The first annual National Cannabis Festival was a mix of the top voices in business and entertainment pushing cannabis advocacy issues mainstream.
“The real reason we’re here is to try to stop sending people to jail," said David Grosso, an at-large member of the D.C. City Council.
“The criminal-justice aspect is the most important thing. In D.C. especially, we saw a 90-percent disparity rate [before legalization] between blacks and whites: blacks were getting arrested 91 percent more," Grosso continued.
“The business aspect is important, but it is still in its infancy. This is about action. These folks are trying to make a difference in policy.” The event, which took place near Washington, DC's RFK Stadium and garnered an estimated 5,000 attendees, was intended to keep advocacy issues front and center as cannabis steadily gains nationwide acceptance.
The District’s unique relationship with cannabis has come to the fore in the past several years. The city’s residents overwhelmingly approved a 2014 ballot initiative allowing for adult cannabis possession, home cultivation, and private consumption.
Since then, the city has passed a number of measures clarifying its approach to cannabis, with the DC City Council voting to ban the creation of private clubs for the purposes of cannabis consumption.
Thus, with its status as the nation’s capital, DC’s focus on the cannabis issue would make it seem like the perfect location for a national cannabis festival. “Any big policy-oriented festival should be here,” Grosso, said to MERRY JANE.
“This is DC If you want to try to make a change, you’ve got to come to the belly of the beast and see if you can’t change it.” For many in the District, however, it is cannabis’s social-justice angle that is the most pressing issue, and one of the primary motivations behind the creation of the National Cannabis Festival.
While cannabis-related businesses were represented at booths at the festival, Grosso was one of many who stressed the importance of the festival’s social-justice angle over its focus on business interests.
Indeed, the number of organizations focused on social issues—such as DC Vote, which advocates for full voting representation in Congress for DC—appeared to outnumber private organizations.
According to Phillips, this was no accident. “We wanted to create an event that would capture the spirit of the advocacy movement and also remind people of the important issues around cannabis apart from recreational use,”
Caroline Phillips, the festival’s founder and chief organizer, told MERRY JANE: “What better place to do it than DC in a presidential election year?”
“I think what’s really special about this community is that it’s been driven by activists for so long, and it has lived as a subculture for so long. We are putting on this event to really remind people, ‘Yeah, we’ve made some progress, but we have a long way to go.’”
This year’s festival featured performances from a number of different musical artists, headlined by De La Soul. It also garnered sponsorship from a number of DC-based organizations, including DC Hydroponics and the historic Howard Theater. Phillips envisions future festivals to include more interactive components, such as games and yoga sessions.
However, regardless of what is added to the festival she hopes to maintain the festival’s emphasis on social justice.
“I hope when people think of this event, if I could compare it to anything, it would be a Rock the Vote for the cannabis community,” she said, referring to the progressive nonprofit group devoted to increasing youth engagement in the political process.
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“I hope we can amp people up with music and activism and cool exhibits, and maybe in 3 years we’ll be welcoming 10,000 people. Who knows?”