In a past life growing up on the East Coast, I had two cities topping my list of places to visit: Montreal and Amsterdam. My reasons were as obvious as they were common. In Montreal, the drinking age is 18. In Amsterdam, you can buy marijuana in a coffee shop. For a thirsty and clear-minded kid in the Boston area, where else do you go to party?
My interest in both places dissipated, for just as obvious reasons. World-class Montreal lost its Molson-fueled appeal after I turned 21, and trekking to Amsterdam became less imperative right after I moved to California.
I had a chance to check out the Amsterdam coffee shops a few years ago. And during a four-hour layover in the city, I didn't bother to leave the airport. “I can buy all the pot I want at home,” I told myself. As it is, being the mecca for cannabis tourism is wearing thin in Amsterdam, whose mayor nearly shut down High Times' Cannabis Cup there this past fall.
This is a cautionary tale for California. Money from marijuana tourists is one of the economic benefits promised by legalization. Just look at Denver. Pot tourism is happening right now in the Bay Area. Almost anyone can fly from anywhere in the United States and easily access all the high-grade medical cannabis they can carry from licensed collectives, without ever patronizing the black market. All they need to do is come to a Cannabis Cup.
Nobody does melodrama better than local television news stations. And NBC Bay Area's “Investigate Unit” did not disappoint with its coverage of the HempCon Cup in San Jose.
HempCon's three-day event was held in the city's downtown convention center, but the real action went down outside the venue. Every approach to the event was lousy with touts handing out referrals to pot docs.Using hidden cameras and a producer willing to meet “undercover” with a pot doctor in a nearby motel room, NBC was able to report last week that “pretty much anyone” can get a medical cannabis recommendation.
Shady doctors who pump out recs without looking at medical records make up “a million, I would say even a billion-dollar industry in California,” Patrick Vanier, a Santa Clara County deputy district attorney tasked with narcotic enforcement, told NBC (we can only hope his math is less fuzzy in court). This has been a fact for some time. But as a source of the cheap sanctimony that evening broadcasts feast upon, cannabis still cannot be beat. And NBC was sure to milk it.
“It's a farce,” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo fumed on camera. The station's chief investigative reporter Tony Kovaleski ended his report with the straight-faced declamation that the $80 recommendation his producer had procured “will be destroyed and not used to purchase marijuana.”
That means they missed out on real news: The wall-to-wall cannabis bazaar going on inside the convention center. For three days, collectives sold flowers by the ounce, sheets of concentrates, and super-powered edibles to any of HempCon's 24,500 confirmed visitors who had a recommendation.
This didn't used to happen. At the first HempCon in 2010, no sales of any kind transpired. At a cup event in Oakland one year, I witnessed a vendor being told to shut down his booth and leave immediately after a security guard witnessed a cash-to-fist sale.
Somewhere along the line, someone had a change of heart. Now, events like this provide unparalleled variety for a cannabis connoisseur who doesn't have a BevMo for weed. For a weed smoker in a dry state, the “kid in a candy store” metaphor is literal. And for pot producers, it's more foot traffic than the mall at Christmas.
Neither HempCon nor any other dispensary should be held accountable for a recommendation's “legitimacy.” Under patient confidentiality laws, it's doubtful they could be responsible even if they wanted to appease haters like Liccardo, who like to point to scenes like this as “proof” that cannabis is already recreational in California.
But HempCon at least is reserved for Californians. Organizers told me that in addition to recommendations, every entrant into the pot bazaar needed a valid California ID.
This is based on an interpretation of Proposition 215 that says medical marijuana is reserved for “seriously ill Californians.” That line, however, is just in the law's preamble, and is “not legally binding,” attorney Lauren Vazquez recently told East Bay Express. Not every doctor will see you if you're from out of state, but some surely will, and write you the magic piece of paper that is a license to procure weed. And dispensaries have no legal basis to reject a patient, no matter where they live.
This would explain the scene at the High Times Cannabis Cup in Santa Rosa last June. Wandering inside the area reserved for Prop. 215 patients, I met happy faces belonging to people from all over the West: Idaho, Utah, Nevada.
Their pockets were full of product, and everyone — the tourists, the collectives doing a month's work in a weekend, and the organizers charging the booth fee — went home happy.
On its website, High Times claims that no sales are allowed (a manager of the event did not return a call seeking comment last week). I can tell you I bought an eighth of Humboldt Royal Kush, and I enjoyed it very much.
I have a feeling I may not be invited back this year — but I hope I'm wrong. It's always fun to watch the tourists gawk, and remember what it was like when all this was new.