They came to Washington, D.C., from across the river and across the country. They came in the thousands. They came with papers and pipes, with less than the 2-ounce limit for personal use in the district. They came ready for a party.
They found one at the National Cannabis Festival at the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium Festival Grounds throughout 4/20 in the nation's capital. April 20, 2019, marked the festival's fourth year.
“It grows each year,” said Stoner Sowell, a Washington local at the festival. But it's not just about the party, he said. The event, and others like it on 4/20, also serves as a rally to end marijuana prohibition.
Festival founder Caroline Phillips told the Washington Post she's happy the festival and the policy summit held the day before have helped Washington become a destination for people interested in cannabis.
Washington voters approved Initiative 71 in 2014, which allowed individuals to possess and grow marijuana, but did not establish a system for legal sales, blocked by federal opponents.
Sowell said the rules create a gray area and keep needed jobs and investments out of his city. He sees no good reason for that.
“Can you imagine if this was all about alcohol?” Sowell asked, gesturing over the hazy field with a lit cigar. “Imagine how many fights there would have been. Here everybody's mellow.”
Throughout the day, smoke from innumerable strains rose into the sunny blue sky, scented with aromas from almost as many vape pens, which added hints of pineapple and other fruits to the air.
Starting at noon, a series of live entertainment took the main stage, dominated by reggae and hip-hop and DJs Biz Markie and Action Bronson. When the first thundering bass notes from headliner Ludacris' set pumped out, thousands crowded toward the stage, thick clouds of smoke billowing until they seemed ready to obscure the view.
Throughout the day, attendees strolled the grounds, checking out exhibitors' stands selling T-shirts, glassware, and CBD-infused products. Gary and Shana Schwartz came from New York to show off their marijuana-themed board game Roll A Bong. Players roll dice to land on commands to take a drink, smoke a bowl, or even take out the trash. At game's end, players roll up whatever marijuana is left and share a joint, Shana Schwartz said.
A dizzying number of food trucks with food from around the world did brisk business throughout the day in the Munchies Zone. The smell of ribs, tacos, noodle shops, pizza and more mingled to entice the folks waiting in long lines in the sun. One food stand offered Greek burgers, Italian sausage, French fries, and Philly steaks. Sweets such as deep-fried Oreos were a big draw, along with healthier options such as fruit drinks.
Early forecasts called for rain, but only a few droplets fell as Ludacris began his set. The day's rolling clouds just meant a little more shade on the beautiful, hot spring day.
“I've been keeping an eye on the forecast all week like a hawk,” said vendor Ky McKoy. He made the drive from Baltimore to sell lemonade and flavored ice. Next to him was Jordan Chisley, selling CBD-infused sweet potato pies from the More Than Java Café of Laurel, Maryland.
At the CLC Glass tent, several glassmakers endured blazing heat while creating hand-blown glass pipes. Visitors watched the craftsmen work with glass, flame and their own breath to weave colors and form objects from the glowing, malleable glass. Immersed in the fire, a glowing bead of glass opened to a ball while Cody Carroll of Richmond, Virginia, worked on a new creation.
Late in the day, just before Ludacris took the stage, Mary "MK" Kelly and Jarrett Nassau, the winners of the Ultimate Weed Wedding contest exchanged their vows in front of thousands, expressing their undying love before blazing on the stage.
Over at the Wellness Pavilion, Christine Kontra of Washington-area fitness centers Vida Fitness began a free yoga class, one she said was fine for yoga newcomers. A small group gathered on the grass for the 30-minute class, starting with a moving meditation. The spot also hosted talks on cannabis; sex and wellness; culinary cannabis and fine dining; and a glimpse behind the scenes of Washington's medical cannabis dispensaries.
Advocacy, education, and outreach were also a big part of the festival. Stephanie McCaslin and others with the non-partisan organization Headcount.org, which registered voters within the district and for any state.
Rajani Gudlavalleti of the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition said she found a sympathetic audience at the festival for her organization's appeal to end what she called the racist war on drugs. She wants to reduce the damage done in Baltimore by opioids, but sees the current policy as doing more harm than good, with a focus on punishment rather than improving lives.
Other presentations included Grow School, the King Weedy Hemp Pavilion, and the Weedmaps Education Pavilion, where a series of discussions included a primer on the complicated cannabis laws in Washington, D.C., the intersection of women, tech and cannabis, and the current barriers for safe and legal access to cannabis.
Weedmaps, one of the event sponsors, brought executives to moderate and participate on panel discussions at the policy forum and the festival, where the company hosted a DJ, contests and prize giveaways.
Yet even in the festive atmosphere, advocates and experts urged attendees not to forget that cannabis legalization still faces many hurdles.
In a discussion moderated by Weedmaps spokesperson Carl Fillichio, patient advocate Dr. Chanda Macias, owner of the National Holistic Healing Center medical marijuana dispensary in Washington, D.C., told panel attendees that patients still face substantial risks, such as renters in subsidized housing who could lose their homes over a marijuana conviction, and immigrants who could be deported if they work in the cannabis industry.
David Mangone, the director of legislative affairs for the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, added that affordability remains an issue, and proposed that insurance companies reimburse patients for medicinal cannabis to avoid costs that approach $400 an ounce.
Dustin McDonald, Weedmaps vice president for government relations, joined Jeff Staker, a Marine veteran and the founder of Hoosier Veterans for Medical Cannabis, on the panel. Staker said supporters of legalization have to keep pushing for progress.
“If veterans are the voice that they need to hear on this issue, we're going to take point and we're going to be that voice,” he said. “Cannabis advocacy is not just on 4/20. It's all year-round.”
Featured Image: The 2019 National Cannabis Festival at the RFK Festival Grounds in Washington, D.C., attracted thousands of attendees to celebrate, and advocate for, cannabis reform. (Photo by Bill Barlow)