A study in the US has recently found that wherever the recreational use of cannabis is legalised, millions of tourist dollars follow. Will the same happen in Australia?
The study, hilariously titled ‘(Pot)Heads in Beds: The Effect of Marijuana Legalization on Hotel Occupancy in Colorado and Washington’ was published in the Journal of Regional Analysis & Policy. Carried out by Brian Meehan, Corey J. Rusko and E. Frank Stephenson, the study measured tourism in American states that had legalized cannabis for personal and recreational use between 2011 and 2015.
In Colorado, the study found two spikes in tourism. First, there was a spike after cannabis possession was legalised in 2012, with over 51,000 extra hotel rooms were rented each month. However, after the sale of cannabis was legalised through dispensaries, even more tourists travelled to Colorado, with over 120,000 extra hotel rooms rented each month. If you look at the diagram below, you can see these two spikes for yourself.
When the researchers transformed this data into US dollars, they found that legalising the cannabis possession increased tourism revenue by $9.33 Million USD per month. Astoundingly, after the sale of cannabis was legalised, tourism revenue increased by a further $23.71 million USD per month.
For Australians, that’s an increase in $433.08 Million AUD a year.
Six months after cannabis was legalised in Colorado, Washington experienced a similar spike in tourism. However, as Colorado was the first American state to legalise cannabis for recreational use, Washington’s tourist spike was less impressive. Discussing the study, the researchers wrote:
While marijuana legalization increased tourism, especially in Colorado, the benefit may wane as additional states including California, Michigan and Illinois, legalize the possession and sale of marijuana.
Interestingly, although cannabis consumption increased in Colorado and Washington, roadway safety was not affected to a significant degree. In a 2017 study, researchers measured the number of motorway fatalities across several states but found the road toll was not higher in states where cannabis was legal for recreational use.
Instead, a third study found that drunk driving accidents occur less often around cannabis dispensaries, suggesting that tourists are swapping alcohol for cannabis.
Currently, the recreational use of cannabis is legal in 12 states. While some form of medical marijuana is legalized in 33 states.
But hang on a second. What about Australia?
Recently, the Australian Capital Territory became the first Australian state to legalize recreational cannabis use. However, there are limits. You must be over 18, have less than 50 grams of dried cannabis and selling cannabis to others is still illegal.
At the time of legalization, Michael Pettersson from the Labor Party had this to say:
It will work to reduce the harm of drugs in our community by reducing the stigma of drug use and encouraging people to seek help without fear of arrest.
Pettersson has been a long-time supporter for legalising cannabis across Australi as well:
— Michael Pettersson (@PetterssonMLA) February 15, 2019
However, before parliament had even finished addressing the media, pot-loving Aussies were already planning their Canberra vacations. But before you pack your bags, you might want to stop for a minute.
As of May 2020, we are unlikely to see a Colorado-style spike in tourism. While cannabis possession is legal in Canberra, you can’t buy, sell, or gift cannabis. That means that while Canberra locals can grow two cannabis plants per person, tourists aren’t going to (legally) get their hands on any.
On top of this, cannabis use in public places is still illegal, as is driving under the influence of cannabis.
For a tourist to legally use cannabis in Canberra, they’d have to fly in, grow their own cannabis plant, harvest it, use it in a private residence and fly out again. It might be possible, but it’s hardly a weekend trip.
Talking about cannabis-tourists, Greens politician Shane Rattenbury had the following to say:
People can come here, and the laws will apply, but if you’re driving down here, it’ll still be illegal when you cross the border to carry that quantity. If you’re getting on the bus with marijuana in your pocket, that will still be an offence in NSW.
Until the sale of cannabis is legalised in Canberra, we can’t expect to see an increase in tourism anytime soon.
If Canberra’s politicians want Australia’s tourist dollars, they better get back to parliament.