Modesto CA launches citywide legal cannabis tourism campaign

Modesto is going up in smoke, safely and responsibly, thanks to a new cannabis educational campaign from the city’s convention and visitors bureau.

Visit Modesto has launched what is believed the first-ever citywide cannabis tourism program in the country. The MoTown CannaPass, much like the visitors bureau’s other tourism campaigns, is aimed at getting people to stop, shop and enjoy what the Central Valley city has to offer.

But unlike its other programs, like its Modesto Loves Dogs and Get Mo Wine, the focus is inviting cannabis-curious travelers by helping them find legal marijuana businesses and experiences in the area. The free digital campaign, accessible via mobile phone and online, offers some perks, specials and discounts to those who sign up.

“The reason we wanted to create a program (centered around) education is because cannabis is as legal as beer and wine and whiskey. If we did a beer passport, everybody is in. So we wanted to have a cannabis passport that gave people understanding of state laws, local laws and the do’s and don’ts of the area,” said Visit Modesto CEO Todd Aaronson. “This is something we want to start gently, intelligently, educationally. We want to make sure the community is comfortable and users are comfortable.”

The program kicks off this weekend with buy-one, get-one-free tickets to Cheech & Chong’s “Up in Smoke” and fellow stoner comedy “Pineapple Express” at downtown Modesto’s State Theatre. The campaign will have a public launch next week, with a push to help people and retailers educate themselves on cannabis in the region.

Visit Modesto has partnered with Cultivar Strategies, a cannabis travel consultant agency, and Cookies, a local marijuana retail dispensary, for the CannaPass. Together they hope to be a resource for both the canna-curious and canna-experienced customer, as well as for local businesses fielding questions from customers about marijuana.

Cannabis as a ‘destination experience’

“This kind of coordinated program and a cannabis passport, the MoTown CannaPass, is the first of its kind that I’m aware of globally that really normalizes and integrates this cannabis experience into the destination alongside with the rest of the destination experiences,” said Cultivar Strategies CEO Brian Applegarth.

The idea for the MoTown CannaPass started about a year ago, amid the pandemic, when tourism was stymied across the state by the virus. Aaronson said his group joined a cannabis tourism committee from the California Travel Association and realized there were opportunities locally.

Recreational marijuana use has been legal in California since 2016, when voters passed Proposition 64, legalizing its use for all adults 21 and older and sale through licensed dispensaries. Cannabis retailers have been able to sell to recreational users legally since 2018, and Modesto now has about two dozen approved businesses.

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Cannabis on display at Cookies, a Modesto dispensary partnering with Visit Modesto for its new MoTown CannaPass program. Marijke Rowland

Through their work with CalTravel and Cultivar Strategies, Aaronson said he realized how much tourism potential legal cannabis has in the region. Recent surveys have shown that 30% of all travelers are interested in cannabis tourism nationally. Meanwhile, 40% of all retail sales in Modesto are from customers coming from out of the region.

Aaronson also said that last year, local cannabis sales and excise taxes, which combine to run around a hefty 30%, brought in more dollars than the city’s hospitality taxes. So he wanted to position Modesto to capture some of the post-pandemic travel boom, while ensuring those who use cannabis locally are doing it safely and legally.

Those stats, combined with the increased travel up and down the state as the pandemic eases, create a unique opportunity to have casual travelers stop and spend time and money in Modesto, Aaronson said. He said the program also helps noncannabis businesses in town, particularly those in hospitality, like hotels, deal responsibly with questions about cannabis in the city.

Modesto sees potential for more sales, taxes

“In this postpandemic world that we’re moving into, travelers are driving around a lot. They’re looking for new experiences. And we’ve been promoting Modesto, everything from the almond blossom cruise to Modesto Loves Dogs to Graffiti Summer,” Aaronson said. “And if 30% of all travelers are interested in cannabis in one way, shape or another, well then why don’t we help them find easy access and enjoy the process? Enjoy it through the CannaPass at the same time and know the rules of the road.”

Aaronson said the visitors bureau took a more educational approach with the campaign, instead of a traditional punch-card rewards pass, to ensure it wasn’t abused and to calm the fears of those still wary of legal cannabis. The free program is open only to those age 21 and older. State law already prohibits cannabis use in public places and while operating moving vehicles.

The city of Modesto took a somewhat conservative approach to recreational marijuana legalization in handling cannabis dispensaries, initially approving only eight retail sites and banning them from the downtown area. According to Weedmaps, an online recreational marijuana resource site, Modesto has some 11 dispensary locations, as well as well as about a dozen delivery services.

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Some of the MoTown CannaPass information pamphlets and swag bag items on display at Cookies cannabis dispensary in Modesto, Calif. Marijke Rowland

The MoTown CannaPass will provide users with information, resources and specials to help experience the area’s legal cannabis businesses. That includes the full spectrum of cannabis products, to those with psychoactive THC to the more medicinal hemp and CBD products. Everyone who signs up received a free goodie bag, which includes accessories and gear but no actual cannabis products, that can be picked up at Cookies dispensary on Orangeburg Avenue.

The program also encourages users to pair their local cannabis experiences with local food, art and outdoor activities. Aaronson said the campaign also hopes to highlight some of the legal cannabis cultivation, particularly indoor cultivation, happening in Modesto.

“We have found that people who participate in cannabis, hemp and CBD are foodies, they’re into wine tourism, they’re outdoorsy. So we wanted to make sure they had something to enable them to come to our destination and do all the things they like, plus the other things that they like, in a legal and appropriate fashion,” Aaronson said. “Modesto is a real welcoming environment. We have ag tourism, we have food tourism, we have all different sorts of things you can do.”

For more on the MoTown CannaPass, call Visit Modesto at 209-526-5588 or visit

Marijke Rowland writes about new business, restaurant and retail developments. She has been with The Modesto Bee since 1997 covering a variety of topics including arts and entertainment. Her Business Beat column runs multiple times a week. And it’s pronounced Mar-eye-ke.
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