In the Weeds with Cannabis Tourism

Dispensary tours have cropped up since recreational cannabis legalization, but two theater performers-turned-cannabis-guides take you inside farms of the Emerald Triangle.

Emerald City Genetics cultivates cannabis plants in Ukiah. Photo by Ida Mojadad

Monetization of the Green Rush comes in different forms: lotions, CBD oil for anxious pups, Lagunitas brewed with cannabis terpenes, delivery apps, and even a hemp airplane. As San Francisco is one of the few counties statewide to allow dispensaries, that also includes a slew of tour companies and party buses, especially for visitors from out of town. But amid the evolution of the farm-to-table movement, demand for the concept of a Seed-to-Sale tour has grown large enough for Emerald Farm Tours to trademark and sell the four-hour tour for $295 a ticket.

As with Emerald Farm, the pair of theater-performers-turned-entreprenuers behind Mendocino Experience Cannabis Tours takes people to the source: farms in the Emerald Triangle of Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties dubbed the “Napa Valley of cannabis.” (Tickets go for $239, or $210 each with a group for the 10-hour tour.)

Chris Vardijan and Misha Frankly, two longtime friends turned business partners, would know. Each translated their theater skills into stints as city tour guides before they got sick of the cold atop double-decker buses, so they began giving wine tours. Where they see other wine tours mixing in cannabis, they wanted to bring San Francisco to the Emerald Triangle and avoid crossing influences. Cannabis tourism was the natural next step for them, this time as owners instead of employees.

“Wine Country is nice, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Mendocino County,” Vardijan says, in a button-down shirt patterned with leaves that’s partially covered by his long hair. “We basically took the wine model and applied it to cannabis.”

Between permitting and building trust with cultivators, the tour took about a year to come together but now consists of two dispensary visits and two eye-opening farm tours in Mendocino County.

It’s fitting — although geographically necessary — that the route from the San Francisco Ferry Building pass through Marin County, where 420 started. In 1971, a group of San Rafael High School students nicknamed the “Waldos” with a penchant for getting high decided to meet at 4:20 p.m. to search for some cannabis plants that Coast Guards in Point Reyes had planted. The famous code was born in their reminders to each other in the hallway to meet up and keep searching.

But that’s common knowledge, especially in the Bay Area. The lesser-known nugget of stoner culture came in the form of Vardijan’s impressive recital of children’s writer and former Sausalito houseboat dweller Shel Silverstein’s “The Smoke Off.” Where there are signs that the pair is learning how to run a business as they go, it’s easy to see their passion driving the endeavor.

The first stop was to Emerald Pharms, a dispensary on the site of an idyllic, 12-acre, solar-powered sustainable living center borne out of a former junkyard. It’s easy to imagine retirees living off the land with a view of a peaceful pond, trees growing out of rusting cars, and a steady source of holistic-minded cannabis product in Hopland.

Where the tour’s magic really kicks in is at Emerald City Genetics, which has a farm in Ukiah and facility in Willits. Seeing a group of workers clone plants around a table intensifies the conflicting images lingering about cannabis. The idea that the image could still be reminiscent of a shady drug operation must still be countered with the continuously needed reminder that this is all legal now.

In between learning about the strict schedules of limiting light exposure to the cannabis plants to lengthen their lifespan, and therefore profits, Humboldt farmer Brad Mason reminds us that legalization comes with a price. Faced with adapting to regulations, longtime farmers instead sell the land, pack up their kids, and find a new purpose.

Likewise, the company’s Willits facility inside an old Caltrans office is struggling with finding employees to manage the roughly 6,000 finicky plants they have at any given time — when others would still rather work underground. (On the other hand, they did recently start using Alexa to track every plant’s every move, as required by authorities.)

The Willits facility also illuminates why the financial barrier to entry can be so high. It consists of several rooms, each tracking temperature, lighting, humidity, and other factors to a science. Inside the dark room, visitors must don a Breaking Bad-style getup to avoid spreading pollens and turn their camera’s flash off to avoid confusing the plants’ sex organs, thus ruining the batch and costing millions. In another room, plants hang like cured prosciutto next to a large tarp of buds.

After getting to know the whole process of cultivating cannabis, what better way to end than watching your middle-aged Russian tourmates dab at Kure Wellness dispensary in Ukiah before passing back through the city that made 420?

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