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SXSW 2019: The Legal Cannabis Industry Greets Live Music Promoters, With Mixed Success

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Marijuana, legal or not, has wafted through the concert and music festival circuit for decades. Now, after marijuana legalization initiatives swept the U.S. last year, and fests like Outside Lands began introducing cannabis experiences, the integration of legally-sanctioned cannabis in live music may seem inevitable.    

Not so fast, warn those working behind-the-scenes. Cannabis industry players who converged at SXSW this week made it clear that they still have plenty of legal and logistical hurdles to overcome before it's embraced by major live promoters like Live Nation and AEG, and even smaller ones.   

Currently, recreational marijuana is legal for adults over the age of 21 in 10 states and Washington, D.C., and legal for medicinal use in many others parts of the country.   

As COO of cannabis-focused event planning company Highland Events, Salwa Ibrahim has been fighting to bring properly permitted, legal cannabis to music events for years. She celebrated a major victory last August when the company partnered with San Francisco's Outside Lands Music Festival for its first-ever cannabis-friendly experience. Called "Grass Lands," the area was intended to break the stigma surrounding the drug while educating festival-goers on things like how the plant's terpene profiles can affect your high. 

"We wanted to do education, but in a thoughtful way that’s interesting," Ibrahim said at the SXSW panel "The Future for Cannabis and Live Events" on March 15. "We had a greenhouse that showcased live cannabis plants, and we did it next to other plants to normalize cannabis and show people that it’s just another plant."

But there was one rather ironic caveat: No actual marijuana or CBD products were available for consumption at the event, though guests could order those products from on-site vendors for home delivery. Pot is legal for recreational use in California, but you can't consume it in public.

That paradox is familiar to entrepreneur Tim Blake, founder of Emerald Cup, the post-harvest, country fair-style contest for pot held in Sonoma County, Calif. When he began hosting the contest illegally more than 15 years ago, he disguised it as a birthday party. Hosting it out in the open is much harder. "If you go to a wine-tasting festival, and you can’t buy anything, what are you doing there?" he said at the panel. "These educational events, they’re wonderful, but after two or three or four, people want to get high."

Getting cannabis to festivals and concerts also presents a logistical problem, as it's illegal to transport it across state lines. And it takes much longer to secure permits for festivals involving cannabis, noted Kraig Fox of the High Times Cannabis Cup, a marijuana trade show. While festivals like Austin City Limits begin selling tickets up to eight months before the event, he says, "we can't secure talent that far in advance, because we don't secure permits until a month and a half before [the festival]." 

Anti-cannabis ad policies on Google and Facebook also make it difficult for promoters to advertise events involving the drug. That's only just starting to change: Last October, Facebook began opening its doors to cannabis businesses that have been verified in its system. 

Because laws surrounding marijuana are murky, panelists said that many live promoters would rather avoid the situation altogether. Even as California enters its second year of cannabis legalization, Coachella still bans cannabis from its private festival grounds. And the pervading stigma around weed stifles the opportunities for artist endorsements as well.

"Some of the artists’ management and lawyers are scared," said Rama Mayo, founder of L.A.-based cannabis creative agency Green Street Agency, speaking on March 16 at "Artist Licensing & Cannabis."

Still, weed vendors are having some success in the realm of artist partnerships. Mayo recently helped 2 Chainz launch premium pot line GAS, and way back in 2012, brokered a partnership between vape pen company G Pen and Snoop Dogg. "It was by far the biggest success we’ve had," he says of the Snoop deal, "and it really brought it mainstream." He's also worked with Sublime, Rae Sremmurd and The Game on marijuana projects. 

And as cannabis becomes legalized in more parts of the country, most panelists agreed that offering marijuana will become too lucrative an opportunity for live promoters to avoid. 

"It’s going to go into every event," Blake added. "Every big show has always had cannabis at it. They just didn’t make any money."

Festivals 2019


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