Despite 36 months of working in the cannabis industry and 36 years of live music performances with joints flowing freely, I never thought I’d see the day when $100,000 in ticket sales were generated for a festival that included an old school hip hop act, a Pink Floyd cover band, and dozens of legal weed vendors.
The July 9 Cannabash festival, held on several acres of sensimilla-sanctioned softball fields in the town of Muskegon on Michigan’s West Coast, was one of two Midwest public consumption events I experienced on back-to-back days earlier this month.
Part of my job description as CEO of Grown In is to gauge the commercial viability and cultural resonance of public pot parties. As of today, at least 10 of the 37 U.S. states where cannabis is sold legally allow onsite cannabis consumption spaces.
Not only do public consumption events represent a new frontier of cannabis sales for licensed operators, their existence offers further proof to regulators, law enforcement, and naysayers that responsible citizens aged twenty one and above can get high at the same place and the same time and the sky does not fall. As is the case with most erroneously stigmatized social movements in the United States, the public is way ahead of their elected officials when it comes to weed.
Billed as the “ultimate smoke session”, the Muskegon Cannabash festival drew more than 7,500 attendees and secured participation from more than 50 licensed cannabis retailers. Individuals who paid between $25 to $125 to be there were treated to an array of samples while also shopping for pre-rolls that were sold for five bucks and accessories that ran as high as $500.
Bands and DJs entertained across two stages, an array of food trucks catered to the munchie needs of the masses, and, in what was notably an alcohol-free environment, there were no incidents of violence and everyone I observed throughout five hours of indica-embedded observational reporting seemed to get along swimmingly.
Even those who took spills after dabbing (the practice of imbing super hot hash oil that is four times stronger than most flower or gummies) seemed to brush themselves off and move on with their daze.
“This was a weed carnival,” explained organizer Connie Sparrow, a cannabis advocate who directs the Canna Social Equity Fund in Grand Rapids.
I told her the vibe of the event felt like a cross between a Grateful Dead parking lot scene and Six Flags.
“That’s exactly what we were going for,” she replied.
Over the past several months, Sparrow and her team worked hard to clear a myriad of compliance hurdles around security and inventory management in order to obtain municipal approval. This included getting early participation from eight licensed operators in Muskegon Township who all helped to demonstrate that their product could be dispensed safely and responsibly among the masses.
“It was important for the industry to demonstrate that a large-scale cannabis festival can be pulled off safely,” said Robin Schneider, executive director of the Michigan Cannabis Industry Association, a partner of Grown In.
Beyond combating cannabis sigma, Schneider added, Cannabash also showed the commercial viability of producing public consumption events.
“I was starting to question the validity of social consumption events as I hadn’t seen the model work,” she said.
Sparrow said Cannabash generated $215,000 in sponsorship revenue on top of approximately $100,000 in ticket sales. With bands and permits and staff and such, she estimates that they “are going to do better than break even” this year. As for 2023, she hopes to extend to two days and incorporate alcohol sales.
“The economics of this event require alcohol,” she explained, adding that while event organizers often receive 35 percent of what is made from onsite alcohol purchases, “you don’t get a cut of weed sales by law because it’s federally illegal.”
Sales were brisk.
While not exactly Six Flags, customer lines for the Michigan retailers often surpassed 15 minutes. Samples, mostly joints, were given away to consumers who turned over contact information to be informed of future specials.
In a state where the price of high-quality flower has dropped to less than $25 an eighth and hundreds of retailers (along with countless caregivers) compete for the hearts, minds and endocannabinoid systems of a finite number of cannabis consumers, operators are looking for any infusion of new business they can find.
Multiple vertically-integrated cannabis companies with heavy Michigan footprints including Skymint, Fluresh, C3 Industries, and NOBO deployed not only their best and brightest budtenders to the party, but also corporate executives, IT leads and head growers. To the extent Cannabash served as a showcase for how the industry is becoming more professionalized, the companies who participated passed with high-flying colors.
Despite some immediate-term industry headwinds, there is a lot of growth to be gained for operators comfortable with meeting the market where it is.
More than $1.8 billion of legal weed was sold in Michigan in 2021 from more than 31,000 full-time cannabis employees. Bud is already big business in the state, which by hosting the most expansive drug deal in the history of Western Civilization also opened up a new frontier in cannabis commerce.
“A man came up to me and said you were the best thing to happen to weed since Snoop Dog,” said Sparrow.
Bow wow wow yippi yo yippie yay.
The following day I attended a more intimate, invitation-only social consumption event hosted at a Mexican restaurant on Chicago’s North Side.
Separated by a Great Lake, Michigan and Illinois’s cannabis programs could not be more different. Michigan has more in common with Colorado, California, Washington, and Oregon in that hundreds of mostly state-specific operators compete for market share. Illinois, to date, is controlled by about 15 mostly multi-state operators who obtained original medical licenses nearly a decade ago.
The next phase of the $1.8 billion Illinois cannabis program, which could shift into a new gear next month upon the official release of 185 new retail licenses, should benefit from the perspective of creatively resilient entrepreneurs like Ambrose Jackson.
Chairman and CEO of Chicago-based and vertically-integrated The 1937 Group, Jackson has found ways to build a company culture and identity over the past 24 months as growth of the Illinois program was impaired by Kafkaesque litigation and consternation. Among his secrets to success are a series of invite-only cannabis consumption events where product is served at no cost while the conversations and networking that ensue make the whole experience priceless.
“Our goal is not to make money,” explained Ambrose, “but to build a community of like-minded individuals through their shared values.”
Far from an open air festival, the 1937 consumption event was more curated in nature, where a few dozen new Illinois license-holders convened with artists, activists and entrepreneurs over sativa and ceviche.
Some guests discussed and debated as to whether we are in a transformative moment for the Illinois cannabis industry, while others found relaxation in the hands of an onsite masseuse (who took donations via Venmo). Joints were passed freely, and drinks flowed from a cash bar. The half dozen or so smokeless and electronically-charged bongs were also a big hit.
“We want to reach out specifically to folks we want to work with and those who want to work with us,” said Jackson, who spent a dozen years in healthcare management at the Cleveland Clinic and Advocate Health before shifting his focus to the cannabis industry in 2018. “The purpose is to highlight different aspects of the culture. For me it’s important to break down those barriers amongst the various segments of cannabis users.”
This includes an event earlier this year at the Hip Hop Heritage museum on Chicago’s Southside and upcoming plans to host the KVL International Flower Ball, which Jackson describes as “a unique concept infusing the fashion industry with the cannabis industry.”
Jackson foresees a cannabis cottage industry for minority-owned ancillary businesses serving the hundreds of new retail stores and several dozen craft grow and infuser businesses that should finally come to market in Illinois in the coming years.
“It’s all about creating a circular economy focused on social equity, true inclusion and not white-washing the plant,” he said. “The purpose of our events is to highlight different aspects of the culture. For me it’s important to break down those barriers amongst the various segments of cannabis users.”