Never too big on subtlety or modesty, America’s cities love and embrace superlatives. We have an oil capital of the world, a peanut capital of the world, even a “fire hydrant capital of the world.”
So too, as the U.S. ends its experiment with drug prohibition and embraces marijuana legalization in a way never before seen, it’s only natural that one American burgh would become the cannabis capital of the world.
The only question is where.
Until now, the mantle of “Hub of Weed” has almost certainly belonged to Denver. Though Colorado was slower than other states to embrace medical marijuana, the Mile High City has made up for lost time since the first day of recreational cannabis sales on Jan. 1, 2014. Pot has remade the city’s economy, upended the real-estate market, and in a few short years, has become a marijuana mecca.
So total is cannabis’ hold on the entire state’s retail sector that there are now more marijuana stores in Colorado than there are McDonalds or Starbucks locations—a somewhat meaningless metric that is nonetheless given great significance as a sign of marijuana’s economic potency, and one that’s playing out in other communities across the country.
But where—and why—will marijuana become king? Is it Los Angeles, Denver—or even Boston? Here are six places that will vie for the title of cannabis capital of the U.S.—a competition that we’re quite frankly excited to watch play out.
1. Los Angeles
With nearly four million people in the city proper and 10.1 million people in the city and surrounding suburbs, L.A. is the most populous place in California—which, remember, is both the country’s most populous state and the origin of most of the country’s marijuana.
California is already the agricultural capital of the country, so it stands to reason that when and if cannabis joins interstate commerce, most of the legal weed in America will come here. In the meantime, when legal adult-use marijuana sales begin in California in January 2018, a few cannabis businesspeople figure that L.A. will be the star.
For one, this is where all the people live—almost half of California’s 38 million people live in southern California—and marketplaces almost always coalesce in population centers. For another, there are already several hundred medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles—several hundred more than the 135 supposedly allowed under city law.
According to Adam Bierman, principal of marijuana investment and business firm MedMen—which is, what do you know, based in Los Angeles—L.A.’s black market for marijuana could be as big as $1 billion. That’s some titanic demand, but the production centers for California cannabis will remain far removed from L.A. for the foreseeable future.
Add in the fact that California-traveling tourists won’t be allowed to legally patronize recreational dispensaries until 2018, and that L.A. has just as many dispensaries per person as another key California city, and we’re not entirely sold on the City of Angels becoming the City of Kush.
2. San Francisco
As any baseball fan knows, the unyielding S.F.-vs-L.A. tedium is settled only by the point of origin of the person making the “argument.” If you’re from north of Coalinga, Frisco is the finest city in the world; if you grew up surfing in Pismo, the City by the Bay is a charming-yet-annoying little village.
San Francisco has a fraction of L.A.’s physical size and a Napoleonic-like attitude to match, but there are similarities between the two cities.
Like L.A., San Francisco has about 2.1 medical marijuana dispensaries per 100,000 people, according to a Humboldt State University review, meaning the industry has as much saturation here as it does in L.A.
But unlike L.A., San Francisco is much closer to the outdoor farms in the Emerald Triangle, where some of the state’s best cannabis is produced. Downtown San Francisco is where the activists who made medical marijuana legal and started Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana, are headquartered. This is also where cannabis commerce is collecting: The biggest marijuana dispensary in the state—and possibly the country—is Harborside, across the Bay in Oakland, and the largest marijuana production facility is in Santa Rosa, just 90 miles away from the Golden Gate Bridge.
Cannabis culture is firmly ingrained in the Bay Area—the only question is whether San Francisco’s hyperspeed gentrification will squeeze out cannabis just as it’s made life difficult for artists, craftspeople and anyone making less than $100,000 a year in a job not involving tech.
3. Las Vegas
Be honest: When people from around the world come to America, they skip the monuments in Washington, D.C., the skyscrapers in New York City, and whatever it is that’s in flyover country—and they go straight to Sin City. Some 42 million people visited the neon hub in the middle of the desert, which is happily adding cannabis to gaming, conventions, shows and food to its list of attractions.
Like California, Nevada voters legalized recreational marijuana at the ballot this year—and unlike California, Vegas-based entrepreneurs were already putting together marijuana-themed tours months before the vote. The state put a stop to that, but the desire and the demand were obvious, and now that recreational marijuana is legal, it’ll be back in full force. At least that’s the bet made by out-of-state celebrity entrepreneurs like Snoop Dogg, who are already getting involved in the Las Vegas marketplace.
For its part, the casino industry doesn’t expert marijuana to be a big tourism draw. Then again, that could have been because gaming magnate Sheldon Adelson, who owns several major casino-hotels on the Las Vegas Strip, was an outspoken opponent of legalization. It’s quite possible that was only the first bad weed-related bet casinos made.
The current champion, Denver was a victim of its own tourism board, which sponsored a study in late 2015 that found visiting conventioneers were turned off by the city’s downtown business strip that features several adult-use marijuana dispensaries. That didn’t seem to matter much to state tourism officials, who found that 49 percent of visitors to the state figured in marijuana as a reason to come to Colorado. That said, only eight percent of out-of-staters copped to visiting a cannabis dispensary—meaning it’s possible they came just to experience a permissive atmosphere, rather than partake in the industry themselves.
In any event, places like Denver have a big leg-up on California and Las Vegas: It’s already in business.
Legal adult marijuana sales will enter its fourth year on Jan. 1 in Denver, meaning all the hiccups and growing pains other states will experience are in Denver’s past. Major dispensaries and production companies are Colorado-based, with vape-pen manufacturer O.pen Vape successful enough to put in a serious bid for the naming rights to the home stadium of the Denver Broncos football team—and there are successful tourist packages bringing out-of-staters to pot farms, production facilities and dispensaries. For now, the crown is Denver’s to lose—and other cities will have to work hard to catch up to steal it.
The sleeper of this particular pool, Portland has better chances than fellow Pacific Northwest marijuana-friendly city Seattle to become an American cannabis capital—if only because there’s so much weed here. As of April 2016, there were 167 cannabis dispensaries in Portland, a city of 609,000 people. That’s eight times as many weed stores per person than San Francisco or Los Angeles—and this despite having recreational dispensaries in business for only a little more than a year. That’s some growth, dude.
Weed is also a natural fit: Portland is already a place that’s proud of its intoxicants and happy to include them in lifestyles, as the success of Stumptown Coffee and Oregon-brewed beers has demonstrated. For all these reasons, we think Rip City could easily steal other western cities’ thunder when it comes to marijuana, especially if the opponents dither with rules or make them too difficult or expensive to navigate.
The cradle of American independence, abolitionism and appropriating native attire in order to make an economic point, Boston is also the biggest city east of the Mississippi where adults can use marijuana. In case you’ve forgotten, East Coast bias is real—that’s where most Americans live, after all, which means Boston is soon to become the nearest city to a majority of Americans where marijuana is legal. (Washington, D.C. currently holds that title, but a combination of its small size and high density of federal property is hampering the growth of the industry there.)
In other words, if you live anywhere between Canada and the Florida Keys, Boston will be be the nearest and easiest place to put together a weed-tinged vacation—and with its huge population of students and tourists walking the Freedom Trail and seeing other sights, Boston is already a mecca for travelers.
Prior to voters in Massachusetts approving adult-use legalization, industry observers like the California-based ArcView Group, a marijuana investors’ network, pegged Massachusetts to move $1 billion of weed by 2020. Outfits like a one-million square foot, marijuana-only office park—the biggest in the country, as of this writing—may mean that prediction is already coming true. A
bout the only thing standing in Boston’s way is Boston itself—specifically, the lawmakers in the state house. On Tuesday, state lawmakers, meeting in a short holiday week, voted to delay the opening of retail recreational cannabis shops by six months, to July 1, 2018. Not that it matters much—by that time, Massachusetts will still have the East Coast market to itself.
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