Brad Goukler procrastinated.
When the 32-year-old tried to book a hotel room less than a week before the big Chalice hash festival kicked off July 7 in the high desert’s Victor Valley, 40 miles north of San Bernardino, he expected high rates. But not to be completely shut out.
“There are no hotels anywhere,” Goukler said as he rolled a joint with weed he’d purchased from a grower on Chalice’s opening day. “The entire valley is sold out.”
Goukler and his friends, who bought VIP passes for the three-day festival, opted to commute each morning from their homes in Orange County to Victorville. It’s an hour-and-a-half drive each way – without traffic. But they said it was worth it to enjoy the festival’s cannabis-friendly culture and big-name music acts like Ice Cube.
Victorville’s population jumps by nearly a third during Chalice weekend, with an estimated 30,000 guests and vendors coming to town from throughout Southern California, others state and as far away as Europe.
“Chalice sells out virtually every hotel within a 50- to close to a 100-mile radius for at least two nights,” said Geoff Hinds, CEO of the festival venue, San Bernardino County Fair’s High Desert Event Center. “And they’re not just staying at hotels.”
The Starbucks nearby was buzzing. Restaurants had long waits. There were lines at some gas stations.
“The whole town was busy,” said Bill Patel, manager of the New Corral Motel, which is a quarter-mile from the fairgrounds and sold out every night during the festival.
Chalice is among the top three biggest events on California’s cannabis festival circuit, which has expanded dramatically – with an economic ripple effect on often smaller host communities – as marijuana legalization and community acceptance has spread.
There are massive marijuana festivals from Seattle to Spain. But Californians now can attend a cannabis celebration almost every weekend for the rest of the year without leaving their home state. A Hemp and Cannabis Fair is underway this weekend in Anderson near Redding; a new SLO Cup event kicks off next weekend in San Luis Obispo and the Canna-Games is heading to San Francisco the first weekend in August. And that’s without factoring in the plethora of marijuana business conferences popping up in communities throughout the state.
The Emerald Cup festival, which will return to Santa Rosa’s Sonoma County Fairgrounds in December, attracts close to 25,000 cannabis enthusiasts over just two days and typically sells out every hotel within 20 miles.
In San Bernardino, marijuana events now account for about half of all business at the National Orange Show center, according to Gabby Rubio, marketing manager for the venue.
“We’ve kind of become the hub — at least in California, if not the rest of the country — to host cannabis events,” Rubio said. “We have them every month if not twice a month.”
With a reputation for being “cannabis friendly,” the National Orange Show has the High Life Music Festival coming in August and the Dabathon Cup coming in September. But it all started with High Times Cannabis Cup.
The counterculture magazine launched its Cannabis Cup competition in Amsterdam in 1988, with a few judges sampling from marijuana-friendly coffee shops. Now there are multiple Cannabis Cups held across the country each year, including the massive NorCal Cannabis Cup in Santa Rosa in June and the SoCal cup that drew roughly 30,000 people to San Bernardino in April.
Cannabis industry data firms such as Arcview Group and New Frontier said they don’t track the economic impact of such festivals because they’re still a relatively small segment of the multibillion-dollar marijuana industry.
But with roughly 40 percent of attendees at the SoCal Cannabis Cup coming in from out of town, High Times spokesman Sameen Amhad said they estimate the local economic impact from their event to be $7.2 million. And once California’s recreational cannabis market is fully operational next year, Amhad estimates that number could double as more people travel here from out-of-state to experience legal weed.
The National Orange Show landed Cannabis Cup in 2013 after the event was pushed out of Los Angeles and turned down in Glendale. Rubio said the Orange Show’s production manager recruited the festival to bring new business to a struggling city rocked by municipal bankruptcy the year before.
Despite the needed boost in sales and bed tax dollars, not everyone has been pleased that San Bernardino — which for years banned all types of marijuana businesses — is known for having one of the most “420 friendly” venues in the state.
Festival promoters have encountered opposition in some communities.
The Goodlife Festival, which was planned for Sept. 23 in San Diego, is in limbo after board members for the Del Mar Fairgrounds yanked the event’s contract. The move came after the board heard opposition from the community, with the San Diego Union-Tribune reporting one resident said the festival “is normalizing the use of marijuana and sending the wrong message to the public.”
The Victorville City Council also opposed the Chalice festival when it first came to town in 2016, asking the fair board to cancel the event because of safety concerns. But the High Desert Event Center is a state-owned venue, Hinds said, and can’t ban the festivals on moral grounds.
Event promoters must meet standardized contractual requirements, Hinds said, and officials’ views about the event aren’t a factor. If they were, he joked, a recent reptile convention might have been turned away because his staff is afraid of snakes.
There were no arrests or public safety incidents beyond a few cars being tampered with during the recent Chalice festival, according to Mara Rodriguez, spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department’s Victorville station.
“As with similar festivals held in Victorville in the past, last weekend’s Chalice Festival was peaceful,” Rodriguez said.
Both Hinds and Rubio said their venues typically have fewer public safety incidents during cannabis festivals than during mainstream music festivals. Observers variously chalk such reports up to marijuana making attendees mellow or people being on their best behavior, knowing they’re celebrating in a legally gray area. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law and state licenses permitting public consumption and recreational sales won’t be available until Jan. 1.
“The crowd is great,” Rubio said. “They’re always nice, they keep to themselves, they’re helpful when we ask them to do something. They’re just the nicest crowd you can have.”
Dorian Torres said the friendly vibe of the Chalice festival was the main reason he trekked from Orange County to Victorville last weekend.
“I could see these concerts anywhere,” Torres, 22, said.
But having 30,000 people come together to watch live glassblowers, sample the latest vape pens and check out cannabis-themed art installations while catching big music acts? “This is a one-time thing,” he said.
As competition among festivals grows, promoters are seeking to carve out their own niches.
Santa Rosa’s Emerald Cup follows the harvest season and highlights sustainable, outdoor cannabis cultivation. The Golden Tarp Awards, held in Humboldt County in November, celebrate marijuana strains grown in greenhouses and other light-controlled environments. And Chalice focuses on cannabis concentrates, with the festival timed around the emerging July 10 holiday to celebrate that segment of the industry, since 7/10 upside-down spells “OIL.”
With the success of Chalice, Hinds hopes the High Desert Event Center will book more big events outside the cannabis space.
“For us, it’s a unique opportunity to get to showcase our community — not just to people here and regionally but all over the country,” he said. “It definitely puts this facility a little bit more on the map to have a festival of this size and stature because it opens the eyes of people to what we can do.”
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