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Cannabis tourism rolls out in San Francisco

Ever since recreational cannabis went legal in California, cannabis tourism companies started popping up around the state. They offer travelers a chance to smoke and sip wine, paint and puff, and learn cannabis factoids while lighting it up.

Emerald Farm Tours is one such marijuana tourism company.

The cannabis tour bus is nothing like the old school hippie van you might expect. Instead it’s a large suped-up limo van with tinted windows, docked in Downtown San Francisco near the Ferry Building.

“The rule on this tour is that if you see food and want it, we’ll stop for you,” tour guide Victor Pinho says with a crazy laugh. He passes around a goodie bag full of Laffy Taffies, Skittles, Sun Chips, and water. Victor used to work in marketing. He wants us all to be comfortable and happy. These tours go for nearly $150 dollars per person, and so the tourists here are well-taken care of.

“Stop us if you don't understand a term. If at any point you feel uncomfortable, too high, you need something, just let us know,” Pinho says.

Meet the cannabis tourists

There are only four people on this weed tour. David Bienenstock, who writes about cannabis for Leafly, is here. He brought along a friend. There’s a normal-looking couple from Pennsylvania, who we’re calling Don and Mel.

“Good morning, we’re from the Philly area,” Don introduces himself. “We're just taking a vacation, visiting some relatives in Berkeley, going to Wine Country and Lake Tahoe.”

They don’t want me to use their real names. When I ask why, Mel looks at me like I have no human decency. She tells me she has small kids! I get it. Marijuana is illegal in Pennsylvania, and the stigma is real. She and her husband could get in big trouble at work. And we’re awkwardly introducing ourselves like it’s the first day of summer camp.

Up until this year, buying recreational weed was a crime in California. Now even parents in business casual are showing up for cannabis tours.

“It's just so new, it's changing the culture of places and just seeing how the whole thing came about and is changing San Fran,” Don says. “I'm a mild user, smoking predominantly, so I’m interested in learning about the other products.”

Hippie hill and cream puffs

As the Mercedes zooms through “San Fran,” Victor chirps out cannabis cultural history factoids. He’s like that kid playing a car game where you shout out everything you see. The twist is everything he sees is connected somehow to weed. He points out Golden Gate Park, and explains the significance of Hippie Hill in cannabis culture.

Sometimes there is no connection to cannabis, like when Victor explains Beard Papa cream puffs. “They're a Japanese company, and the whole thing is they have three kind soft cream puffs, vanilla chocolate, and a special flavor of the day, and the whole thing is just cream puffs,” Victor says.

Victor is a good talker, and the tourists nod along, intrigued. Victor has hosted these tours since he launched Emerald Farm Tours in February. The idea came to him while he was showing a friend around cannabis farms in Humboldt County.

“On the way back he was like, ‘Hey you should really consider doing this for a living’” Victor says. “It’s one part knowledge one part experience, and one part charisma.”

Now this is Victor’s full-time gig. Since weed went legal, other tourism-related companies have popped up in Northern California. There are herb-friendly retreats called bud-n-breakfasts. Behind-the-scenes tours through dispensaries. Weed and wine combo tours in Mendocino County.

“We’re really into being good ambassadors and good stewards of our own industry and community. We want to put our best foot forward,” Victor says. “We're just not the bong on a bus. You know, that's not us.”

Just for the record, smoking cannabis in a vehicle is illegal in California. Everyone partakes only at stops. And there’s a driver who doesn’t inhale at all.

Spreading the cannabis love

Victor says he wants to share marijuana history with people who visit from places where marijuana is strictly illegal. Then, maybe people like the Pennsylvania couple can spread the joys of cannabis back home.

We pass by the Grateful Dead house in the Haight Ashbury. Victor doesn’t shy away from talking about California’s fraught relationship to cannabis. The War on Drugs. The reefer madness, the arrests, and the rebels. Like Brownie Mary, a San Francisco General Hospital volunteer who baked cannabis brownies for AID patients in the 1980s. She was arrested three times for distributing marijuana.

“She's a legend. We need more strong little old ladies selling weed,” Victor says.

A tour through the chaos of legalization

All this history brings us to the present. We stop at SPARC, a cannabis dispensary on Mission Street. The budtender says all the new regulations that went into effect when marijuana was legalized in California are bringing her down.

“We don’t even have any of our farm-direct stuff. Everything is gone,” the budtender says before explaining that she didn’t vote to legalize cannabis.

Victor attempts to explain all this to Don and Mel. He says big weed corporations are pushing small pot businesses out.

“There were people that were nowhere on the radar, they came out left field. The playing board on which we were playing -- they flipped the whole board,” Victor says. “Nothing landed in place. So as you go forward in Pennsylvania, make sure this doesn’t happen.”

Don and Mel both say cannabis legalization is inevitable, even in their home state. Victor says that’s where the cannabis industry is going: to where it’s normal for responsible, upstanding suburbanites with kids to talk openly about smoking cannabis.

“We're going to have unstructured time, if you want to consume, happy to let you consume and walk you through that process,” Victor explains next when we park near the Conservatory of Flowers.

Bonding over mellow diesel fumes

We step out of the Mercedes van and search for a quiet spot at Golden Gate Park by some trees. Victor describes this part of the tour as a the “cannabis confessional.” It’s where the guests talk about the first time they smoked, and all the highs and lows since. He passes around a joint of his own homegrown, Castro Valley cannabis.

“The O.G varietal has a very gassy flavor. It smells a little bit like diesel fumes a little bit, but ultimately it's a very mellow very woolly balance smoke,” Victor says. “What I'd recommend is if you're not a regular consumer take a hit, toss them along, wait a few minutes before it comes back around.”

Victor talks a lot, like an older friend who likes to initiate people into the tribe. He also unleashes some pretty powerful coughs.

“Here I go!” he says. “I’m a champion cougher, I win gold medals for my coughing.”

Everyone here seems to be genuinely enjoying themselves and getting comfortable. I get the sense that the tourists here are in search of intimacy as much as bud. A more personal experience of a new place, something beyond the usual scenic sights… And what could be more intimate than sharing someone’s homegrown bud - and bad jokes?

“I want to make sure no one breaks face, I have an insurance policy, but not a good one,” Victor jokes. “I used to work from insurance, so I know all the bad insurance jokes.”

A blur of bisons, windmills, and intimacy

Mel tells us her husband didn’t even tell her they were going on a cannabis tour. I’m not sure if this is a joke. She seems to be happy, anyway. With a joint in her hand, she opens up, even asking the cannabis farmer for gardening tips.

After the tourists are done smoking, we hop back into the Mercedes. From there, it’s all a blur. Victor points out the bison in the distance.

“That’s the bison breeding program,” he tells Don and Mel. Next we pass by a couple of windmills, and everything about this whole situation feels surreal and wacky.

Travelling is about broadening your horizons, seeing bison and windmills, for example. It’s also about finding common ground, like through sharing homegrown bud and gardening tips with a new friend. In that sense, this cannabis tour delivers -- for $149 dollars.

Crosscurrents CannabisSan Francisco