabis lounges in operation in that area. West Hollywood and Mendocino County, too. There are a handful of great tasting rooms in Mendocino County.
Outside of California, Amsterdam and Barcelona are the other two locations really doing something. But even Barcelona is this very quasi-legal private club model, and if you look into Amsterdam's model, that's sort of quasi-legal, too. If you're looking at it from a compliance standpoint, I still think California is leading the way. You also have things to learn from international locations, too. Barcelona is coming on super strong, and we'll see how they transition from this private club model.
As cannabis tourism progresses, do you see pot-centric entrepreneurs and businesses leading that charge? Or will it come from more established travel companies embracing cannabis as a new branch?
It's both. It's innovators who are grabbing hemp and cannabis and really starting to show how unique this is. Just look at methods of ingestion, which is a barrier we discuss. Overcoming the word "consumption," and making sure laws understand the difference between inhalation and non-inhalation. They're so much different than just drinking wine, and that's important when it comes to travel. Explaining all of those different options —the dosing scale, CBD-rich products, as well as state laws — are aspects of that arc we try to speak to.
But it will be both. It's those innovators as well as travel-industry professionals that are well established and good at adopting. This all comes down to partnerships, and travel is an ecosystem of hotels, destination marketing, rental car companies, attractions and restaurants. They all need to work together to adopt a normalized approach to include cannabis and hemp at a destination.
In a perfect world, how would you view society's regulation of social cannabis use?
There's what I'd like to see and what my prediction is. I think cannabis is inherently a tool for wellness and well-being, whether it's a high-dose dab or CBD massage. Cannabis is a tool we should understand how to use in order to improve quality of life, which includes reducing stress and reaching flow state. The original principle of cannabis in ancient China was all about properties of yin and yang, and that goes right into homeostasis, balance and the endocannabinoid system. All of the cannabis principles point to balance and quality of life, so now it's all about educating mainstream travelers about using cannabis to do that.
I think there will be a few different seasons to this. As corporate cannabis comes on strong, making sure that all of those principles and depth of knowledge don't get lost in the spirit of competition and growth will be a challenge. Travel needs to be accessible, normalized and steeped in education and risk mitigation, like teaching people about microdosing and setting expectations, and communicating the importance of what they're taking, and why. We need to be intentional with what we're consuming and have attention around why we're using it.
Anybody who participates in cannabis travel has a responsibility to promote safety of the visitors at the destination. This also extends to a staff, and it doesn't only speak to visitors. I saw a case where a hotel housekeeper ate a [THC] chocolate by the side of the bed, not having an idea what it was. So my question is, how do you educate your staff about that? There is a lot of work to do ahead, and that trickles down.