Cannabis Experts Discuss Substance’s Widespread Future At Events In Pollstar Live! Panel

Miranda McDonald
– Cannabiz
Leaders in the legal cannabis sector discussed the substance’s integration into live events during a Pollstar Live! panel.

Picture this: You’re at an NFL game. Boisterous fans around you are swigging beers and devouring hot dogs. You’re sipping a beverage and nibbling on some food of your own – but feeling decidedly mellower.

It’s a future that isn’t far off, according to Pollstar Live!’s “The Latest Lowdown On Cannabis at Live Events” panel.

“Every event will be a cannabis event,” said moderator Jim Lewi, the seasoned executive who has been involved in ventures at the intersection of cannabis and the live industry including the Emerald Cup and Aspen High Summit. “There will be cannabis concessions. There won’t be a joint sold at an NFL game. I doubt that. But will there be a low-dose infused beverage or some kind of edible? … We’re not going to be reinventing the wheel. We’re going to utilize all of the infrastructure that’s already in place in these venues.”

Lewi’s comments captured an optimism shared by fellow panelists Sameen Ahmad (Insomniac), Lauren Carpenter (Embarc), Dustin Moore (Embarc) and Tom Martinez (California Exposition & State Fair), who all agreed that – plenty of tough logistical work notwithstanding – the widespread integration of cannabis into live events continues to gain momentum. Today, cannabis is legal for medical use in 37 states and for recreational use in 18 states, with 60 percent of Americans approving of both medical and recreational use of the substance, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center study. And as restrictions around the substance fall, the live industry wants to get in on the green rush.

“This is a moment in time where as cannabis policy is advancing, there’s somewhat of a first mover advantage for promoters and venues that are willing to embrace this,” said Dustin Moore, co-founder and chief strategy officer of cannabis retailer and concessionaire Embarc. “Not only is there the live consumption sales side, but the sponsorship side of this is meaningful. And that’s not just cannabis brands, but cannabis-adjacent brands that have an interest in participating in the cannabis activations.”

Among those first movers: the state of California itself, by way of the California Exposition and State Fair, an independent state agency. Cal Expo hosted some of California’s earliest cannabis events following the state’s legalization of the substance in 2016, and has in turn provided a useful case study for others in the sector who are canna-curious.

“We’re talking about normalizing the cannabis experience?” said Cal Expo chief deputy general manager Tom Martinez. “California State Fair has been in operation for 167 years – only stopped in times of war and coronavirus. We’re mostly known for our wine competition, the oldest wine competition in the United States. Olive oil, craft brew [competitions] as well. For the first time, this year, we’ll have cannabis as well.”

As crowd applause died down, Moore interjected: “That’s a big deal. It’s a state-sanctioned agency that’s actually judging California’s best cannabis.”

“We’re really on the precipice of destigmatizing cannabis at scale,” said Carpenter, who co-founded Embarc with Moore and serves as its CEO.

While it’s “still not easy to integrate cannabis into events” due to the “quagmire” posed by local jurisdictional opt-in – essentially, the veto power a city or county has over cannabis events, despite state legalization – Carpenter said cannabis events are becoming an increasingly easier sell.

“We’re at this exciting and interesting tipping point where local jurisdictions have demonstrated an appetite to start moving forward with events and the state has created a regulatory framework for that to happen,” she said. “But it’s only through working with venues and with promoters that we really start to execute these events and identify the things that we need to modify.”

And, according to the panelists, once venues, promoters and cities host a cannabis event, they usually want to host more.

“At a cannabis event, there’s no fights, there’s no violence, and as the day goes on, our food sales go up!” said Martinez, who added that law enforcement “actually likes these events because they’re easy.”

Martinez’s experience led panelists to discuss that, despite some reservations among venues and promoters, cannabis sales don’t typically cut into food and beverage numbers, and can even bolster them, as stoned fans gravitate toward more traditional concessions.

Artists from jamgrass whiz Billy Strings to hip-hop stalwart Berner have also recognized the power of live’s burgeoning cannabis market.

“We’re starting to have a lot of those conversations,” said Ahmad, who produced more than two dozen cannabis events in multiple states, works with Insomniac on projects such as Cannabis Nation and co-founded Hank & Ed Management, which represents Strings. “If you do work with artists or you’re a manager or a booker you know, it’s the time to work with sponsors or cannabis brands to present your show your live stream sponsor your your artists because the stigma behind it needs to go away.”

Work remains – “Don’t take shortcuts and don’t try to do it on the cheap,” Martinez advised as the session wrapped – but the panel all envisioned a  near future where cannabis events are commonplace.

“I think all of us are excited for when we don’t have to have this panel anymore – that it’s just legal,” Lewi said with a laugh.