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Can Ohio chart a course for cannabis tourism in a post-Issue 2 world?

Mar Fernandez
Legalized recreational marijuana has the potential to spark a newfound tourism industry in Ohio, according to cannabis activists.

A recent cannabis festival and farmers market in Uniontown, Ohio, attracted 3,000 attendees and 160 vendors and a slew of local first responders. A symphony of freedom, safety and acceptance that marijuana advocate Tim Johnson believes can eventually be replicated statewide. Anyone expecting trouble at this pot party would be sorely disappointed, Johnson said.

“We had an elderly gentleman with a bloody nose, and someone that had an asthma attack, and that’s it,” said Johnson, a former law enforcement officer who advised the Ohio legislature on Issue 2, the law that made recreational marijuana legal for adults. “It shows that with an open mind, and people staying up to date on the law, we can give the cannabis community an opportunity to get together without fear of any kind of repercussions from the judicial system. It went over really well.”

Legalized recreational marijuana has the potential to spark a newfound tourism industry statewide, said Johnson and fellow cannabis activists. Ohio’s central Midwest location, for example, could create a convenient destination for enthusiasts seeking new dispensaries, consumption lounges and cannabis-themed events.

Visitors may also be interested in cannabis products and events marketed toward relaxation and pain management. And foodies can be part of this rising tide, with high-end restaurants providing cannabis-infused meals and drinks.

While these possibilities are theoretical, they are not pie-in-the-sky aspirations, Johnson said. A pizza parlor in Columbus recently removed liquor from the menu so customers can smoke marijuana on the patio. State law forbids combining alcohol sales with cannabis.

“(Issue 2) didn’t introduce a new industry, but rather a new legalized industry where it permits those involved to participate in the state’s economic and commerce growth through business ventures and tourism,” said Johnson. “There’s a lot to do in Ohio - a lot of sporting events, music and other shows.”

A plant of possibilities

Akron-born cannabis “chef” and educator Jeremy Cooper agrees that Ohio can become a cannabis tourism hotbed. Cooper has been a marijuana events marketer for 14 years, working with Ohiocannabis.com owner Johnny Lutz on farmers markets and various get-togethers.

The state could leverage parks and historical sites, or build tourism packages around annual events like the Oktoberfest Fall Festival, he said. Local cafes and restaurants might host wellness events where gummies or mocktails are fortified with a THC tincture.

The events don’t always have to involve consumption, he said. Events could focus on history, education and cultivation practices, which have proven popular in places where pot has been legal for a long time, Cooper said.

“Teaching people the extraction methods, the history of cannabis and how to dose properly and how to grow are more important to me than the music and consumption aspects,” he said. “A lot of people are just diving for knowledge, and they want an immersive experience where they can see, feel, touch and hear all the avenues that cannabis has to offer in Ohio.”

State backers can learn from Colorado and California, which offer designated “cannabis zones” at concerts and other events, said Cooper. Colorado also has a variety of marijuana-friendly attractions where guests can use marijuana while taking a tour or practicing yoga.

Adventurers over 40 who have disposable income seem like an obvious initial target market, though Cooper envisions electronic music-loving twentysomethings as patrons, too. Cannabis supporter Johnson said an ideal travel ecosystem would embrace the “one-for-all” mentality of marijuana culture.

“The foremost most important part about cannabis tourism is the community doesn’t discriminate against generations, or economic level, or ethnicity,” said Johnson. “I think that’s a very big thing for how it affects tourism and what tourism is.”

Creating an open dialogue

Goddess Growers founder Phoebe DePree forecasts an influx of out-of-state visitors once the legalized marijuana market takes root. An edibles proprietor with six dispensaries in central and southwest Ohio, DePree said the state could be a potential green getaway for immediate neighbors like Indiana.

“You can’t smoke at all in Indiana,” said DePree. “So, there’s a possibility of bringing in an inflow of ‘canna-curious’ and seasoned customers coming in, either to visit or have an experience at a ‘bud and breakfast’ hotel, where people can stay and have an infused dining experience.”

An inn could co-brand with a chef, or partner with a dispensary, for an educational event. Cannabis entrepreneurs would collaborate with residents to plan their stays and deal with any concerns they have, DePree said.

“I prefer to see the state taking the bull by the horns and saying, ‘You know this is going to be a thing, here’s the feedback we’ve gotten from our local communities,’” she said. “Then you can start having businesses take that framework and you have a really solid foundation you’re building from.”

First, Ohio must enact clear regulations around licensing, permits and consumption limitations, said Johnson, the cannabis advocate. Since marijuana remains federally illegal, rules regarding travel with products across state lines must be addressed to avoid confusion, he said.

A proposal from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration could open some opportunities. The DEA sent forward a motion to remove cannabis from its status as a Schedule I substance, where it now resides, alongside heroin, as a drug with no accepted medical use.

Reclassifying marijuana as a Schedule III drug, the crux of the DEA motion, would align it with prescription codeine-laced Tylenol and anabolic steroids. Though still regulated by the DEA, the designation could result in easier access to cannabis by researchers. However, even under Schedule III, marijuana would be subject to federal trafficking laws, including traveling with the drug across state lines.

Ohio must navigate these hurdles to establish a safe, well-regulated tourism industry – one that positions it as a unique and competitive travel destination, said Cooper.

“We have a lot of questions from employers, and education is the key to all of this,” Cooper said. “If you’re a pizza place, you’re not going to want people smoking blunts and ripping bongs. So, you want to allow people to use vape pens and other vaporizable systems. Where in another facility where it’s completely indoors, it may be edibles and mocktails only. These are questions that we’re answering in the community, because employers want that open dialogue.”

Douglas J. Guth is a freelance journalist based in Cleveland Heights. His focus is on business, with bylines in publications including Crain's Cleveland Business and Middle Market Growth.