"I did want to start with a quick ice breaker," Kobi Waldfogel, our tour guide, tells the bus. "We'll go around, state your name… or alias if you choose, where you're from, and your favorite slang term for marijuana."
As a tourist in Denver, a city I'd only been to once before, this icebreaker was a little different than what you find on your typical guided tour. But then again, this tour was a bit different than almost anything you can find in the United States.
I was just beginning a Lighthouse Cannabis Project tour in Colorado's capital, where marijuana tourism has taken off in the wake of legalization. As tours like this have soared in popularity, so too has their reputation for being a cesspool of binge-smoking twenty-somethings and out-of-state stoners in the midst of a week-long bender.
But the Lighthouse Cannabis Project tour has another purpose mind: they want to create an educational, cannabis 101 tour that appeals not just to pot-lovers, but to anyone looking for something to do for the day in Denver.
"I like to say that we're a refined cannabis educational experience," Dan Berkowitz, Lighthouse Cannabis Project CEO and founder of CID Entertainment, told A Plus. "Our tour is not based on consumption. It's not based on how high you can get. It's not based on how many things you can buy. It's based on learning about the seed to sale or more accurately, the clone to client process."
That tour is a two-hour ride in a Mercedes-Benz van that picks you up in Downtown Denver, drives you to a state-of-the-art, 13,000-square-foot grow facility where you see 3,000 marijuana plants go from "seed to sale," or from small plants to products. At the end, you are flushed out into a dispensary where you're treated to discounted prices on products made from plants harvested in the facility you just toured.
Photo courtesy of Lighthouse Cannabis Project
It also includes an educational video and cheeky presentation, led by Waldfogel, on the history of marijuana prohibition and how marijuana legalization eventually came to pass.
The tour I took was a smoking tour, which meant our group — about eight people from Houston, San Francisco, Austin, New York City, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Cherry Hill, New Jersey — were allowed to consume inside the van on our way to the grow house. Two older women sitting behind me audibly sighed when they realized they could smoke, noting they hadn't brought anything for the ride.
As a few people casually sparked bowls and one-hitters in the van, Waldfogel began the interactive presentation on the history of marijuana.
It started with why cannabis was made illegal. He told the story of the end of alcohol prohibition, and how many of the agents of that era found new work with The Federal Bureau of Narcotics. At that time, the agency was headed by Harry Anslinger, a villain of pot-enthusiasts that ignored the 29 scientists he consulted who informed him that cannabis did no harm and instead followed the research of the one who said it did.
By associating marijuana with Mexican immigrants in the 1930s, Anslinger successfully led a prohibition push that is only now, nearly 90 years later, coming undone.
Waldfogel is just one of many people who have benefitted from a booming marijuana industry. A new report from Marijuana Business Daily shows that 100,000 to 150,000 Americans are now employed by the marijuana industry, jobs that range from the obvious, like employment as a retailer or grower, to the less obvious: one group is now renting out their services to send a swathe of people to your grow house and trim your plants when it's time to harvest. Others, like Waldfogel, who helped start Lighthouse Cannabis Project tours, have simply created jobs for themselves.
"When you look at incomes, revenue being created from marijuana, certainly from tax collections and licensing fees and all of that, it's about 2% of our economy," Dan Rowland, Citywide Communications Advisor, said. "So its a small piece of it overall, but has obviously made an impact and it's something that wasn't there two years ago."
Once Colorado passed Amendment 64, making recreational marijuana legal, business exploded in Denver. More than 1,000 business licenses were given out to 450 unique locations, forcing the city to put a cap on business licenses. Driving through Denver, you can see why: there is a dispensary about every 45 seconds.
Most people know tidbits about Colorado's tax system on marijuana. For instance, the 15 percent excise tax on wholesale marijuana sales — when retailers buy from cultivators — helps fund school capital construction projects as part of amendment 64. The first 40 million dollars from this tax goes into the fund every year.
Right now, there is also a 10 percent retail sales tax on recreational marijuana, and the state collects that tax and distributes a portion of it back to the local jurisdictions that opted into the legal marketplace (like Denver). Many jurisdictions have opted out. In Denver, there's also a 3.5 percent special sales tax that voters approved to fund regulation, enforcement, and marijuana education.
Ironically, the biggest beneficiaries of marijuana taxes have been rural school districts, where support for legalization was lower. As regulation evolves — things like more informative packaging on edibles is coming down the pipe — Denver has watched the cannabis tourism industry continue to grow.
"There are a lot of people that are interested in how it works," Berkowitz said. "How does this plant become something that people enjoy consuming? There's obviously a lot of interesting microbreweries and craft breweries and wineries and clearly people like learning about the process of how something that they love is made."
But Lighthouse Cannabis Project isn't just for people who "love" marijuana. Waldfogel admitted the people he gets on smoking and non-smoking tours are pretty different. The latter usually have more questions about Cannabis and use, while the former tend to be more interested in consuming and buying on the tour (you are offered a discount at the dispensary attached to the grow house).
"We get people from all walks of life, from all over the place," Waldfogel said. "Most share the common interest of cannabis so it's been really fun to watch tour guests interact with each other."
And it's true. On my tour, everyone seemed to let their guard down after the marijuana ice-breaker, which got responses like "ganja," "bud," "Mary J," "smokin' a bone," "herb," "weed," and "pot."
The presentation came to an end inside the parking lot of the grow house, where we were all asked to stop consuming any product.. We were also advised that there was no personal photography inside, and while there would be a cameraman with us anyone and everyone could opt out of having their photo taken.
Inside the facility, the group was led into a room where we slipped on thin protective suits. One of the guides explained that the suit wasn't for us but the plants, which we weren't allowed to touch. Though they had become accustomed to other growers, they could be infected by spider mites or male pollen that tourists can track in.
With that final warning and a pair of sunglasses, the tour of the grow house began. We followed the plants from their earliest stages of seeding all the way until they had grown into beautiful, taller-than-humans plants that were ready to be harvested. Waldfogel pointed out the different strains and everyone ogled over the biggest, most colorful plants in the building.
At the end of the tour, we arrived in the dispensary, which is also the heart of the growing marijuana industry. Laid back millennial marijuana experts manned the cash registers, and visitors on the tour expressed surprise at some of the available products.
Aside from your standard dispensary products like marijuana and extracts like wax, there was an eclectic mix of mints, chocolates, gummies, THC-infused agave syrup (it's Gluten free!), and marijuana cookies. There were also lightly carbonated cannabis drinks, drops you could put on your tongue, and most surprising to me: an assortment of topical creams.
As an active runner, I decided to grab some of these to try on my sore knees and feet. I was pleasantly surprised at the results, which didn't include any kind of high but did relax the muscles and give relief from soreness.
Climbing back onto the bus to return to downtown Denver, the mood was much more relaxed and social than when we had begun the day a couple hours earlier. It is odd, after all, partaking in something that is illegal where you are from. For many of the tourists, the states they hailed from have at this point a long history of handing out decades-long sentences for marijuana-related crimes.
But the tour didn't just succeed in normalizing the use of cannabis product, it also succeeded in making it fit into a larger consensus Americans hold about drugs, vices, and "things that are bad for you": that moderation is key. I spoke with a few people on the tour, and they agreed with me that when the shroud of illegality and sin dropped from marijuana, the urge to binge smoke or throw back a powerful edible also evaporated.
That, on top of the obvious monetary gains of legalization, might be enough to sell the rest of the country on following Colorado's lead. For now, though, you'll have to find your way to Denver if you want to see a budding pot industry.
Disclaimer: the author's brother works for CID Entertainment, a parent company of The Lighthouse Cannabis Project.
Cover photo: Lighthouse Cannabis Project