Inside The Northern Nights Music Festival

Northern Nights made history this summer.
Inside The Northern Nights Music Festival
Juliana Bernstein/ Get Tiny

This summer, the Northern Nights Music Festival became the first overnight festival in the country to offer recreational cannabis dispensing, attracting thousands of attendees to its Tree Lounge, a sort of cannabis garden for anyone 21+. Organizers called this history-making move a major success—but who’s surprised? Unofficially, marijuana and music festivals have been close collaborators since, well, the beginning of time.

Still this marks a new era in legal recreational cannabis. And if Northern Nights is any indication of what’s around the corner as local laws continue to change, the future of festivals and cannabis is positively utopian. Here’s what went down in a nature-filled weekend of music and wellness, paired with the great unifier: cannabis. 

Let’s start with the welcome committee that greeted us upon arrival Friday evening. Attendee-volunteers offered more dreamy smiles than directions. And to complicate things, the Internet was out way up there, on the border of Mendocino and Humboldt. 

Hundreds of mostly cashless millennials had to be shepherded to the one ATM at the festival’s makeshift general store so they could buy their parking pass or ticket for the weekend. It could have been a stressful cluster if it weren’t for the reassuring heady musk that lingered in the air and the fact that most volunteers looked fresh off a bong hit. Not that we’re judging. Just jealous.

It was Friday after a long drive and a longer week, so when my friend/coworker and I caught ourselves remarking on service design efficiencies and the curious lack of compost bins, we knew we still had our muggle tech employee masks on. 

Northern Nights is not glitzy Coachella or polished, efficient Outside Lands. That’s sort of the point.

Amanda Fetterly

“Just don’t let me buy any festival outfits I’m never gonna wear again,” Amanda said as we passed a line of retailers and make our way to our camp, sponsored by Cookies, a cannabis and lifestyle brand founded by rapper Gilbert Milam Jr, aka Berner.  Berner was performing in the festival’s “main bowl” with B. Real on Saturday, but in the meantime his nationally expanding brand is arguably the largest “corporate entity” of the festival’s 7th year. As a San Francisco native and cannabis industry veteran, Berner and his Cookies still fit in with the local vibe.

Many of the other 20+ cannabis partners, like Humboldt Farms and Emerald Exchange, are even more homegrown, with growsites just beyond the dense curtain of Redwoods that surround Cooks Valley Campground. This was all by design and a nod to the festival’s predecessor, Reggae on the River, which shared the same setting, and according to organizers drove much of the local underground economy. Many of Northern Nights’ camps, stages, and art builds offered subtle nods to the original crews who lent their unofficial “vending” services to the festival for 35 years.

Now those crews are stepping out from behind the Emerald Curtain, and into Northern Nights’ Tree Lounge, where, thanks to new local ordinances in Humboldt County, could legally dispense cannabis much like alcohol in a beer garden (only with a few extra compliance hoops to jump through). The vendors may have had snazzier branding and more official concessionaires now, but the ethos remains the same as ever: Sungrown, organic, local bud. “Humboldt’s best export,” as one farmer called it. Only that day, in light of cannabis’s rising stock, there seemed to be an urgency to this message.

Amanda Fetterly

Each vendor was eager to tell me about the unique properties of their flowers, to discuss their regenerative farming techniques, to warn me of the dangers of non-organic weed and the regulatory gray areas that leave the door open for corporate greed if consumers aren’t diligent about knowing where their bud comes from. The International Cannabis Farmers Association set up a booth with organic hashish purveyor Hella Dank, where they offered dabs and educational materials on what to look for on labels and what to ask budtenders to ensure your weed is sungrown and sustainable. Emerald Exchange touted the independent, female-owned farms they represent, and Humboldt Farms hosted a weekend of wellness programming from stoned yoga and meditation to cacao ceremony.

Amanda Fetterly

“We wanted to create an intimate place where people could decompress from a chaotic festival, take care of themselves and their bodies and learn about the plant,” Lisa C Parker said. She leads marketing for Humboldt Farms and called the activation a huge success. “We want people to know that they can use cannabis for wellness and even sometimes as an alternative to other types of medicine.”

Amanda Fetterly

The small tent in the Tree Lounge that housed the weekend’s wellness activities said “intimate gathering,” but when more than 100 people showed up for stoned yoga on the first morning, wellness curator for the festival Nate Mezmer knew they had underestimated the appetite for the restorative benefits of cannabis and mindful movement.

Lisa C. Parker

“Wellness and cannabis are super similar,” Mezmer San Francisco’s City Fit Fest co-founder, said. “They are both becoming mainstream really, really fast  and they’re both really, really good for you potentially… But they both can become corrupted by fake shit.”

An hour and a mini-joint of Flow Kana’s Champagne strain later, Amanda and I were outfitted head-to-toe by Jane Allen, the artist and collector behind festival couture shop I’m Crowning. To be fair, there was a sequins clause in our previous shopping pact, and the light, bubbly sativa was already smoothing out our edges. With the help of Mary Jane, our masks were off and we sartorially surrendered to our true selves. (Our true selves wear crowns, by the way.)

Amanda Fetterly

Pleasantly buoyant from the champagne of bud and blissed out from guided breathwork in the Tree Lounge, we made our way to the The Grove Stage, fashioned after a mythical medieval dinner party (castle and dragons and all) and set in Redwoods, up lit in purples and aquamarines. Twenty minutes into his set, Bay Area-based DJ Taeo Sense of Audiopharmacy led the crowd in a traditional Hawaiian dance in honor of Mauna Kea—and it’s catching. Hundreds of arms rising and falling turned the Redwood clearing into a Luau.

“Our brothers and sisters are fighting for their mountain. Let’s dance a prayer for Mauna Kea, our mountains here, mountains everywhere,” he said into a mic.

Amanda Fetterly

It’s impossible not to feel a reverence and awe for the land-turned-dance partner. The Eel River pulsed with the beats from the DJs on the River Stage. And in the festival’s main bowl, emerald trees seemed to dance along with Saturday’s headliner, Big Wild. Branches came into focus for brief moments and recoiled again as the lights changed, like they caught fire from the flick of a lighter. And the crowd did the same, rising and falling and bouncing in unison to EDM, this generation’s religion. 

And man, did it feel spiritual at times—7,000 of us lighting up a massive tree-lined bowl. We are the plants. The plants are us. I found myself thinking. Sure, that’s the weed talking, but why not listen? After all our bodies produce our own cannabinoids, chemicals otherwise unique to the plant. We are the plants.

Amanda Fetterly

If this sounds too “woo-woo,” you’re due for a trip through the Tree Lounge. And specifically Humboldt Farms co-founder Liz Lux’s plant medicine workshop. Titled “Cosmic Consciousness: Cannabis & Medicinal Plants for Life and Death,” she spoke about moon cycles and rituals, how plants have wisdom and which ones to enjoy in each season, but mostly how we must treat cannabis well so it treats us well. Listening to her felt like remembering a dream. These are things we all know intuitively, but tend to forget. 

What Liz, who has 30 years of growing experience under her belt, said in cosmic, spiritual terms, event organizers, farmers, brand ambassadors, and attendees echoed in their own ways when they spoke of permaculture, of how cannabis brought them back to health, of how when you buy weed from a trusted source, you’re supporting farmers and families. 

“When you’re educated about where your weed comes from and discerning about where you get it, it tends to come back to you in quality. And it’s just good karma,” Peter Huson said, NN’s co-founder and compliance manager who helped write the bill that enabled cannabis sales at the festival. “For so many years, these growers have not had a voice because cannabis was illegal. We hope with this event, we can help give a voice and bring funds back to this community.” For the festival’s part, Northern Nights makes a donation to Humboldt and Mendocino school districts each year and organizers say they build everything with local materials. 

Reports say more people are going to festivals than ever before. The multimillion-dollar industry is evidence that many are hungry for this sort of gathering. And it’s clear why.  It’s been two weeks since Northern Nights and I still feel restored—not only because dancing under Redwoods and floating in rivers can do that to a person, but because there was a downright blissful, yet mindful, vibe that originated in the Tree Lounge and floated like smoke throughout the festival. It’s not often that you can pre-game an EDM show with infused acro yoga, cacao, or a discussion of regenerative farming methods with a cannabis grower. Humboldt’s best exports may just be cannabis and hope—and we all could use extra helpings of both.

“CBD wellness activations like this are going to happen across the country and across the world in a split second,” Huson predicts. 

Sign us up. It can’t come soon enough.

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