Cannabis Tourism: Will Legalized Marijuana Bring Reefer Madness to Illinois?

The Jan. 1 legalization of recreational marijuana in Illinois brings with it many dizzying questions. One of them is what impact legalization could have on tourism. Could the Land of Lincoln become the Midwest mecca for marijuana tourism?

Reporter Robert McCoppin covers the marijuana beat for the Chicago Tribune. He recently travelled to Colorado to get a whiff of how legal pot has impacted that state.

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“It seemed like plenty of people were excited to visit Colorado for the opportunity to purchase and experience pot freely and legally. One of the most the memorable parts of the trip was the My 420 bus tour I went on,” McCoppin said. “The bus visits cannabis greenhouses and dispensaries while riders smoke pot on the bus along the tour. The bus would have these lasers that would go off to alert riders when they could/could not smoke. See, the city of Denver had ticketed the bus for allowing smoking on the bus. Denver authorities viewed it as a public space. But surrounding suburbs viewed the bus tour as a private space, meaning the riders could smoke on the bus.”

This is just one example of the kinds of issues Illinois municipalities will be dealing with.  

Instead of a foodie or distillery tour, might we start seeing ads for similar cannabis greenhouse bus tours in Illinois?

David Zapata, CEO of Zapwater Communications, a Chicago-based PR firm advising destinations on how to increase tourism, doesn’t expect marijuana to have a huge impact on tourism.

“I do think marijuana will be a revenue generator for the state, but I don’t see it as a tourism driver,” he said. “There’s still debate about whether it’s really helped tourism in Colorado. Within the first years there was an uptick in visitors. But in terms of out-of-state visitors, only a small number said they were there for marijuana. Legal marijuana could be one of the reasons why someone comes, but may not be the deciding factor. Also, we don’t have any data on whether certain people chose not to come to Colorado because of marijuana legalization.”

McCoppin thinks plenty of visitors might come to Illinois from surrounding border states once marijuana is legal.

“Although Michigan has legalized marijuana, Illinois will be the first state in the Midwest to allow legal marijuana sales for recreational use. We should definitely expect to see people driving here from surrounding states to purchase marijuana,” he said.

But whether those visitors will spend on other things, like restaurants or lodging, is still a burning question.

In the meantime, Zapata is glad Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has chosen not to allow marijuana dispensaries in the downtown area of Chicago’s Loop and Magnificent Mile.

“There’s a big stigma attached to marijuana use. Main Street America is still not that comfortable with it,” Zapata said. “When I was in Las Vegas, I couldn’t believe the size of some of these cannabis dispensaries. Vegas has worked hard to nurture a more family friendly image, but I think these marijuana shops really work against that.” 

McCoppin and Zapata join “Chicago Tonight” in conversation.

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The Week in Review: Lightfoot Gets Blowback for Pot Plan

US Awards $3M to Fill Gaps in Medical Marijuana Research

City Council Looks to Restrict Vaping, Expand Marijuana

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