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Event Permits Bring Cannabis To Bay Area Music Festivals

Ariella Markowitz

If you haven’t been to Outside Lands, the music festival held each August in Golden Gate Park, here’s the rundown. The youth, with way better fashion taste than you, are paying 10 dollars for boba tea. Their poor Instagram friends … are hella jealous.
But if you’re over 21, you can go where the big kids are, into the woods, where a sweet, familiar smell awaits.

I’m at a cannabis-smelling station. A sales girl offers me and a handful of other folks a sniff of curated premium marijuana. “And then the gary payton is a really strong indica,” a cannabis scent specialist offers, “you can really pick up that marosine, terpene smell in it.”

Credit Ariella Markowitz
"Grass Lands" at Outside Lands

Last year at Outside Lands you could smell, but not smoke. But this year, instead of sneaking off to the woods, for the first time, you could buy and smoke cannabis legally in the cannabis area, called Grass Lands.

It looks like a beer garden; a bunch of colorful booths are shaded by redwoods, and folks hang out on a rustic platform area. But instead of drinking, they’re smoking, vaping, or nibbling on cannabis products.

Jordan Lams, the founder and CEO of Moxie, a dabs retailer, hopes this is the new normal. “It should be together,” Lams says. “There's no reason for it not to be I mean, they're selling alcohol, why not cannabis.”

Lams’ products are bought and consumed right here, thanks to a special events permit that was issued by the city of San Francisco. In fact, the permit was approved a nail-biting three days before the event. But he wasn’t nervous. “You know, I always had confidence that it was going to be approved.”

Marisa Rodriguez didn’t share that confidence. “Yeah, right!” she laughs. “We were all on pins and needles, I didn’t even know it would!”

Credit Ariella Markowitz
Marisa Rodriguez, Head of the Office of Cannabis, and Jeremy Schwartz, Permit Analyst

Rodriguez has a warm smile to go with that great laugh. We’re sitting in the basement of city hall, in what used to be a closet. For nearly two years, it’s been home to San Francisco's Office of Cannabis. Any budding industry needs its regulators, and as the head of the Office of Cannabis, Rodriguez does a little bit of everything. “We process all of the permits for the sale, manufacturer distribution, cultivation, and any lab testing, as well as retail. And so you know, Grass Lands is the first event to be able to be permitted in San Francisco.”

Rodriguez worked as a prosecutor in San Francisco for 10 years. She jokes that her time at the DA prepared her for the legal wild-west that is cannabis permitting. She just stepped in to head the cannabis department on April 1st. “You know,” she says, “a month in cannabis land is a year, you know, it's like, feels like a long time but it really hasn’t been.”

Recreational cannabis became legal in California back in 2016, and one year later, recreational dispensaries started popping up. But San Francisco laws are still really strict about where you can actually consume cannabis.

“The thing about cannabis is that you can't consume in public, you can't consume in your home, if you're a renter, and your landlord doesn't allow you to you can't consume in your car, you can't consume in a hotel if you're a tourist, you really can't find a place to consume. And so that kind of leaves us in this weird space where you kind of have to carve out spaces, right?”

Then, in 2018, California passed AB-2020, which allows cannabis consumption at public events, but only temporarily, and if the event passes a certain set of guidelines.

But it’s not easy to secure a permit.

The city requires security to be tight––which means 8-foot tall opaque fences and guards at every entrance––and a place far enough apart from the main event so second-hand smoke won’t bother folks not partaking.That actually ended up working really well for Outside Lands, because Golden Gate Park has a forest. Street festivals with lots of residential areas are going to have a harder time finding a place out of the way.

Rodriguez notes, “Fortunately, for the Folsom street fair, its location is in an area where there are a lot of, you know, industrial type buildings and not a lot of residents. So they're able to find, you know, an alley or a street that's separate.”

Credit Ariella Markowitz
The entry point to the Office of Cannabis in City Hall

Rodriguez says that Folsom St. Fair, the city’s iconic festival celebrating BDSM and leather fetishism, could be the next event in line to get a cannabis permit. Other events, like the Hardly Strictly bluegrass festival, didn’t apply in time. So they won’t have time to go through the long process to secure the events permit. “It's a huge commitment, she says. “So I don't I don't know that everyone is going to who is eligible is really going to want to take on that onus.”

The time and resources you need to get an events permit makes it inaccessible for low-income retailers and low-key events. She says her office is working hard to lower the barriers to enter the industry by helping less wealthy and ex-incarcerated folks find work at cannabis events.

But that’s hard to do when the federal government classifies marijuana as a schedule 1 drug.

Her office is operating in unstable legal territory, but Rodriguez is really excited to be figuring out the gray area. “And so here we are, and we're doing it.  That's the exciting part.  And so, as long as we're moving forward, I'm excited. And I think everyone in the industry is.”


So let’s clear this up: Outside Lands wasn’t the first permitted cannabis event in California. The first permitted event ever was in Sacramento for the High Times Cannabis Cup, in May of 2018. Fun fact: Lauryn Hill performed.

Northern Nights in Humboldt county came a year later, right in the heart of the emerald triangle. And it was the first festival focused on music, not cannabis. But Outside Lands was the first music festival in the Bay Area.

I tried to figure out exactly how much money Grass Lands made. But Highland Events, the guys that organized it, said the information is protected by a nondisclosure agreement. But folks definitely celebrated San Francisco's historic cannabis space the American way: by spending money.

Jordan Lams, the dabs CEO you heard from earlier, feels that even though marijuana legislation has a long way to go before things feel like normal, he can still enjoy the moment.

“I mean, the more we can make it feel like just normal life which it is and it's safe the better and we'll get there,” he says, “but it's baby steps at the end of the day favorite saying in this space is you can't sacrifice the good for perfect, perfect doesn't exist and good’s good.”

Even though the Folsom St. Fair didn’t go through with the cannabis permit, keep your eyes out for more events. Oakland just released its online form for cannabis events permits. And 4/20 on Hippie Hill might even be a legal endeavor.

Crosscurrents CannabisSan Francisco