Exploring the Cannabis Conundrum: How Do We Market It to Tourists?
Another prickly puzzle among many that Humboldt County is trying to come to grips with is how its famous cannabis connection should be marketed to the outside world. Will tourists who are thinking about coming here for our coastline, cuisine, and redwoods be disenchanted by the cannabis culture? Might it tarnish our fresh outdoorsy reputation?
For some, especially those in the tourism-related industries of the Humboldt Bay region, cannabis has been a subject to avoid or at least not mingle with their other successful brands–our redwoods, our dairy, our coastline, our Victorians.
In May, the Eureka-based Humboldt Visitors Bureau Board of Directors voted to keep cannabis businesses on a “separate but equal” marketing track. This followed a presentation a month earlier to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors that omitted any mention of cannabis.
Last Thursday, in hopes of bringing the marketing groups to appreciate the possibilities of cannatourism, the Southern Humboldt Business and Visitors Bureau sponsored a tour for members of the Eureka Humboldt Visitors Bureau, Humboldt Lodging Alliance, and others.Kevin Jodrey, well-known cannabis personality, led the first stop on the tour at the One Log House where he is a partner. He introduced the group to an integrated traditional tourism and cannabis business–from the kitschy but cute house made from one redwood log to the gift shop/cafe to the cannabis store which sells locally grown products.
If the tour members were expecting giant marijuana leaf posters and flashing neon signs, the natural wood interior and discreetly displayed merchandise soothed their fears.
Jodrey started out by reassuring the group that the goal should be to integrate cannabis into the already existing tourism culture not wave it prominently ahead of all Humboldt’s other draws. He said cannabis should be “a button on the shirt, not the other way round.”
Then, he pointed out that legalizing marijuana has had a serious financial impact on the area. “Overall the county is experiencing a downturn,” he pointed out. Businesses in Southern Humboldt are reporting a 40 to 70% drop in income. There are reports of the effect being felt widespread in northern Humboldt also.
Jodrey asserted, “Fiona Ma [currently running for State Treasurer] told him that Humboldt County received eight billion from cannabis but that legalization would redistribute [most of the] money to the rest of the state.” He said she told him that of that money more than “six billion would be distributed throughout the rest of California” leaving Humboldt to survive on less than one fourth the money the underground economy had been generating for the area.
Jodrey said he was a long time resident that planned on staying and raising his 5-year-old child here. He urged all the disparate groups to work together because the county would be better served by unity. Jodrey told the group, “I do everything I can to keep the money in town. It is really better if my neighbor has a job.”
Poverty in the area will begin to affect the other tourist industries, he pointed out. “We want people to come here and feel welcome,” he said later.
He said he was determined to make the cannabis business and other businesses thrive. “I’m not going anywhere,” he stated. “Here is where we fight.”
He talked about plans to funnel tourists who came to the One Log business at the southern border of Humboldt County to businesses further north. He mentioned wineries, the Lost Coast, the Avenue, Ferndale, Old Town, the Sequoia Zoo, Trinidad, etc., as well as cannabis businesses.
He pointed out that the average customer in One Log’s cannabis shop made a purchase of $50 to $70. These were desirable tourists with money to spend was his not-so-subtle point.
As the group left the first stop, one member leaned to another and murmured, “He’s saying all the right stuff.”
The tour then drove out the winding Briceland Road to the site of Johnny Casali’s Huckleberry Hill Farm.
Beside a pond and a cannabis greenhouse in flower, Casali talked about his dreams as a small farmer (he cultivates under 5000 square feet of marijuana) and his work with the community. Casali says he supports several non-profits including Sanctuary Forest-he helped purchase land–and the Veterans Cannabis Group–he grows a therapeutic not psychoactive cannabis strain to donate.
One of his cannabis strains is part of Willie’s Reserve–a brand owned by Country music star, Willie Nelson. Another strain was featured in a cannabis swag bag offered to film glitterati at the Oscars by his distributor FlowKanna.
Casali spent his childhood on the property. In a voice occasionally choked with tears, he described being arrested and charged federally with growing marijuana in 1993. He spent eight years in prison. His mother died while he was inside.
Today, he is the only permitted farm in the valley.
Recently retired Humboldt County Sheriff’s Lieutenant Kenny Swithenbank who was at the event spoke up. “John has always been a good guy,” he said. “I knew him when he went away.”
Casali said he loves his community deeply in part because they were so supportive to his family. “When I walked out of jail, there was 50 people sitting in my front yard waiting to help,” he said with tears in his eyes. “My goal is to take care of the people that supported me in my time of need.”
Galen Doherty, program director at Sanctuary Forest, spoke after Casali. He said that his organization received a great deal of support from cannabis growers. Because of marijuana’s illegality, people who cared about the environment in the underground industry “haven’t had an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to the environment,” he explained. “We raised over $500,000 in 14 months for Sanctuary Forest” in part because of cannabis growers.
“It is not what you are growing but how you are doing it,” he said.
Josh Sweet, a Southern Humboldt businessman, agreed. He described how difficult it is to get a cannabis permit compared to permits for other businesses he is involved in running. “Getting a timber permit was way easier and is more damaging to the land,” he said.
As the tour wrapped up, Terra Carver, Executive Director of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance told the group, “We look forward to a long and prosperous future together.”
Later, the Southern Humboldt Business and Visitors Bureau called the event, “An amazing day of open minds, sharing, education and enlightenment.”