High time for a high time: Legal confusion allows cannabis festivals to make millions in the US

Fresh from his induction into the International Festivals and Events Association Hall of Fame, Bill O’Toole reports on some dope learnings from the Association’s annual conference.

Bill O’Toole

The IFEA convention this year in San Diego had more than enough new material to interest a veteran attendee of event conventions and conferences like me. One of the sessions I found particularly interesting was Enhanced Perspective: The Future for Festivals & Cannabis.

Let’s go dope. Actually, it’s no longer called dope, weed or any of the other sixties designations. It goes by the name of ‘concentrate’ and ‘hybrid’.

According to the session’s speaker, Geoff Hinds, CEO of the San Bernardino County Fair in Victorville, California, today’s concentrate/hybrid is up to 100 times more powerful than ‘60s weed.

It does not look like grass, but rather like oil or honey. It’s not smoked, it’s vaped and therefore gets around quite a few anti-smoking laws. It can also be infused or dissolved in other products such as lemonade, honey, biltong and gummy bears.

There are two types of concentrate, CND, which is used for medicinal purposes, and THC, the power version that is, well, powerful.

One of the risks, according to Hinds, is the patron who smoked a spliff in the ‘60s, going to a festival today, buying some THC infused gummy bears, throwing them down and the hit sending him to the medical tent.

The festival in focus during Hinds’ session was Chalice California (subheaded “Music, Glass, Hash, Art”). It joins many other cannabis festivals in claiming to be the world’s largest. A three day event in July, it attracts around 40,000 people and over 400 vendors. Yes, over 400.

The venue Geoff represents – which hosts Chalice – is similar to agricultural showgrounds around Australia, with a similar problem: being a large, valuable piece of land used only once a year for an agricultural show.

As the city encroaches on the land, its value goes up and the return on the investment as a single event venue plummets, making it ripe for entrepreneurial solutions to looming financial problems. And the cannabis event organisers are nothing if not entrepreneurial.

Chalice California | Photo: Facebook

At Chalice, they found a ‘work around’ to every legal issue. In the early days, they could be prosecuted for selling cannabis, so they handed it out for free when you bought the very very expensive bottle of water or a T-shirt.

To enter the green zone – the cannabis area – a doctor’s certificate is needed. So the Chalice organisers had doctors onsite to assist, ‘lack of appetite’ being a valid symptom. This is the ‘grey zone’ in law that allows creative solutions.

The grey area is a result of numerous levels of rules, codes and regulations, at municipality, city, county, state and federal levels, all of which can change and not all of which are enforced. It’s a zone of chaos.

I’d met this zone of chaos the week before the IFEA convention, when I attended the Technoparade in Paris. The event is a parade of huge trucks all pumping out electronic music at full volume, similar to the eventually disastrous Love Parade in Germany (in which 21 people were killed in a crowd crush in 2010 with hundreds more injured). Young people in various ‘states’ move to the music and the trucks move along a parade route.

Of relevance here is the concept of ‘Verwirrungsgebiet’. This is the place between the two trucks where the music from both trucks clashes and produces a semi chaotic state. This state is similar to the ancient Chariot festivals in India and their famous juggernauts that create a state of religious euphoria. I was interested in this concept as a metaphor for the grey area of law which makes cannabis festivals possible.

The chaos zone at Technoparade 2018 in Paris | Photo supplied

There is a legal ‘Verwirrungsgebiet’ or state of confusion that is being used by the smart concentrate sellers to amass a fortune. 

The municipality where the festival takes place is called Victorville. It is in the list of top ten areas for murder and crime in California. As it is known for crime, gangs and lack of wealth, venue hire is cheap.

Hinds observed that at the last festival there was a traffic jam in town of luxury vehicles. During Chalice accommodation is booked out for fifty miles around, bringing in an estimated US$3 million.

Forty thousand people paying up to $300 a ticket is big money. Then there is the sale of the ‘concentrate’ and onsite consumption sales. It was estimated legal sales of marijuana in 2015 in the USA were over US$3 billion.

But the sale of cannabis is illegal under US federal law and the proceeds from sale can be confiscated. The banks and the credit card system come under federal law, so cannabis sellers could not use banks or credit cards. They use cash. A billion dollar industry based on cash. Hinds said payments from cannabis sponsors and venue hire would arrive at his office in bags of cash all smelling of weed.

The next step for the producers and sellers of cannabis is to move into events that are not directly related to cannabis sales. They are sponsoring public festivals and setting up stalls. This is not always obvious to festival organisers as the sellers use the new “concentrate and hybrids” terminology. A flow on from involvement in mainstream festivals is that some regular sponsors may pull out of an event that is involved in the cannabis trade.

Finally, sellers are moving away from child friendly packaging and candy based products – a quick Google search makes it easy to see why – so I assume the THC enriched gummy bears will be no longer.

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