Are organizers working to make cannabis available at festivals and events this summer?

Cannabis is legal, summer is here and Canadian event planners and organizers are grappling with how to navigate the first summer of chartered consumption since the Cannabis Act came into force.

A solid argument can be made that allowing consumption is one of the first steps towards allowing on-site sales of cannabis—people aren’t going to buy what they can’t consume. So, now that cannabis is legal, are festivals a free-for-all in terms of cannabis use?

Dave MacNeil, CEO of Festivals & Events Ontario(FEO), says a patchwork of provincial and municipal laws means there’s a lot of variation with regard to the rules of consumption at events this summer. “Every municipality is a little bit different on how they’re handling cannabis,” MacNeil explains. “And then, within the municipalities, venues are operating all differently.”

Even in instances where provincial and municipal rules could allow on-site consumption, that doesn’t guarantee that festivalgoers will be allowed to consume freely—or at all. In line with the adage about assuming, MacNeil says attendees wishing to consume cannabis shouldn’t show up at an event expecting that they’ll be able to do so.

Dave MacNeil, CEO of Festivals & Events Ontario, says a patchwork of provincial and municipal laws means there’s a lot of variation with regard to the rules of consumption at events this summer.

“If you’re going to any given event and you’re expecting a cannabis experience, I would really do some investigation and some digging. There’s very few that we know of that are giving it a try,” he reports. “But we do have a few events that are experimenting and seeing what the outcomes are.”

For example, though the event itself is “smoke- and vape-free,” attendees will be permitted to smoke at the designated camping area (Pete Seeger Memorial Campground) of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ont., and Toronto’s Afrofest will continue in its traditionof not implementing any smoking or vaping rules at the event.

On-site consumption

One event that has already experimented with outcomes is the Toronto Craft Beer Festival. The festival partnered with Abi Roach of the HotBox Café to create a “POTio,” or the first legal designated consumption space at a provincial event.

Vaughan, Ont.’s Journey Festival, which is tagging itself the “first legal cannabis and music festival,” will allow on-site consumption—but despite boasting a “retail village”, the event is BYOC and no cannabis will be sold at the event. Organizers recommend that attendees purchase their cannabis “prior to the festival safely and legally online from the Ontario Cannabis Store at or from a licensed retailer.”

Journey festival will have parking for designated drivers, buses shuttling attendees from the festival site to the Vaughan TTC station, and is looking at deals with ride share companies to ensure there are transportation options. Handout

This summer, Ottawa’s Bluesfest will provide a designated 19-plus, outdoor consumption space for cannabis adjacent to the main concert bowl, similar to how it has treated tobacco in years past.

Revellers in Quebec will also be able to partake, in some instances. Despite Montreal’s previously cited concerns, smoking cannabis at Osheaga Festival Musique et Arts will be subject to the same rules governing tobacco consumption, essentially leaving cannabis lovers to consume where they like in outdoor areas.

Creating access

Michael Girgis and Jake Neiman think they have come up with a possible, future solution to providing safe access to purchase legal cannabis at events in Canada.

As the co-founders of POPCANN, company president Girgis and CEO Neiman have created modular, prefabricated cannabis retail stores from storage vault shipping containers. “We’re seeing event organizers eager to have a solution for making cannabis successful at their events. The reality today that we all know is that cannabis is being consumed anyway, if you go to any music conference or festival,” says Neiman.

Modular, prefab, or pop-up cannabis shops like that offered by the company aren’t currently legal in Canada—at least, not yet. The licencing system and store caps set out in most provinces currently prevent the legality of pop-up sites in Canada.

The exterior of a modular, prefabricated cannabis retail store made from storage vault shipping containers. Handout

The Cannabis Act and its regulations detail the parameters of some of the necessities of a store’s design. For example, the regulations’ Security Clearances section notes that, among others, the following requirements apply:

  • a retail location site must be “designed in a manner that prevents unauthorized access”;
  • the location perimeter “must be monitored at all times by visual recording devices to detect any attempted or actual unauthorized access to the site”;
  • the perimeter must be secured “by means of an intrusion detection system that operates at all times and that allows for the detection of any attempted or actual unauthorized access to the site and any attempted or actual tampering with the system,” as well as monitored at all times; and
  • storage areas require a record of who has entered, with time and date, and be surrounded by a physical barrier to prevent unauthorized access.

Provinces and municipalities can further determine details relating to retail, such as the number of stores available, where those stores can be located, who may sell cannabis and how much is legal to possess.

“Canada and the provinces are very regulated and strict right now, so the current regulations don’t allow it,” Neiman explains says of his company’s pop-up stores. “We are working with different levels of government to ensure that there is a framework for cannabis retail, and cannabis consumption at music conferences and events,” he adds.

Girgis claims the pop-up shops can be tailored to ensure compliance with the rules under which they are operating, regardless of whose rules they are following. The stores are designed “to meet the same strict regulations and specifications that a permanent store would have, so everything from age gating on the entrance to not being enabled to see inside at all, to strict ID verification, to an integrated vault where the product is,” he says.

“The modular and flexible nature of the shipping container, plus the necessary and progressive technology [the company’s customization techniques] that we’re putting into it speaks to our ability to adapt to different regulations within each province,” says Girgis. “It allows us to bring solutions like this forward that allow us to customize the unit to the regulations within those within those regions,” he adds.

“It’s no different than alcohol prohibition, where it just took time for different industries and different sectors to adapt,” Neiman suggests. In the same way that a framework exists for alcohol, “we are doing our best to ensure that frameworks exist for cannabis as well.

Neiman believes it’s only a matter of time before cannabis consumption and sales at festivals in Canada are normalized. “We have, no doubt, that the same way we enjoy a beer or vodka soda at a music festival, we should and we will be enjoying cannabis products at music festivals in the future,” he says, confidently.

Education and enjoyment a good mix

Many organizers stress the importance of providing education hand-in-hand with cannabis sales and consumption. POTio, for example, sought to include an educational component. “We want to educate people on what cannabis is and how to consume it safely, especially around alcohol,” Roach said in announcing POTio.

Journey Festival also embraces cannabis education. The event will feature a series of speakers and Q&As to “provoke thought and stimulate attendees,” as well as a Cannabis Village that the festival promises will teach attendees about “the latest trends, strains and products on the Canadian market.”

The downside of inconsistent rules

“From a festival organizer’s perspective, not only are they interested in monetizing [cannabis], but they also have some liability here,” Neiman suggests. MacNeil agrees, pointing out that FEO’s legal counsel advises festivals considering their cannabis rules to “check with your legal counsel, make sure you check with your insurance policies, check with your local police forces, check with the health units to make sure that everything you do is compliant, and you’re mitigating as much risk as possible.”

Even if cannabis were for sale on site, selling cannabis alongside alcohol could potentially pose a conflict in provinces like Ontario, where laws dictate: “No person shall sell or supply liquor or permit liquor to be sold or supplied to any person who is or appears to be intoxicated.”

Under the law, for example, if someone at a festival buys and smokes a joint from pop-up, and then tries to buy a beer from the bar, the establishment/venue is put in the position of evaluating if the person appears high and if the establishment can serve that person.

Even if cannabis were for sale on site, selling cannabis alongside alcohol could potentially pose a conflict in provinces like Ontario, where laws dictate: “No person shall sell or supply liquor or permit liquor to be sold or supplied to any person who is or appears to be intoxicated.” ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images

MacNeil points out the law simply notes “intoxicated,” but does not specify how intoxicated or on which substance. Legally, he says, “impaired is impaired,” and he worries that serving alcohol to a person who has been consuming cannabis could potentially result in one’s “liquor licence being called into jeopardy.”

What’s next?

Girgis believes that enacting legislation that would provide a framework for buying/selling legal cannabis at festivals is key to creating an environment where cannabis can be safely and legally sold and consumed. “If there is no framework for accessing legal cannabis at events and music concerts, then it’s going to be black market stuff,” he says.

MacNeil says he thinks it will take time before Canadian organizers figure out a successful means of providing access to cannabis at festivals and other events. When “edibles come into play,” he says, “I think that’s going to totally change the landscape again, and everybody’s going to have to rethink and reinvent. I think it’s going to be a few years before we really find that model that works for everybody.”

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