It was a warm, partly cloudy April afternoon in North Park, and Pariah Brewing Company had opened its loading bay doors to let in a cooling breeze. From behind the bar, the beertender watched as a blank white party bus parked across the street. When its passenger door opened, a cloud of smoke funneled out, followed by more than a dozen thirsty customers, and the unmistakable funk of marijuana. West Coast Cannabis Tours had arrived.
Tour bus arrivals have long been a common sight at local breweries, but with California’s legalization of recreational marijuana in January, a new breed of brewery tours have emerged to combine the two intoxicants, visiting recreational dispensaries in between stops at tasting rooms.
Todd Green founded West Coast in in anticipation of the new law. “I had previously considered opening a dispensary,” says the finance industry vet. However, because Federal law still prohibits recreational pot, marijuana businesses can’t deposit revenue into traditional banks. “A dispensary is a cash business,” explains Green, “If you can’t use a bank account that’s a little too gray for me.”
However, a marijuana-adjacent business can both embrace the new market opportunity, and document income. West Coast started out with two buses, boasting 28- and 40-passenger capacities, and offers an introduction to cannabis tour, as well as marijuana experiences involving painting and yoga.
First stop of the $99 Buds & Brews tour was Green Flash Brewing for a brewery tour, then a dispensary, then Pariah. In addition to tourists from overseas and out of state, that includes residents of Orange and Los Angeles counties, which have yet to license recreational cannabis retailers. Nevertheless, once boarded, passengers started rolling before the bus did, lighting up joints which filled the passenger compartment with smoke as the vehicle navigated the highway.
The legality of that has been subject to interpretation. “Nobody has told me yes or no, says Kaylena Pinuelas, “not even my attorney.” A Navy vet who adopted marijuana use to treat PTSD, Pinuelas operates another new tour company, MJ Tours California.
Along with wine and cocktail theme cannabis tours, MJ offers its own Buds & Brews tour, visiting the likes of AleSmith Brewing, Rough Draft Brewing, and Mike Hess Brewing, plus dispensaries, for $110. MJ Tours operates on a smaller scale, with a 14-person limo bus going for laid back and intimate compared to West Coast’s relative party vibe. However, its riders partake on the bus, all the same.
“We’re operating under the charter bus party law that states as long as the driver is blocked off, it’s okay,” says Pinuelas. In California, charter bus operations are regulated by the Public Utilities Commission, which issued cease and desists to both Green and Pinuelas earlier this year, then quickly rescinded them.
That’s due to an update to section 23220 of the state vehicle code, the one stating a driver or passenger, “shall not drink any alcoholic beverage,” while on a highway. State lawmakers added the words “or smoke or ingest marijuana,” to likewise prohibit smoking and driving. However, a later section, 23229, explicitly exempts private charter buses from having to comply to that specific section of code. As long as the driver is physically secluded from the passengers, including separate air ventilation, the same law allowing party bus passengers to drink, now allows them to ingest marijuana, by default.
The tour operators do not provide cannabis or beer to guests.