One of California’s biggest marijuana festivals, High Times SoCal Cannabis Cup, is still slated to kick off Friday, April 20, despite San Bernardino city leaders refusing a permit that would OK cannabis consumption and sales during the three-day event.
“The movement will not be stopped,” Brian Rucker with High Times said Thursday.
Still, uncertainty swirls over whether the 20,000 people expected to converge at the National Orange Show Events Center will be able to freely smoke and buy weed at the festival, as they have in years past.
And similar conflicts between the industry, state regulators and local leaders figure to play out throughout California on Friday — 4/20 — as hundreds of questionably legal events celebrate cannabis’ unofficial holiday for the first time since California sanctioned sales of recreational marijuana.
In addition to letting shops start selling marijuana to anyone 21 and older with just an ID, state laws that kicked in Jan. 1 brought a slew of new requirements for organizers of weed-themed festivals such as the Cannabis Cup. One of those new rules is that temporary cannabis events – which are now only legal at county fairgrounds and agricultural districts – must get the OK from city leaders before setting up shop.
San Bernardino reinforced that requirement in a city ordinance that took effect less than two weeks ago.
Previously, cannabis-oriented events were essentially regulated by venue owners. Until this year, the National Orange Show’s board of directors has been able to green-light festivals, including Cannabis Cup, over the objections of city leaders in San Bernardino.
High Times, under parent company Trans High Corporation, is one of 47 companies that has received a state license to organize cannabis events. But Alex Traverso, spokesman for the California Bureau of Cannabis Control, said this year the state hasn’t handed out any individual event licenses.
“A lot of these events that we’re seeing this weekend – and there are a lot of them out there – they’re not operating to the letter of our regulations,” Traverso said.
State cannabis bureau chief Lori Ajax sent an email to a High Times representative before Wednesday’s council meeting in San Bernardino saying the state would approve the festival if city leaders did the same. But less than 48 hours before the event was scheduled to start, city leaders voted against issuing a permit, saying they were worried about breaking state regulations that require a 60-day notice for such approval.
“It’s hard to swallow. I’m sitting here and being asked to break the law,” Councilwoman Bessine Richard said from the dais. “That doesn’t sit easy with me.”
High Times has been selling festival tickets, at $60 to $420, for months. The event is set to include a petting zoo, tattoo show and musical performances by Nas, Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz and Rick Ross – though those headliners were announced just a week ago.
Rucker said they had been moving forward under the presumption that Agriculture Incentive Zone laws – which prevent local municipalities from blocking farming events – shielded them from city interference. By the time San Bernardino’s ordinance took effect earlier this month, Rucker said it was impossible for them to meet the 60-day approval rule to get a state permit.
Two other cannabis-related events – the Dabathon Cup and Kushstock – have been held at the National Orange Show this year without a city permit and without interruption, Sameen Ahmad, a High Times event manager, noted Wednesday.
“These new provisions stand in stark defiance of the people’s will,” Rucker said.
Related: California’s cannabis festivals face uncertain future under new state rules
The Bureau of Cannabis Control plans to have one or more of its 10 plain-clothes investigators at Cannabis Cup, Traverso said. They’ll also likely be at Hippie Hill – the massive smoke-out held on 4/20 each year at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
On Tuesday, the bureau sent out a warning that any licensed business “participating in an unlicensed cannabis event may be subject to disciplinary action.”
But rather than attempting to shut down these events or yank valuable state licenses if organizers are letting people buy and consume cannabis, Traverso said the plan is to issue warning notices – particularly with companies like High Times, which he said seemingly has been attempting to “get all their ducks in a row.”
“I don’t think we’re going to be too heavy-handed in our approach to these things,” Traverso said.
That’s the way the bureau is handling all enforcement at this point, he noted. Since November, when the state released hundreds of pages of cannabis rules, state regulators have given shops and growers and other businesses time to comply the details.
San Bernardino police will be at the festival, said department spokesman Lt. Mike Madden. It’s unclear whether they will ticket public consumers or penalize vendors.
“This is the million dollar question for a lot of police agencies and municipalities,” Madden said. “This is the first test pilot, and it opens a lot of questions.”
Law enforcement says they’ve had virtually no issues with the previous Cannabis Cups and similar events. Such gatherings often mean big money for their communities, bringing business to hotels, restaurants and gas stations, among others.
Astro Motel manager Manish Kharinta said his 31 rooms are usually overbooked when an event comes to the National Orange Show, which is less than a mile away. However, he said, bookings have slowed in recent days and cancellations have gone up.
Cannabis Cup ticket holders — who shelled out hundreds of dollars for passes, hotels and rental cars — took to the event’s Facebook page to express frustration with the uncertainty. Some demanded refunds and threatened lawsuits.
Local authorities have succeeded in completely blocking some other cannabis events planned for 4/20.
In Long Beach, officials shut down an event that the marijuana advocacy group Orange County NORML planned to hold on the Queen Mary. Also, in Woodland, local leaders blocked this weekend’s planned Tree Harvest Festival, at the Yolo County Fairgrounds.
One thing is clear: This is the last 4/20 where event organizers will get a slap on the wrist if they flout state law.
By this time next year, Traverso said the bureau plans to fully enforce all new rules, with business licenses in jeopardy if organizers don’t get proper approvals.
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