Black Coffee Productions – High Expectations
Leaders at the intersection of the cannabis and live events industries discuss the substance’s future. From left: Jim Lewi, Lori Ajax, Dustin Moore, Caroline Phillips, Steve Welkom.
Few aspects of the live industry have higher prospects for near-term growth than the integration of cannabis, which will likely revolutionize concessions at venues as more states follow in the footsteps of California, Colorado, Michigan and more in legalizing the substance.
Red Light Ventures’ Jim Lewi, who oversees the firm’s involvement in cannabis-friendly events such as California’s Emerald Cup, moderated the “Cannabis & Your Event” panel at Pollstar Live! on Thursday, where he and panelists Lori Ajax (Bureau of Cannabis Control), Dustin Moore (Axiom Advisors, Inc.), Caroline Phillips (The High Street PR & Events) and Steve Welkom (Another Planet Entertainment) advised attendees about integrating cannabis into the live sphere, analyzing topics from potential markets to operational obstacles.
“We talk about this a lot in our industry: cannabis culture versus stoner 420 culture,” said Lewi, delivering something of a summation of the panel. “We love Cheech and Chong, and Tommy [Chong] was actually given an award at our event [The Emerald Cup] this year, but the future of cannabis is my mom. The future of cannabis is all of the folks that kind of left cannabis behind when they were young and are kind of coming back to it now, on a medical level. If you create an experience that’s a cannabis flea market versus an upscale experience, you’re going to get that audience, and it’s not going to be something that’s inclusive or educational.
“We want cannacurious versus stoners, I think,” he said.
A major theme of the panel was that, for all the reefer madness perpetuated for decades, stoners are, oftentimes, better patrons than their booze-swilling counterparts. Lewi went down the line asking about the number of cannabis-related arrests at his panelists’ events, and each responded identically: zero.
“When the papers were doing stories about [Outside Lands’] Grasslands in San Francisco, they had a picture of the show outside of Grasslands and a picture of the show inside Grasslands, and the dichotomy of the garbage that was on the ground versus the stoners who are going to go pick everything up and make sure it’s clean, was pretty amazing,” Lewi said.
As Another Planet Entertainment COO, Welkom helped implement Grasslands, a first-of-its-kind marijuana mecca within a major music festival, at Outside Lands, and described it as markedly more docile than the surrounding festival from which it was isolated.
“We do have alcohol consumption in the portion of the show that allows that and we have cannabis in the portion that doesn’t have alcohol consumption,” he said. “Of the two, I would say it was definitely more chill and more relaxed, with basically no incidents, medical, security or otherwise, in our cannabis area.”
Grasslands used a “rather sophisticated point-of-sale system,” according to Welkom, that employed tracking to make sure customers didn’t buy more than California’s legal limit over the course of a day and also accepted credit cards – a rarity due to stringent banking regulations.
But many challenges remain. For one, as Welkom and Lewi alluded to when discussing Grasslands, official cannabis sales and use is still largely kept separate from the overall audiences at events, even if illicit toking remains the concert mainstay it has been for decades.
“You have to have the alcohol separate from the cannabis, that can be awkward at some of these amphitheaters,” said Ajax, who has collaborated with event organizers to design effective cannabis policies for the live sphere. “Maybe we are getting to the point where if it’s normal for alcohol outlets to be at these concerts, that you can have both together. We definitely need to get there.”
One possible solution? Cannabis-infused beverages, which can be integrated with pre-existing concessions vendors and also inoculate events against complaints about secondhand smoke.
Another issue: Even weed-legal states such as California functionally remain a patchwork of differing regulations that vary by municipality; such municipal freedom made the difference when passing statewide legalization measures to begin with.
“While the state approves cannabis throughout the entire state, every single local jurisdiction has ultimate discretion to whether or not they allow for commercial cannabis activity in their particular municipality,” Moore said. “When you’re doing an event it’s not just the notion that you have to get state approval, but wherever your event is, you have to have local approval.”
By Moore’s estimation, 70 to 80 percent of Californian municipalities are “dry” when it comes to cannabis. And, as Welkom noted, even events like Outside Lands that operate in cannabis-friendly municipalities like San Francisco often have to reconcile local and state regulations, which can create a “chicken and the egg situation.”
States, meanwhile, remain themselves a patchwork of cannabis policies, that range from full prohibition to medical-only legalization to full legalization.
Phillips, who founded Washington, D.C.’s National Cannabis Festival, offered the nation’s capital as another case study, contrasting the weed-legal city – which falls under federal control – with states where cannabis has been legalized.
“We have what has flourished that has been called the “gray market” in D.C.,” she said. “It’s this interesting gifting system that a lot of the more cottage businesses have developed, where instead of purchasing cannabis, you’re purchasing a t-shirt, and then the cannabis comes as a free gift. This is this environment that has developed in D.C. while we are still under congressional rule and can’t fully institute adult-use rules.”
When it comes to cannabis integration into live events, progress hasn’t necessarily mirrored the order in which jurisdictions legalized the substance recreationally, and Moore identified California and D.C. – which lifted prohibition after Colorado, Washington and Oregon – as leading the charge.
“It’s interesting because Colorado, Washington, Oregon, while they were first in embracing commercial cannabis, they didn’t really have the rich history that Californians had,” he said. “In California, cannabis was legal [for medical use] since 1996, whereas Colorado, Washington, Oregon, they kind of moved their medical programs and their adult-use programs at the same time, and typically kind of have a more conservative underpinning on their regulations.”
When Ajax, who worked at the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control for 22 years prior to her turn at the Bureau of Cannabis Control, said she does “miss the simplicity of an alcoholic beverage” at times, Lewi reminded her of some advice she once gave him: “Alcohol has had a few years on cannabis.”
In other words, it’ll get there.