MA: Tourism Officials Wrestle With Marijuana Marketing

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Legal marijuana in Massachusetts is expected to draw visitors from states where the drug remains illegal, providing a major boost to the tourism industry from users apt to spend money in hotels, restaurants and other retail outlets.

But whether state tourism officials will promote the budding, multimillion-dollar industry remains to be seen.

At present, there are no restrictions on using state tourism dollars to market marijuana businesses.

Draft regulations approved two weeks ago by the Cannabis Control Commission focus only on restricting the marketing of retail pot businesses to underage users. But the state’s 16 regional tourism councils are starting to discuss how to handle a new industry that could become a major draw.

Ann Marie Casey, executive director of the North of Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, said it’s become a hot topic. The regional council’s leaders plan to convene a panel to discuss the issue and how it relates to the region’s overall marketing plans.

“It’s definitely something that’s on our radar,” said Casey, who noted that the regional council’s board of directors will ultimately decide how to proceed.

For now, the visitors bureau plans to continue its focus on selling the region for its open space, arts, culture and entertainment.

“We have so many natural assets, beautiful museums, restaurants and other attractions, and we’ll continue to market that,” she said. “But I do not know if we’re going to be actively marketing recreational use of marijuana.”

The state Office of Travel and Tourism, which oversees the regional councils, declined to comment for this story.

Tourism is the state’s third-largest industry. Visitors generate about $20.2 billion a year, including $1.3 billion in taxes.

The industry employs 135,000 people and pays $4.4 billion in wages, according to the state Office of Travel and Tourism.

The state gets more than 25 million visitors a year from within the United States and an additional 2.5 million overseas.

Jim Borghesani of the Marijuana Policy Project, a national group that backed legal weed, says it would be unfair for state tourism officials to continue to promote businesses that sell alcoholic beverages while turning a cold shoulder to marijuana marketing.

The state’s official tourism website, for example, enthusiastically promotes wineries, cider houses, microbreweries and mom-and-pop distilleries that make vodka and other alcoholic beverages.

“There’s nothing preventing state tourism dollars for cannabis tourism promotion,” Borghesani said. “Frankly, it would be hypocritical of them not to promote it.”

That seems unlikely under the Baker administration, however, despite tens of millions of dollars in anticipated tax revenue from retail sales scheduled to begin later this year.

Gov. Charlie Baker, a Swampscott Republican, firmly opposed legalization and actively campaigned against Question 4, which was approved by voters in 2016.

“I honestly don’t expect strong leadership from the state’s tourism officials, and it will probably be awhile before the state moves forward with any expenditures on this,” Borghesani said. “The politicians and elected officials have traditionally been behind the general public when it comes support for legalization issues.”

The state is also likely to face additional scrutiny following U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision Thursday to rescind an Obama-era policy that kept the federal government from standing in the way of states that legalize weed.

It wasn’t immediately clear what that reversal would mean for the state’s new pot law.

Massachusetts’ voter-approved law allows adults 21 and older to carry up to an ounce of marijuana in public and grow up to a dozen plants on their property.

It also permits retail sales and commercial growing.

Eight states and Washington, D.C. allow adult-use recreational marijuana; 29 states have approved medical marijuana programs.

Marijuana remains on the federal government’s list of controlled substances, however.

Other states where pot is legal have also taken a wait-and-see approach to marketing the industry.

In Colorado, which legalized weed in 2012, the state has seen a massive influx of tourists who have contributed to retail sales of more than $1.3 billion a year. Tours are bringing busloads of visitors from as far away as Florida and Texas to shop at hundreds of dispensaries in the state.

Still, state tourism officials say they cannot promote the industry, citing restrictions in Colorado’s adult-use law and the fact marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

Tourism officials in Nevada, the most recent state to legalize pot, don’t appear to be shrugging off the potential impact of the new industry. They’re conducting market research over the next year to determine whether to incorporate marijuana commerce into marketing for Las Vegas and other destinations.

In Massachusetts, rules for the new industry are still taking shape as state officials prepare for the advent of retail pot shops in July.

Two weeks ago, the state’s five-member Cannabis Control Commission adopted draft rules that limit marijuana advertising on public property, ban marketing designed to appeal to minors, and set strict requirements for retailers marketing their marijuana products.

Direct advertising using television, radio, internet or other electronic communication, billboard or other outdoor advertising, or print publications, will be banned unless marketers can prove that “at least 85 percent of the audience is reasonably expected to be 21 years of age or older.”

The regulations are not final and can be amended or changed before they go into effect in March, according to the commission.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has already extended rules that ban tobacco ads at MBTA stations, buses, subway cars and trains to include advertising that “promotes the sale, use or cultivation of marijuana or marijuana-related products.”

Borghesani said tourism officials “would be remiss” if they didn’t consider the potential benefits of promoting the state as a destination for pot tourists.

He expects Beacon Hill policymakers will warm to the idea when they begin see revenue from retail sales and the influx of visitors.

“It’s going to take some time, and there’s still a lot of stigma,” he said. “But I think once politicians see the revenue, it will completely change the discussion.”

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