It’s official: The National Cannabis Festival is a real thing and people are coming from far and wide for fellowship and celebration. This is no smoke-in or middle finger to the DEA; rather, the nonprofit and business sectors are coming together with the community in a show of solidarity and political activism. Some of the festival’s founders sat down with City Paper to discuss how and why the festival came together and what they hope it will accomplish.

The participants were Caroline Phillips, founder and CEO of High Street PR; Dr. Malik Burnett of Johns Hopkins University and former policy manager of the Drug Policy Alliance; Rose Donna, co-owner of the Wonderland Ballroom and Dew Drop Inn; Morgan Fox, communications manager for the Marijuana Policy Project; and Corey Barnette, co-owner and operator of District Growers Cultivation Center & Metropolitan Wellness Center. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

So how did the idea for the festival come about?

Phillips: Around the time that legalization happened in D.C., there was like a lot of activity, it was all really exciting, lots of businesses that were launching, and lots of folks coming to D.C. to put on events. I remember sitting with you, Malik, after an event last February and we both noticed that in the room we didn’t necessarily see the population of people that Initiative 71 was meant to serve. A lot of the events that were coming to town were full of terrific information, but they were out of the price range for the broader population in D.C. and on the East Coast in general.

So we kind of came together around the idea to create an event that brought the focus back to advocacy and kind of the spirit of the nonprofit movement. Talked about social justice, talked about the economy, talked about liberty, talked about people being able to vote, especially in D.C., and have Congress respect our vote. So that’s sort of where this was born and we wanted to kind of plant it in advocacy because we are in a place where members of Congress would know we are gathering and they could see the strength of our community. And we wanted [to] also buck a lot of the trends that are associated with cannabis. This is not a user-based event. We want to show all aspects of the community.

You said it’s not a user-based event, but is smoking encouraged, allowed?

Phillips: No, we abide in full by D.C. law. I think that the best way to advance legislation in D.C. and around the country is to demonstrate that we can come together and celebrate without kind of flouting the laws.

Burnett: To the best of our ability to control that.

Who else has been instrumental to putting the event together, outside of the nonprofit and vendor networks?

Phillips: The people in the neighborhood have been awesome; I’ve been down to a series of [Advisory Neighborhood Commission meetings near RFK Stadium] to talk to people about the event… [At] the meetings, I think I was prepared for like, pitchforks and torches, but it has been absolutely the opposite. If anything, I’ve had community members pulling me aside after to ask me like, “Where can we find a seed-share, or can you tell us how we can get in touch with these organizations, or can I get free tickets?” So…

Fox: That’s a quotable line (laughs)

Phillips: Something special about this event is that our entire staff is volunteers. Our advocacy committee volunteers their time, the people that help me every day on logistics volunteer their time, our business committee volunteers their time, their contacts; this is a pretty big ask.

Burnett: You gotta think about it though: In D.C., we ran a campaign voting on legalizing marijuana and 70 percent of the District’s residents voted for [it]. That’s never been done in the history of marijuana legalization campaigns, ever. And that probably won’t be touched again in terms of that high amount of validation [for a ballot initiative].

Fox: It was overwhelming. And then strangely enough… because Congress interfered with our ability to actually fully implement the system, it created a real sense of community where everybody was in a sharing economy. Like, you can only share marijuana, you can’t sell it, you can give it away. You can’t set up businesses, so everybody is trying to learn from each other about how to do their own thing. So it really fostered a huge sense of cooperation in town.

Burnett: I do think that it’s still important that we get regulations around how this is going to work, because as the time goes on, like, the grow-and-give model is great, theoretically; that’s how other states got it done as well. Washington, Colorado had a whole year of time before they implemented their system. But after a year’s time, it’s hard to keep the fabric of collective community and non-profiteering together. Across all eight wards there’s still broad-based consensus for progress on marijuana in the city; it’s just that political officials are out of step with the public on this issue.

On the subject of the cannabis industry, I’ve heard a lot about the concern over whether the barrier of entry is higher in the black community. Is that something you’ve seen, or do you think that is something to be concerned about?

Barnette: A huge disparity and lack of diversity in the cannabis industry at the entrepreneurship level stems largely from the way that regulations and legislation [are] currently written. Some places are making you pay $200,000 or a $250,000 fee every two years, or making you have $2 million in reserve, those kinds of things are built to keep groups of people out. Similarly, when you say things like, well you can’t have a prior drug arrest… given the fact that for the last seven decades you’ve been looking [to arrest] primarily on one side of the city and that just happens to be where black people are, right?

That’s also one of the important things about the festival: It’s an opportunity for us to begin to talk about these issues too, and put regulations in place, hopefully in a tax-and-regulate environment, [to] promote the District and promote development of a better program. For instance, there’s a tremendous opportunity to promote entrepreneurship for District residents if you say in the regulations that you have to be a resident of the District to be an owner, right? That means that you’ve now done what Colorado did, you did what Washington did, you did what Oregon did—they won’t let you be an owner if you’re not from those states, so you shouldn’t be able to do that here. The festival provides sort of a ground-zero approach to beginning to make those cases one-on-one with policy makers and make sure that the activist groups are all in line sort of pushing those ideals forward.

Donna: There’s a lot of things that don’t make sense that have to be ironed out, like say in the African-American community, there’s a lot of people that were growing weed and selling weed. Now it’s legal, and now they’re not eligible to be in the industry when they’re the [ones with the most experience]. It doesn’t make any sense. So I think that there’s a lot of education that needs to happen on the legal side. You can grow it in your house, where are you getting the seeds? Well, you can’t share seeds.

Burnett: Right, there’s still lots of small parts of red tape that are sometimes difficult to get people to think about, much less legislate on.

So how is the festival structured?

Phillips: It’s gonna be a full-day concert on the main stage. In between acts, we’ll have different policy makers come out to speak. We will also have our advocacy groups get up and talk a bit about the issues they care about, invite people to come over and learn from them at the advocacy pavilion. There’s also going to be a full-day education pavilion with different sessions. There’s a full-day exhibitor fair, and we’ll also have live art on-site. I think we have about 70 percent local vendors participating with their wares, so from T-shirts and recognizable cannabis brands and pipes and things like that, to things that more have to do with lifestyle.

Fox: This is the first festival [around cannabis] that I’ve seen really focusing on a combination of activism, industry, and culture to try to bring all these elements together.

Phillips: This festival isn’t gonna be like, “I went to a festival and I stood in a field and it was really fun.” That’s gonna happen, but we also want people to leave saying that they made an impact by attending, that they’ve added their voice to the chorus of people who are calling for an end to prohibition.

The National Cannabis Festival will be held April 23 from noon to 8 p.m. at the Festival Grounds at RFK Stadium. Go to their website for more details or to purchase tickets.

Photo by Charlon Verde via Flickr / Creative Commons 2.o license