Meeting Management

Are The New Marijuana Laws Impacting Meetings?

Colorado and Washington state have legalized recreational marijuana use — and the first shops are now open. Here’s the straight dope on what that means for meetings.

You can let out that breath you’ve been holding while trying not to inhale. The legalization of marijuana for recreational use in Washington state and Colorado doesn’t seem to have triggered the End Times. Or even the High Times. And the effects on meetings and events in those destinations haven’t just been negligible, they’ve been nonexistent.

“The truth is, it’s been kind of a Y2K,” said Richard Grant, communications director for Visit Denver. “No one really knew what to expect the day that it launched, but it went effortlessly. We survey every group that meets here. Every group has said that it really didn’t have any impact.” In fact, a few organizations meeting in Denver have taken the opportunity to add relevant programing, including the Risk Management Society (RIMS), which at its 2014 Annual Conference & Exhibition this past April offered a session called “How Will the Legalization of Marijuana Affect Your Employment Policies?”

The first recreational marijuana shops only opened in Washington on July 8, compared to Jan. 1 in Colorado, so the Evergreen State isn’t as far along in the process. But still, when we talked to Visit Seattle President and CEO Tom Norwalk in late July, he was guardedly optimistic, noting: “It has been really a very unadventurous start.”

Primarily that’s because in both states, the new laws don’t necessarily overturn existing restrictions on smoking in general or even marijuana in particular. “We are learning a lot about the ambiguity of the federal laws and local laws,” Norwalk said, “and some of the unintended consequences of a city and a region that has very strict no-smoking rules. A little bit of the conversation has been, even if you did purchase marijuana and want to smoke it, there are really very few places legally that you can smoke it. It’s mostly confined to more private residences. You can’t smoke it out in public” — including not just in hotels and convention centers but also in bars, restaurants, and most other potential venues.

Likewise, in Colorado, marijuana is available for sale in various heavily regulated recreational shops, but you pretty much can’t smoke it in public. “You can’t even possess it in the airport or in national parks, or on national land,” Grant said. He added: “We have 45,000 hotel rooms. I believe there are eight [properties] that allow marijuana to be smoked.”

Not that the destinations weren’t concerned about brand perception during the run-up to legalization. “I mean, we’re concerned what the weather is when we’re on ‘Monday Night Football,’” Grant said. “We’re concerned about anything that’s going to potentially impact our image.”

Ditto in Seattle. “There was a concern about a negative perception,” Norwalk said, “but Seattle has always been very progressive, and certainly in our western part of the state, we’re a very liberal state…. We just want to make sure we can manage the message that it’s really business as usual. You’re not going to run into it, and it’s not going to be a negative impact.”

The Dutch Difference

Probably the first destination that comes to mind when people think about marijuana-related travel is Amsterdam. But according to Visit Denver’s Richard Grant, there are some major differences between the stoner-friendly Dutch capital and the newly mellow Mile-High City. “There’s no tourism infrastructure surrounding the marijuana [in Denver],” Grant said. “It’s the exact opposite of Amsterdam. In Amsterdam, there are 193 coffee­houses where you can go and smoke marijuana, but you can’t take it out of the coffeehouse. In Denver and in Colorado, we have outlets where you can buy it, but it’s illegal to consume it on the street, in a café, in a club, in a restaurant, anywhere.”

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.