Marijuana festival organizers were banking on this to be their biggest year yet, now that recreational cannabis is legal in California and the state is legitimizing such events by licensing them for the first time.

Promoters say they planned to stop operating under the loose protections of the state’s medical marijuana laws, where they’d force attendees to get doctor’s recommendations for cannabis before entering the gates. Instead, they hoped to have licenses that would allow anyone 21 and older to buy and smoke cannabis, just like they can buy and drink beer at other festivals.

But with local authorities now able to block such festivals even from the limited venues where they’re permitted by new state rules, there weren’t any state-sanctioned events in Southern California during the first half of the year. And none are on the horizon for the rest of 2018.

A medical marijuana provider help attendees at the High Times Cannabis Cup in San Bernardino in 2017. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

The picture is a bit brighter in Northern California. The state licensed marijuana festivals this spring in Sacramento and in Santa Rosa, where the massive Emerald Cup is also expected to go off in December without a hitch.

“It’s costing us a lot of money, but it’s going to come back in the long run,” said Tim Blake, who founded The Emerald Cup festival and competition 15 years ago. “We’re going to really be teaching them how it should be done.”

But with many of California’s largest marijuana festivals – such as the now-postponed Chalice California in Victorville – unable to secure permits to allow consumption and sales, overall attendance and revenue for promoters, vendors and fairground venues is expected to be down significantly in the first year of legalization.

“We are taking a big hit,” said Franco Rodriguez, promoter of the High Life Music Festival, which got turned down for a marijuana sales permit by the city of San Bernardino. “Our own government is not letting the people do what we voted for.”

People who own hotels, restaurants and other businesses near these venues are also expressing concern. They say the boost they’ve seen as tens of thousands of people have flocked to these events in the past has helped them sustain and grow their operations.

A lawsuit over these festival rules is pending, while some organizers say they’re looking to move their events out of California.

Other festival promoters are taking the same approach as the rest of California’s still-massive black market. They’re citing a “crippling” permit system, lingering legal gray areas and delayed enforcement as justification to keep hosting events that make it look as though nothing has changed when it comes to marijuana laws in California – even though, officially, everything has.

Options limited

Festivals that let people buy and smoke marijuana are now legally restricted to fairground venues authorized by the Department of Food and Agriculture.

“There’s no other type of event to be limited to that,” Blake said. “It’s kind of ridiculous.”

Several of the state’s 80 sanctioned fairs are defunct or share facilities. Others – such as Santa Maria Fairpark, home to the Santa Barbara County Fair – can’t host cannabis events under state law because they’re within 600 feet of schools.

Carving out those properties leaves California with around 70 venues that can entertain the notion of permitting cannabis festivals. But the obstacles don’t end there.

Layers of permission required

For 20 years, medical marijuana festivals in California only needed permission from whoever owned or managed the event venue. But as of Jan. 1, companies that want to host festivals where cannabis can be sold and consumed must first get annual licenses from the state. Then, for every event they host, they need permission from the board that oversees the venue, from the city or county where the venue is located and again from the state.

High Times returned to San Bernardino on Nov. 11 with the Harvest Cup, an extension of the Cannabis Cup brand. (Sarah Alvarado, for The Cannifornian)

Several fair boards, such as the ones that oversee OC Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa and Amador County Fairgrounds & Event Center near Sacramento, have opted to ban all cannabis-themed events.

“We just don’t think it is a good fit for us here in Amador County,” said Troy Bowers, chief executive for the Northern California venue.

The Department of Food Agriculture has recommended “that each fair board set local policy about cannabis events,” according to agency spokesman Steve Lyle. But managers for some facilities, including Tehama District Fairgrounds in Northern California, said they don’t have a policy because they haven’t yet been approached about holding marijuana events. Others say their city or county already prohibits all commercial cannabis activity, so they know festivals wouldn’t get local approval anyway.

“We have to abide by local rules and regulations,” said Dan Jacobs, general manager of the Antelope Valley Fair & Event Center in Lancaster, which blocks marijuana sales.

Only around 10 state-sanctioned fairground venues are in cities or counties that permit recreational marijuana sales, according to a database of local marijuana policies compiled by the Southern California News Group.

In at least two of those 10 communities, either the fair board or local authorities have already opted to block cannabis events. That leaves perhaps eight viable venues for hosting marijuana festivals in all of California, with several in remote communities far from the state’s population centers.

Organizers feel ‘big hit’

Getting turned down for marijuana consumption and sales permits is expected to mean a substantial drop in attendance, industry insiders say.

Attendees called High Times SoCal Cannabis Cup, held in San Bernardino in April, a “ghost town” after the city refused to sign off on the event at the last minute.

Chalice was slated to take place in Victorville from July 13-15, with shows by Ludacris and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony on the ticket. But event producer Ryan Heil said he expected a 60 percent loss in revenue after the city insisted its ordinance bans cannabis sales at the event, which they said brought more than $33 million to the area last year. So on July 4, organizers announced they were postponing the event, with no word yet on when and where it will now take place.

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Rodriguez said he expects to make at least 50 percent less money than he’d hoped when High Life comes to National Orange Show Events Center in September, since he was forced to make it an all-ages show with no cannabis sales allowed. They’re still telling adults 21 and older that they can bring their own marijuana to consume in a “cannabis garden.”

With fairgrounds in Humboldt County so far shutting them out, organizers of the Cannifest event are looking at potentially moving their operation to Pennsylvania or Ohio.

Other festival organizers – including the team behind Re-Up Festival 2.0 at National Orange Show Events Center this weekend – appear to be carrying on just like they did in previous years.

Re-Up Festival is promoting a “special 420 area” that will be open to anyone 18 and older with a doctor’s recommendation for medical marijuana. And they’re selling both “medicated” and “non-medicated” vendor packages, just as festival organizers did for years under California’s Proposition 215 medical marijuana law.

“I think there are still events happening that feel they’re operating under Prop. 215 rules,” said Alex Traverso, spokesman for the Bureau of Cannabis Control. He said that’s why his agency in April issued a notice letting people know sales are only allowed at licensed festivals by licensed vendors. The notice also says collectives that do business at festivals could face civil penalties for “unlicensed commercial cannabis activity.”

Lawsuit, new laws may expand options

Chalice organizers in June filed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Cannabis Control and the city of Victorville after both entities refused to issue permits for the festival. The suit claims that Victorville shouldn’t have authority over the state-owned fairgrounds.

If Chalice wins the legal challenge, marijuana festivals could potentially take place at any of California’s 50 or so state-owned fairground venues even without approval from the local city or county.

Southern California festival organizers are hoping they might soon find a new home at the Lake Perris Fairgrounds. Riverside County is floating an ordinance that would permit festivals in unincorporated areas.

Assembly Bill 2020, proposed by Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, could also significantly increase the options by letting the state authorize cannabis events at any venue that has local approval. That would allow, say, the city of Los Angeles to permit marijuana-themed festivals even though there aren’t any fairgrounds in its boundaries.

Los Angeles appears to be banking on some such change to state law. The City Council on Tuesday approved placing a marijuana tax measure on the Nov. 6 ballot that includes a $5 surcharge for tickets to temporary cannabis events.