On Saturday at RFK Stadium’s festival grounds, hip hop group De La Soul and DC go-go act Backyard Band will unite with local activists and vendors to promote a pro-marijuana agenda. But even with weed legal in the District, the National Cannabis Festival, which comes a few days after the DC council voted to ban private pot clubs, carries a buzz-killing decree: no actual cannabis will be allowed on the premises.
For festival organizer Caroline Phillips, the rule reflects the fragility of the cannabis destigmatization movement. DC’s current law for marijuana possession stipulates that any 21-year-old can keep a small amount of it as long as it’s never used or exposed in a public space, and complying with that regulation on Saturday would demonstrate pot activists’ patience and civility.
“We need to honor the work of these advocacy groups,” says Phillips. “Doing anything illegal might set back their work by a decade.”
This careful approach means the National Cannabis Festival is mostly about supporting the idea of weed. You won’t be able to buy any marijuana or marijuana products on Saturday, but you can purchase a scent-proof handbag from AnnaBis or a hemp-seed infused can of Cannabis Energy Drink. And if you’re looking to cultivate a private garden at home, which is legal in DC, Adams Morgan hydroponics company Wash Hydro will be giving out nutrient samples as well as information on how to grow your own cannabis plants.
Phillips’ cautious attitude led her to consider changing the event’s title, fearing it was too provocative. But she ultimately decided that any name other than National Cannabis Festival would trivialize its cause. “DC is home to festivals for every special interest group,” says Phillips. “We have the National Book Festival. We have the Folklife Festival. We have countless beer and wine festivals. We could hide behind a more abstract name or we could not be ashamed of the work we’re trying to do.”
While Phillips may be able to control the festival’s staff and items for sale, she knows she may not be able to control its audience. “I would challenge almost anyone to let me know a concert they’ve been to in the past decade or so where they haven’t at some point noticed cannabis in the air,” she says.
To keep on-site marijuana consumption to a minimum, she’s brought in a security team of “evangelists,” local marijuana advocates whose job it is to politely remind pot users that the pro-cannabis fight is on their behalf.
“We’re all going to be on our toes a little bit that day,” says Phillips. “If we see someone who looks like they’re about to blatantly break the law, we’ll approach and hand them one of our DC law cards and say, ‘Hey, just so you know, DC law says you can’t consume cannabis in public. You need to be careful.’”
Despite Saturday’s risks, though, Phillips is just encouraged by the fact that the National Cannabis Festival is happening in the first place. The event began with no funding whatsoever (“It literally started as an idea on a piece of paper,” she says), and hit a snag early on after Facebook forced her and her team to take down ads for the festival. But Phillips eventually managed to raise $21,000 on Indiegogo, which she feels she was able to do thanks to the strength and dedication of DC’s cannabis community.
“We believe the laws are going to make progress,” she says. “But for us to come together while we’re still pushing for this change, to show members of Congress and to show naysayers the power of our community, we think that’s important.”