Cannabis Cash Changes Modesto Minds

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Marijuana legalization came slowly to Modesto, California, a city of about 212,000 in the state’s Central Valley, a vast, flat expanse full of farms intersected by freeways, new tract homes—and values hard to the right of the state’s coastal cities.

For years, medical marijuana dispensaries were banned in Stanislaus County, of which Modesto is the seat. A 2006 Drug Enforcement Administration raid on a medical marijuana dispensary in city limits—that was obeying state law and paying state sales taxes—that landed both co-owners in federal prison set the tone. (One of the former owners, Luke Scarmazzo, is still in prison—one of the last federal pot prisoners in the state.) This was not weed country.

Though California voted to legalize recreational cannabis in 2016, the first legal commercial cannabis dispensaries in Modesto did not open until 2019, and then only after the local city council voted to ban them from the city’s downtown.

But now marijuana makes more money for Modesto than hotels and tourism, city officials have reconsidered—and are now doing more to promote their city’s weed business to visitors than Amsterdam.

In what’s believed to be the first sanctioned “citywide cannabis tourism program” in the United States, Modesto’s official convention and visitors bureau is now officially promoting Modesto’s cannabis dispensaries as tourism draws, with what they call a “cannabis passport.”

As the Modesto Bee reported, Modesto’s tourism board started kicking around ideas to draw visitors to the area—awkwardly located sort of near the Interstate-5 freeway connecting Los Angeles to the Bay Area as well as the main route from the Bay Area to Yosemite National Park, but not directly on either—about a year ago, after tourism dried up during the COVID-19 pandemic

Judging by the city’s books, promoting weed was the smartest move. About 40 percent of the customer base at the city’s roughly two dozen cannabis dispensaries are from out of town, according to the Bee.

And in 2020, they spent enough to generate $3.2 million in cannabis business taxes for the city, according to budget documents—more than the city’s hotel tax, and one-sixth of the city’s draw from property taxes.

With more cannabis stores coming to the area, that total will likely increase again. And with travel resuming now that vaccines for the novel coronavirus are available—and with tourism data suggesting 30 percent of all travelers, everywhere, are into weed—Modesto’s status as a byway in between destinations might work in its favor

Stop in for gas, a trip to the In-N-Out—and a trip to the weed store? Why not?

“In this postpandemic world that we’re moving into, travelers are driving around a lot. They’re looking for new experiences. And we’ve been promoting Modesto, everything from the almond blossom cruise to Modesto Loves Dogs to Graffiti Summer,” as Todd Aaronson, CEO of Visit Modesto, told the newspaper. “And if 30% of all travelers are interested in cannabis in one way, shape or another, well then why don’t we help them find easy access and enjoy the process?

Modeled on similar promotion schemes seen around the country for local beer, wine, or coffee industries, Modesto’s “MoTown CannaPass” stops a little short of offering deals at local dispensaries, in the same way a town might promote a winery.

Instead, for now, it’s more “educational,” city officials said—which, in a city that’s relatively recently embraced its legal cannabis industry, is probably a smart move. In addition to official encouragement to patronize Modesto’s legal cannabis stores rather than unlicensed sources, anyone who signed up for a CannaPass could pick up some stickers, a grinder, and a lighter from the local Cookies dispensary.

Modest, maybe, but a deliberate slow start. And compared to where Modesto was a decade ago, it’s progress.