Jared Giammona, an energetic, affable 32-year-old-Sonoma County native, was born and raised in Santa Rosa.

For a year, he has operated the Sonoma Experience (info@thesonomacountyexperience.com), a fledging company he’s built from the ground up, and, while it’s not fattening his bank account now, he’s confident it will. Meanwhile, he’s surviving in the competitive tourist industry.

Jonah Raskin

Jonah Raskin 

“My company provides people with a new and different way to experience wine country,” Giammona tells me.

Yes, there are wineries on his all-day tours, along with nifty breweries with craft beers to taste. Dispensaries that sell world-class cannabis are also major roadside attractions. They raise more eyebrows than the wineries and the breweries. Not surprisingly, they also generate giggles, but it’s on the cannabis part of Giammona’s tours where the learning curve is steepest and most rewarding.

Pot tourism is here to stay in Sonoma County, thanks in large part to the Sonoma Experience, though the company is not widely publicized. Word of mouth takes the place of ads in newspapers and magazines. Giammona’s website also helps.

“People from out-of-state and out of the country are taken aback by the fact that cannabis is legal here and that they can go into a dispensary and see a wide variety of products,” Giammona says. Visitors don’t ask him if he smokes pot, though at dispensaries they ask “budtenders” behind the counter about their personal habits. They get candid replies. Of course, budtenders consume cannabis.

Giammona smoked pot when he was a student at Elsie Allen High School in Santa Rosa. He wasn’t the only teen in his class to puff on a joint.

“When I was growing up, it was largely in the dark,” he says. There was a “reverse effect,” he explains. The more that kids were told to say “No” and not smoke pot, the more likely they were to say “Yes” and to smoke pot.

These days as adults are using cannabis more and more for a variety of ailments, kids are less likely to smoke it. In the teen world, it’s not as cool as it once was. “But overall, cannabis is becoming normalized,” Giammona explains. “Much of the taboo has gone.”

Adults who sign up for the Sonoma Experience sometimes remember a bad experience with pot when they were younger. They also remember the lousy quality of the weed. Now, adults are willing to try new and potent products.

“They’re surprised by the sophistication of the Sonoma cannabis industry, “ Giammona says. “And they’re quick to appreciate it.”

Since March 2018, Giammona has led about 25 tours. So far, January 2019 has been the company’s best month.

Giammona doesn’t own or operate a fleet of vehicles. Rather, he contracts with third parties for either a Mercedes Sprinter for small groups or a coach-style charter bus for larger groups.

Tourists have come from Georgia, Michigan and Utah and from Brazil and Estonia.

“The Estonians were very cautious at the start of the tour, but by the end they were big advocates for cannabis,” Giamonna says. He doesn’t just take tourists to a dispensary and drop them off. Rather, before they set foot inside a dispensary, they get an introduction to the world of cannabis.

“The idea is to provide folks with an education and also to make it possible for them to have fun,” Giammona says.

The tours also appeal to locals. In fact, they provide an opportunity for employees to get out of a work environment and unwind. According to Giammona, “The tours are great for team building.”

While he recognizes that cannabis has come a long way since his student days at Elsie Allen and later at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon, he knows that there’s a long way to go before there’s universal acceptance. He explains that, “It’s an uphill battle, and there’s much to do to remove the stigma that surrounds cannabis, whether it’s for recreational or medicinal purposes.” 

Solful, the Sebastopol dispensary, is one of the roadside attractions on Giammona’s tour.

“A group of tourists from Alabama recently showed up,” Solful’s CEO Eli Melrod says. “They were literally trembling at the front door. One of them explained, ‘Back home it’s a felony.’”

Tourists also go to SPARC on Dutton Avenue in Santa Rosa where Dallas Carter calls himself a “cannabis consultant” rather than a “budtender” and where tourists arrive from Alabama and Mississippi, two states where possession for small amounts can lead to jail.

“If they’re from the Deep South, they can feel afraid when they walk through the front door,” Carter explains. Mississippi folks who settled in Sonoma County learn quickly how to grow their own and how to make pot brownies. “They help me sleep," one elderly woman from Mississippi told me.

One day, cannabis will be legal in Alabama and Mississippi. Carter, Melrod and Giammona hope it arrives sooner rather than later, as do many of the southerners who come to Sonoma for wine, beer and now cannabis.

Jonah Raskin, a professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, is the author of Marijuanaland, Dispatches from an American War, published in French as well as English, and shares story credit for the feature length pot film Homegrown.

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