Cannabis tourism might well rejuvenate Willits' ailing economy and help small farmers stay in business. That was the conclusion of eight panelists and the keynote speaker at the CannaTourism forum Sunday, Jan. 21, at the Willits Little Lake Grange.
“Farmers are in the most difficult situation and don’t know what to do next," said the event's organizer Annie Waters, referring to cannabis cultivators who lack the financial resources to get county and state licenses as costs soar and the wholesale price of cannabis plummets.
“Willits is suffering, even bleeding from the Bypass,” said Waters, noting that even a CalTrans employee she knows recently missed the exit for Willits. “How many of you missed the exit today?” A few hands went up.
More than 100 people from Mendocino County, Humboldt, and the Bay Area were on hand Sunday to brainstorm ideas for cannabis tourism in the county and beyond. After the speakers, the audience broke into small groups to address tourism issues and ideas, such as creating: cannabis farming and herbal medicine classes; a commercial cannabis kitchen and/or restaurant and cooking school; bud and breakfasts, cannabis Air B&Bs, and cannabis farmers’ markets.
“A lot of my friends in Willits have closed their stores,” Waters lamented, urging the audience to share creative and attractive cannabis tourism ideas.
Keynote speaker Brian Applegarth of Emerald Country Tours and the new California Cannabis Tourism Association, is already running cannabis tours in Sonoma County. He presented impressive statistics on the hundred of millions of tourist dollars pouring into the Bay Area every year. He urged a region-wide Northern California "Cannabis Trail" approach to tourism from Santa Cruz to Arcata, emphasizing the region’s “unique Bohemia,” heritage and culture.
“I can see the magic of Mendocino,” Applegarth said. “Sonoma gets more tourism than Mendocino. How do we get people up here?" His tours highlight Northern California --he's only conducted 12 so far--focusing on Sonoma's cannabis heritage's, including the back-to-the-land movement, arts and crafts, and the spiritual dimensions of cannabis.
“At this stage, I’m here to support Mendocino County,” Applegarth said.
The diverse panelists who proceeded Applegarth offered dreams of their own. Richard Jergensen of Willits has collected more than 1,000 pieces cannabis memorabilia that tell the history of cannabis in Mendocino County. He thinks a cannabis history and education museum and multifaceted event center and hotel or camping site in Willits would be a tourist magnet.
Amanda Reiman, a cannabis policy expert and vice president of Flow Kana in Redwood Valley, underscored the importance of creating the right type of tourism atmosphere, particularly if cannabis consumption is involved. “If someone gets too stoned, it is not a good experience," Reiman said. "People are coming for vacation. You want them to come back and tell their friends. You can’t undo a bad experience. We’re staring at a whole new level of education. Take it seriously. Further the cause of reforming marijuana prohibition. Turn the stigma around.”
Reiman said during a break that farmers who grow a few plants for personal consumption but don't have permits can invite cannabis tours to visit their farms. They are allowed to give away, but not to sell, up to an ounce of their own cannabis. They could offer cannabis medicine classes to tourists or teach tourists to make cannabis-infused organic meals during their visits and would not need a cultivation or tourism permit.
Cannabis tour operators, Reiman said, would need state tourism licenses and permits but would not need a cannabis business or cultivation permit because they themselves would not be directly handling, selling, distributing or dispensing cannabis.
Local appellations and Mendocino County terroirs will also peak interest and draw visitors, said Janine Coleman of the Mendocino Appellations Project. Senate Bill SB94, she pointed out, requires the Department of Food and Agriculture designate the county of origin of permitted cannabis and allows licensed cultivators to establish appellations. She said tourists are intrigued by appellations and terroirs such as Champagne and Roquefort in France. But drawing tourists is challenging and takes time. “We need strategic partnerships helping develop agricultural tourism," Coleman said.
Brooke Horowitz of the Emerald Exchange sees permitted farmers' markets as a great way to lure travelers and cannabis lovers, allowing them to meet local farmers and participate in “lifestyle” events that might include yoga, health and wellness classes and an introduction to the healing benefits of the cannabis plant.
Karen Byars of Mendocino Cannabis Resource provided some permitting information, stating that cannabis farmers' markets and event organizers need event permits from the state for every event they put on. Applicants must apply 60 days in advance and host the event at a state-approved facility -- a fairgrounds or an approved agricultural association site. Several panelists said that the state needs to expand the venue options for cannabis events, making more venues available.
Humboldt Cannabis Tour founder Matt Kurth, 33, a former river guide, said he doesn’t think small cannabis farmers with half-acre farms can survive financially without tourism because of falling prices and the expenses of permitting. "Farmers who can't make it," he said, “can move into tourism. They would be the perfect guides. I'd hire them."
The always entertaining Swami Chaitanya of Swami Select brand out of Laytonville said many local residents don’t realize that Mendocino County is known all over the world for its cannabis. He said he was traveling in Goa, in Asia, some years ago when he met a traveler who said, “I know Laytonville. I used to trim there.”
“We have to turn trimmers into tourists,” said Swami, who agreed that former cultivators are “perfect docents” to lead tours.
Nikki Lastreto of Swami Select underscored the attractiveness of Mendocino County to new as well as experienced cannabis users and tourists. “People are Jonesing to come up here,” she said. “It’s a wonderful weekend trip.”
“We don’t give up, and we don’t stop," Lastreto said. "And we just keep going."
Participants appeared upbeat and energized by the event, but when Waters asked for a volunteer to organize a follow-up meeting on cannatourism in Mendocino County, she had no takers.
(Jane Futcher is host of The Cannabis Hour radio show on KZYX. Brian Applegarth will be her guest on Thursday, Jan. 25 at 9 a.m.)