Written by Jeff Klingman, thebluntness feature writer
The smell of weed on the summer air is a sense memory that every music festival goer has had in common, no matter what sounds were coming from the stage. But fifty years after the original Woodstock cemented pot smoking as a music festival must, a growing number of event planners are figuring out how to lift the on-the-sly stigma around public consumption at their shows. In 2019, the legal cannabis industry is finally being welcomed inside music festival gates.
“Every music festival has had weed, it’s not like it’s something new,” says Matty Roberts, the Talent and Art Director for California’s Northern Nights Festival. He remembers the added stresses of sneaking your stash through the gates in your socks. “I grew up in the midwest, in a place where you had to be real stealth. The impact on your psyche, when you’re just trying to enjoy some music and smoke a joint but you’re afraid you’re going to get tackled by law enforcement,” says Roberts. “That weight lifted off your shoulders means you can actually enjoy yourself, or that you won’t have the panic attacks that people have.”
Located on the border of Humboldt and Mendicino Counties, in California’s famed “Emerald Triangle,” Northern Nights seems a natural fit as the first ongoing music festival in the United States to officially include legal, recreational weed sold on-site. “Cannabis has been a reality in this area for a long time,” says Roberts. “It was a reality at our event, before we were able to do anything above board.”
The sliding state of California’s regulations brought cannabis into the fold of the festival in gradual baby steps. Though Northern Nights launched in 2013, it would be another 3 years before they were able to introduce the “Tree Lounge”, a smoking area, side-stage, and cannabis brand home base designated for use by medicinal patients with personal licenses. 2019’s event, happening July 19th to the 21st, will be the first to benefit from a further loosening of state rules, that will allow direct recreational weed sales and deeper presence from canna-brand sponsors looking to make an impression on blissed-out festival goers. The festival still can’t sell the weed themselves, but they can welcome in vendors with existing mobile dispensary licenses, which presents a significant step forward.
“Unfortunately it’s not us, we would love to see the revenue on that,” laughs Roberts. “Maybe someday.”
Further north, the planners of this August’s inaugural Journey Festival are working with a different set of rules. Though located in Boyd Conservation Park on the outskirts of Toronto, in the fully weed-legal country of Canada, stricter controls remain in place. No matter who obtained the permits, no on-site sales can be allowed. “That was not going to be possible with the guidelines here in Canada,” explains Murray Milthorpe, Journey’s Chief Experience Officer. A B.Y.O.C. (or “Bring Your Own Cannabis”) policy was Journey’s negotiated work-around, allowing patrons to carry a small amount of weed into the festival grounds, to consume in designated areas.
Both festivals have invested heavily in security and medical staff, and both have worked closely with their host cities to make sure everything is compliant to the letter of applicable code.
Journey has leaned into its identity as “Canada’s first music and cannabis festival” in other ways. In a subsection of the sprawling 990-acre park ground, the festival will host We-ed Talks, a series of talks and panel discussions from industry experts aimed at educating the public and lifting the lingering stigmas around cannabis. Famed investor, and weed-biz dabbler, Gary Vaynerchuk will deliver the keynote address. The talks, plus a heavy “educational” presence for Canadian cannabis brands, aims to give pot equal weight to music, reflected beyond presence into robust programming.
“In Canada we have huge legal regulations behind the launch of cannabis, which makes it more awkward in terms of brands being able to connect to consumers and consumers being able to connect back to the brands,” says Milthorpe. “The restrictions here prohibit companies from evoking any kind of emotion, positive or negative, in terms of their advertising communication. So here, coming forward to create a festival of cannabis and music, combining those two elements in a [single] format represented a huge opportunity for us.
There’s been a lot of industry festivals in Canada, with industry people talking to industry people about the same thing, and making themselves feel good. This gives them an opportunity to engage with the consumer.”
Journey’s festival footprint is huge, and their goals are lofty. “This is the first annual,” says Milthorpe. “we’ll obviously go to next year, and we’ll even look to rolling out to different provinces, as we push forward.” He calls 50,000 a “conservative” target for first year attendance, with the expectation that they could accommodate up to 100,000 in subsequent years. He’s confident that the locale and format will provide an instant winner. “Spectacular, sunny, and a majestic place, not only by day will it be beautiful, by night we’re going to light up the forest, light up the rivers. It will be magical!”
For Journey and Northern Nights both, “first ever” status comes with the added risks of an intense civic microscope, looking for health and safety missteps that might come from an untested format. Both festivals have invested heavily in security and medical staff, and both have worked closely with their host cities to make sure everything is compliant to the letter of applicable code. Their differing locations provide varied challenges. Northern Nights takes extra steps to educate attendees on the wildfire dangers an errant joint could cause in a volatile Northern California wilderness. As a festival aimed towards Toronto commuters, Journey have chartered buses to bring departing attendees back to public transit and are exploring ride share partnerships to actively discourage bud-buzzed driving.
“Stuff happens at festivals,” says Milthorpe. “we are doing the utmost to make sure we have the safest event.”
And what about the music? With all the focus on the opportunities and implications of above-board weed, these events other reason for being threatens to be a bit overshadowed. Journey have yet to announce their artist lineup, despite being a couple months out from an inaugural festival with significant expectations for ticket sales. Milthorpe suggests their intention is to “tease the consumers a little,” but says an eclectic lineup focused on hip-hop, rock, and R & B artists will be released “in the next couple weeks.”
Northern Nights, with heavy marketing focus given to river rafting, yoga zones, and overnight campgrounds, in addition to their direct weed sales, have taken a boutique approach to its booking, showcasing artists that don’t dominate the festival circuit across the summer’s other mega-festivals. Chill electronic pop producer Big Wild, Grammy-nominated house music star Zhu, and the DJ collective Desert Hearts crew are among this year’s headliners.
“I’ve used cannabis medicinally, and have for a number of years,” jokes Roberts. “So, personally, I would say the talent [booking] has definitely been influenced by cannabis.”
Photo via Instagram