California’s cannabis industry is struggling to transition to a fully regulated marketplace. And those growing pains were evident at the High Times SoCal Cannabis Cup, and similar events, held this weekend to mark marijuana’s unofficial 4/20 holiday.
Cannabis Cup, a marijuana festival that attracts thousands of people to San Bernardino’s National Orange Show Events Center each spring, appears to have shrunk significantly but otherwise operated pretty much the same this year as it has in years past — despite strict new state regulations and last-minute pushback from local authorities.
“It wasn’t really crowded. (But) it still happened; it was still a really beautiful weekend,” said Michael O’Malley, who attended the festival to sell his signature Curved Papers for rolling joints.
For two decades, Cannabis Cup and other marijuana festivals in California have flourished under the state’s loose medical marijuana laws. Doctors would set up tents at festival entrances and charge guests $100 or more to get recommendations for medical cannabis if they claimed to have just about any ailment under the sun. And, with that recommendation in hand, anyone 18 and older could enter the festival and start buying, sampling and consuming marijuana products from hundreds of unlicensed vendors.
State law that took effect Jan. 1 says cannabis retailers must have licenses and can sell only lab-tested, properly labeled products. And, while the law says cannabis festivals can now let anyone 21 and older buy and smoke weed, it also says festival organizers need permission from the state and local agencies.
That was a problem for the Cannabis Cup. Less than 48 hours before the event was scheduled to start — with headlining music acts including Lil Wayne, Nas and 2 Chainz set to perform — the San Bernardino City Council voted not to issue a permit for the event. That set off rumors that Cannabis Cup was canceled or would be weed-free.
High Times insisted on its social media channels that the show would go on but that no sales would take place, encouraging attendees instead to “bring their own.”
The last-minute controversy drove down attendance, with Cannabis Cup tickets offered for sale online at steep discounts, and some would-be attendees saying they’d received refunds from third-party ticket dealers such as Groupon.
But people who made it to Cannabis Cup said they were still able to smoke and buy weed if they showed a medical marijuana referral. And there was still a tent up front offering on-site doctor’s recommendations, with long lines since many festival-goers didn’t realize they’d need them this year.
A loophole in state law may have helped High Times and vendors. Medical cannabis collectives have until the end of this year to comply with all state regulations or close shop.
High Times didn’t respond to requests Monday to discuss the festival. And state regulators say they’re offering all businesses a grace period to adjust to the hundreds of pages of new rules that were just released in November and kicked in Jan. 1.
A San Clemente woman, who declined to give her name due to job concerns, said Cannabis Cup staff was strict about checking for medical cards to get into the area where people could buy and consume cannabis, with some vendors making shoppers register as patients before they’d sell anything. Other festival-goers said on social media that vendors told them they could “gift” them marijuana if they made a “donation” to their collective.
The controversy scared off some vendors worried about law enforcement or not making any money at the festival, or both. The San Clemente woman estimated that the vendor turnout was half what was expected.
Given that low turnout and a lack of other perks, the woman — who said she paid $120 for one-day VIP entrance for the second year in a row — felt like she was “ripped off.”
“They should have cancelled and offered refunds,” she said.
“Legalization is ruining everything.”
But others enjoyed the smaller crowds. And they pointed out that there was no crackdown by local police, as some had feared.
Technically, San Bernardino police could have handed out $100-tickets to anyone consuming cannabis at the event. While possession of up to an ounce of marijuana has been legal since voters passed Prop. 64, in November 2016, public consumption is legal only at licensed events — which didn’t apply to Cannabis Cup.
But as in years past there were no reports of any tickets or arrests at the event. And O’Malley said it was just the usual number of police making their rounds.
“The Cannabis Cup was quiet,” said Eileen Hards, a spokeswoman for San Bernardino police. “We didn’t have any issues.”
Some people and vendors who’d planned to go Cannabis Cup saw news of the permitting issues and drove instead to the high desert town of Adelanto to celebrate the 4/20 weekend at the smaller Abra Ca Dabs festival, held in the local baseball stadium. The event, which organizers say attracted more than 5,000 people, offered free admission to anyone who had Cannabis Cup tickets.
There were zero public safety incidents at the Adelanto event, according to Staci Parks with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.
Things went similarly smoothly at the massive annual smoke-out known as Hippie Hill in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, with police keeping their distance despite laws against smoking weed in public.
But in Santa Cruz, around 100 police officers handed out tickets to many of the estimated 2,000 people — down from 3,000 in 2017 — who gathered in a meadow on the UC Santa Cruz campus to smoke at 4:20 p.m. on 4/20.
California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control sent investigators to more than 100 locations over the 4/20 weekend to conduct compliance checks, according to spokesman Alex Traverso. And he said they were overall “pleasantly surprised” by what they found.
“Our view is that, all in all, things went well,” Traverso said. “If they found anything out of compliance, they were minor issues that are easily remedied.”
High Times is set to sponsor the next festival in its traveling Cannabis Cup series in Sacramento starting May 4, with Lauryn Hill, Cypress Hill and others set to perform.
Sacramento spokeswoman Linda Tucker said Monday that the city council has not yet approved a local permit for licensed sales or consumption at that event, either, though it might come up for a vote before the festival is set to take place.
Staff writers Brian Whitehead, Khalida Sarwari and Ethan Baron contributed to this report.
To subscribe to The Cannifornian’s email newsletter, click here.