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Radical Rant: Will Legalization Kill the Pot Festival?

Russ Belville

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This weekend I was in Vancouver, British Columbia, attending a cannabis and hemp business expo. I was the guest of Marc Emery and Dana Larsen. It was my first time in Canada and my first time meeting two of Canada’s best-known legalization activists.

This was the 22nd event I have covered in 28 weeks this year, from Miami to Anchorage, and from San Bernardino to Boston. That already matches the 22 events I covered coast-to-coast last year. The marijuana festival and expo circuit continues to grow, in number, size and quality – there are now more events than I have the time and budget to attend.

While I was interviewing vendors in Vancouver, many were already talking about the next expo that’s coming to town in September. That one is followed by another coming in October. Three major business expos in four months in one city, focused on the impending marijuana legalization promised by the Liberal Party.

We should expect the business expos to proliferate in advance of new business opportunities in cannabis. This past two years, I’ve covered three such events in Florida, a state gearing up for medical marijuana legalization. But I’ve also been to a business expo in Fort Worth, TX, a place where legalization feels a long way off.

In a world of increasingly commercial cannabis, what happens to the pot festival?

This year is the 25th anniversary of the Seattle Hempfest. Washington is into its fourth year of legalization and there remains plenty for this “protestival” to protest. Legislators and regulators have run roughshod over the medical marijuana system, depriving the neediest patients of their most cost-effective relief, and have deprived adult personal-use consumers of any public place to exercise their legal right to toke.

Many other fests are going strong, such as the Boston Freedom Rally, the Ann Arbor Hash Bash, and the Great Midwest Harvest Fest. But as their states eventually adopt marijuana legalization, they will all face a transition from being activism-focused protests to community-oriented celebrations.

This presents an important change in framing. Presenting an anti-authoritarian festival or rally in the context of fighting an unjust marijuana prohibition comes off differently than presenting the same optics and sound bites in the context of a community celebration. While we don’t want to lose our identity, we also want the public to think legalization was a good thing and we are a good community.

It also becomes more difficult to get reform messaging across to such large festival crowds. “Call your senator and tell them you support marijuana legalization” is a much easier between-sets speech than getting into the details of a particular regulation that needs tweaking. For the audience, their ability to go to pot shops and toke openly with impunity dulls their resolve to get involved with further reform; for them, they feel the battle is won.

Then there is the dilution factor. As marijuana becomes more legal, it will become more a part of other events. Someday, there won’t be much of a difference between a pot festival where you go to see some bands and a music festival where you go to smoke some pot. Yes, there are still beer-and-wine-themed festivals in a world filled with alcohol-permitted events, but you’ll find scant evidence of any activism at those festivals.

This will evolve in stark contrast to how the world of the cannabis business expos will evolve. Going to one of those events is a pricey affair, whereas most of the festivals are free and rely on donations. Already as I attend these events I see a class divide forming in the world of weed and I can only see this widening as more of the prospectors in the Green Rush start cashing in. There will come a time where an activism booth at a cannabusiness expo will be as incongruous as an ACLU booth at a boat show.

So, will legalization kill the pot festival? Denver, Seattle and Portland, three of the most-legal marijuana cities on the planet, have gone out of their way to make pot festivals impossible there. Yet the same cities have been welcoming to cannabusiness events. At this weekend’s business event in Vancouver, the high-end waterfront hotel even provided an “Alternative Smoking Area” out front where the valets and cabs drop off customers.

It is incumbent on the fledgling cannabis industry to ensure that activism remains at the core of our events. It is that activism that created the industry, after all, and only with more activism will we achieve the worldwide market in cannabis that the industry craves. So long as the industry recognizes that we activists demand the right to cultivate our own cannabis and the activists recognize that the industry wants to promote responsible use of cannabis, with their money and our vision, we are unstoppable.

photo: Paul Warner/Getty Images

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