For Matt Kurth, the essentials of life have come through his love of the outdoors and organic gardening. And cannabis.
When he tried to blend two of these passions and grow marijuana one year, he found that he had his work cut out for him.
“I wanted to be a grower and then I tried it and it’s a ton of work,” he said. “People who don’t grow don’t realize how difficult it is.”
So after Humboldt County created a commercial medical marijuana market this year, Kurth, 34, decided to combine cannabis with his experience in the outdoor recreational industry to create what could be the county’s first cannabis tourism company: Humboldt Cannabis Tours.
The seven-year Humboldt County resident, whitewater raft guide and Humboldt Bay Aquatic Center employee said he is sure that he won’t be the only person to open a cannabis tourism business in the county, which have been able to expand in other weed-legal states like Colorado and Washington.
With the end of California’s prohibition on recreational cannabis being passed by voters in November, it is set to open Humboldt County up to an even larger market.
“I think the time to figure out what we want cannabis tourism to look like is now,” Kurth said. “If we wait, it’s not going to happen the way we want.”
RISKS AND REWARDS
As the federal government views marijuana as a Schedule I narcotic, other local tourism agencies like the Humboldt County Convention & Visitors Bureau are taking a watchful approach to the cannabis market.
“There are so many unanswered questions,” the bureau’s Executive Director Tony Smithers said. “We are being careful about what our brand is and what it stands for.”
Smithers said their bureau exists to put “heads in beds” at local hotels, with the vast majority of those they market to coming to the county to see the redwood forests. One of Smithers’ unanswered questions is whether there will even be a tourism market in the local marijuana industry or whether it will remain business as usual.
“We still don’t know whether that is going to result in any travel demand,” he said. “A lot of that depends on what the industry does to provide tourism experiences to people.”
Kurth said Humboldt County’s international reputation as a center for all things marijuana will be a draw on its own, but curiosity will be another.
“Most people have never been to a farm, even if they have lived in Humboldt County their whole lives,” he said.
While areas in the state like Oakland are working to expand their footprint in the state’s marijuana market, Kurth said that Humboldt County has other amenities like its redwoods, local breweries and scenic beaches and parks that compliment the region’s longstanding cannabis history.
But Smithers said they will be looking for any conflicts in the cannabis industry that might jeopardize their base market of family travelers.
“On one hand, we have our eye on it, but we are very cautious,” Smithers said.
Another issue Smithers sees is how they would market the industry, especially to other states, and whether they would risk federal sanctions by doing so.
While the county passed an ordinance allowing for a commercial medical marijuana market and for growers to obtain “artisinal” status for marketing purposes, county 2nd District Supervisor Estelle Fennell said they can only go so far.
“To actually develop a market and all of that including tourism and those things, I think that will be up to the legal industry itself,” she said.
The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors is currently planning to adopt new regulations before this winter in order to open up the canna-tourism market to local farms. The proposed regulations being considered by the board would also allow for on-site consumption at some cannabis businesses, similar to a tasting room at a winery.
While Kurth has some disagreements with some of the proposals, such as limiting tours to commercial and industrial zones and to businesses connected to publicly maintained roads, he said tour operators should be vetted as thoroughly as the businesses they plan to visit.
“An unregulated tourism industry could cause our beloved county to be loved to death,” Kurth said. “Every tourism resource needs to be protected from those who use it. An unregulated cannabis tourism industry in this area has the potential to destroy our greatest resources, the environment and our community. Our community and environment is what will set us apart as canna-tourism expands and evolves in California and the nation.”
CREATING A TOURISM MARKET
Getting his tourism business up and running has been a slow process so far for Kurth.
He submitted his application to the county in February and it’s still under review. Kurth said this is understandable due to the workload that the new marijuana programs have created for county departments. And there are other issues to consider with bringing a bus load of tourists into the currently quiet rural foothills such as road safety, infrastructure at the farms and impacts to neighbors.
Kurth’s application is up for review by the county planning commission on Aug. 3.
Kurth said he already has growers and concentrate manufacturers from across the county who are willing to welcome tourists, but he said that they must have both a county and state license before he would stop there.
Kurth also sees tourism as a way to help preserve small farms that are characteristic to Humboldt County.
“One thing we can all agree on is we want to see small, family, sustainable farms,” he said. “I really see tourism as being a huge part of that because it allows you to diversify your income.”
Click here to read more from our special report on canna-tourism.
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