Marijuana Legalization Could Improve Arizona Tourism

If Arizona voters approve adult-use marijuana legalization this year, it won't hurt tourism, using Colorado's experience as an example.

Tourism could even improve because of legalization, especially while cannabis freedom still is a novelty in most of the country.

Yet the Arizona Lodging and Tourism Association (AzLTA), an influential group that represents numerous hotels, resorts, and B&Bs in the state, remains staunchly opposed to any legalization plan. In late December, recently released campaign-finance reports show, the group even donated $10,000 to the pot-prohibitionist group led by Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy (ARDP).

"Employers in the lodging and tourism industry will experience distinct and negative fiscal impacts when required to comply with new rules and regulations that will be essential in order to ensure a safe and secure workplace and environment for visiting guests," says Kim Sabow, AzLTA executive director and a former staffer for former Governor Jan Brewer. "Furthermore, the legalization of recreational marijuana represents a brand in direct opposition to the Arizona brand our state’s government, business and community leaders have worked tirelessly to elevate, and we are seeing chambers throughout Arizona lining up in opposition to this reckless initiative."

Sabow didn't respond to a follow-up comment about the more controversial elements of Arizona's brand on which some leaders have worked tirelessly, such as the state's anti-migrant and pro-gun laws. Nor would she elaborate on the supposed negative fiscal impacts.

In fact, all available evidence indicates her stance runs contrary to the best interests of the Arizona tourism industry.

In a November op-ed published in various state newspapers, Polk and Seth Leibsohn of ARDP encouraged Arizonans to take a "close look at Colorado" as they consider legalization in this state.

But anyone worried about a negative impact on tourism in Arizona should feel relief at Colorado's experience in that regard: The state has continued a streak of record-breaking tourism years. The first year that Colorado's adult-use law went into effect and retail marijuana stores opened across the state, 71.3 million visitors came to the state, spending nearly $19 billion — the highest such figures ever recorded.

Few people are willing to say if marijuana is boosting the overall number of visitors to Colorado, although there's no question that many travelers to the state are going at least in part because of their curiosity about legal weed. Tour companies that help visitors find cannabis-friendly hotels or do other pot-centric activities have been booming.

One overarching fact appears undeniable: A negative impact on tourism hasn't been seen.

"The legalization of recreational marijuana represents a brand in direct opposition to the Arizona brand our ... leaders have worked tirelessly to elevate." — Kim Sabow, president and CEO of the Arizona Lodging and Tourism Association

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"Nobody has said, 'We're not coming because of this,'" says Amie Mayhew, president of the Colorado Hotel and Lodging Association. "Thing are going well . . . It's hard to say it's going better here because of marijuana."

Mayhew sympathizes with her Arizona counterpart's position. Mayhew's organization opposed Amendment 64, the ballot question that led to Colorado's legalization law, which allows adults 21 and older to grow, possess, and buy marijuana, and set up a regulation system for legal cannabis shops. Some of the opposition among members of the group came from fear, she admits.

"Especially early on, there was some concern that Colorado would be black-labeled," she says. "That didn't happen."

Still, she adds, "It's a scary thing for the industry to think this is coming. Our members have struggled to figure out how they fit. It's sort of this new world."

Many members of Mayhew's organization would like to see the law repealed, she believes. Legalization has been a hassle for hotel owners because the statute doesn't provide a place for tourists to use marijuana, she says.

Anyone who risks smoking in public could be fined, and most hotels don't allow marijuana smoking in rooms, even though they could. Colorado law requires that hotels keep 75 percent of their rooms smoke-free, but hotels simply could decide to allow pot in the smoking rooms. That brings up other questions, though, such as whether other guests would tolerate the smell — which by some accounts already pervades half of downtown Denver — from wafting through the hotel.

Mayhew says about a quarter of what she does now for the organization each week relates in some way to marijuana.

Arizona also had a big year for tourism in 2014, with more than 40 million people visiting the state and spending about $20 billion here. In September 2014, the state Joint Legislative Budget Committee analyzed the fiscal impact of legalization and estimated that tourists would account for least 1 percent of legal marijuana sales in Arizona while that number is 2 to 4 percent in Colorado.

"The tourism officials are doing a disservice to the rest of Arizona by putting their personal politics ahead of economic well-being and safety of citizens," says Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project in Colorado.

The MPP is one of the main backers of Arizona's primary legalization law, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Arizona, a proposal similar to the law in Colorado. The CRMLA claims to have collected about 150,000 signatures so far.

Another legalization measure, Arizonans for Mindful Regulation, hopes to put its own proposal on the ballot this November.

Tourism aside, Arizona could reap a fortune in tax revenue from legal marijuana, some estimates show. New reports from Colorado show that marijuana revenue is exceeding expectations.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.