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Legal pot raises opportunity, questions in Ashland

When recreational marijuana becomes legal for commercial sale on Thursday, no one seems sure if it will unleash a cascade of pot tourism in Ashland, which not only is already a tourist destination but is also the first city on the road from California, where recreational weed is still illegal.

 “I don’t think we’ve tuned into any expected increase in tourism,” said Bob Hackett, marketing manager  of Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “So much remains to be seen. I haven’t heard the topic come up at tourism meetings as yet. I’m very curious what might happen. The picture might be very different in Oregon’s larger cities.”

Ashland Springs Hotel doesn’t expect any jump in business, says Karolina Lavagnino, sales and marketing manager, but they have booked their sister inn, the Ashland Hills Hotel, with the Oregon Marijuana Business Conference for a one-day “cannabis crash course” for businesses on Nov. 21.

“We don’t expect that kind of tourism flying into Medford international airport,” she says. “Probably Portland would benefit way more than here.”

Colorado experienced a 10.4 percent increase in tourism in 2014, the first year of legal recreational weed — much of it from the Midwestern U.S., according to the Denver Business Journal.

 “It’s going to be a very exciting time,” says Joe McLaren, manager of Breeze Botanicals on Siskiyou Boulevard. “We as adults now have this freedom given back to us to live our lives and not be told what we can and can’t do.”

Starting Oct. 1, there will be no visible change to the store, says McLaren, but adults over 21 will be able to buy a quarter-ounce a day and possess up to four plants and unlimited amounts of seed.

Recreational weed will continue to be in the shop’s back room, with controlled access. On Thursday the store will have specials, he says, “and we expect a line out the door.”

Tourists can buy marijuana, but still may find it difficult to smoke legally, since it's illegal to smoke in public or a dispensary and most hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns have non-smoking policies.

While Diarmuid McGuire, owner of Greensprings Inn in the mountains east of Ashland says he’s not interested in promoting marijuana tourism — and there’s strictly no-smoking in the inn's rooms — “I’m happy with whatever they want to smoke outside. We’ve had guests use it for a long time, so it’s not going to be a whole lot different.”

 Michael Lisk, owner of House of Leaves on North Main Street, said there may be more customers, but not much is going to change in his store.

“All the dispensaries will get a boost in business,” says Lisk. "Definitely Ashland will because of the big tourist activity here and it absolutely will be nice not fearing arrest.”

Not much will change for police, either, says Ashland Police Chief Tigh O’Meara.

“It’s been part of Ashland culture for a long time," O'Meara says. "We’re just keeping our eye on the uptick in smoking weed in public. We’ve had complaints and want to stay on guard so it doesn’t become a problem. It would be a fair prediction there’d be some marijuana tourism going on.”

There’s lots of money to be made in pot, as it moves up to the level of corporate farming and equity investors who will “park millions” in the pot business and mass marketing of recreational weed, says Echo Fields, an associate professor of sociology at Southern Oregon University and a frequent lecturer on marijuana.

Dealers, however, are faced with the problem that banks won’t accept “drug money,” because pot is illegal under federal law, says Fields. That forces sellers to find their own ways to protect their proceeds and to deal with the associated security risks.

Fields also noted that, depending on which party takes the White House in 2016, “there could be a shift back to the War on Drugs and locking people up, throwing the industry here into reverse."

The federal connection also affects Field's employer, SOU, which receives federal funding, meaning that, to the chagrin of some students, pot smoking in dorm rooms is not officially allowed.

In a Facebook survey for the Tidings, Amelia Ann Arapoff, an Ashland vacation rental owner, commented, “The option of green (pot) tours, i.e., dispensaries, grow sites, speaking with your farmer, are certainly coming our way. Clients who want that added to their rental only have to ask.”

Chiron O’Keefe of Ashland commented, “I'd be surprised if Ashland didn't set a tourism record with the availability of finely cultivated bud and all the restaurants and entertainment options. There are just so many ways to make this work.”

If pot becomes a mainstream tourism draw, businesses will adjust, says Katharine Cato, director of Ashland Visitor & Convention Bureau and marketing director for the Ashland Chamber of Commerce.

“There’s a lot of work to be done, a lot of awareness and education,” says Cato. “It’s a huge opportunity in agritourism; that’s the message expressed to me at the Governor’s Conference on Tourism last April. Everyone is learning their way in it. We’re keeping informed.

"Our role in the chamber is to promote Ashland as a destination and we, as a community, have to embrace this reality ahead of us. Ashland is a very liberal community that’s very open. What’s to come over the next year will be very interesting and inspired.”

 John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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