A cloud of smoke hung over Cal Expo Friday afternoon as thousands gathered for the High Times Cannabis Cup, the first permitted event in California to allow recreational use of marijuana.
Organizers expected upwards of 15,000 people over the course of the two-day festival, which boasts musical performances from acclaimed artists, including Lauryn Hill, Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane, Rich The Kid, Cypress Hill, Rick Ross and Ludacris.
The event was at risk of becoming a music-only festival until the Sacramento City Council approved a license for on-site consumption and sales in a 6-2 vote Tuesday. Weeks earlier, a similar High Times event had its permit denied by the San Bernardino City Council just before it was scheduled to take place.
At Cal Expo, crowds maneuvered their way through the rows of booths Friday afternoon, sometimes stopping to take long drags from blunts or sample products. In between puffs from a neatly-rolled joint, Brian Johnson said he was grateful to the city for approving the license.
“I think it was really cool for the city of Sacramento to trust the cannabis community to do something like this," Johnson said. "I think we’ll hold up our end and have a great event with no mishaps. We’re just out here having fun, trying to socialize and enjoy our products."
Other attendees, like medical marijuana user William Bennett, said they simply came to learn more about the cannabis industry.
Bennett said he wanted tips for growing marijuana at home. Bennett, who said he suffers from chronic pain caused by a back injury, began using medical marijuana about five years ago as an alternative to prescription opiate painkillers, which he said caused him unbearable side effects. Bennett has since started to grow his own.
“I’m kind of on the fence with recreational, but in the long run, it’s better than people drinking and doing other things," Bennett said. "You don’t hear about people having big brawls and fights at (events like this). Everyone’s just sitting back.”
Bennett's wife, Dianne Kirk-Bennett, said she was impressed with how expansive and well-organized the event was.
“If this is your thing, this is the place to be,” Kirk-Bennett said.
The event has approximately 280 vendors, selling marijuana-themed apparel and art, vape pens, concentrates, topicals, edibles and a variety of other cannabis products.
High Times Chief Revenue Officer Matt Stang said it felt "incredible" to host the event, which he characterized as a watershed moment for the industry.
"It gives me a feeling that we’ve really progressed as a country. We’ve come to a point where we can have a peaceful gathering to consume and purchase cannabis with a state sanction," Stang said. "The ability to do this legally — it’s been a long fight. High Times has been doing this for 44 years. We started as the voice of the opposition, and now we’ve grown into the majority. "
Security was tight during for the strictly 21-and-up event. Unlike most music festivals, no alcohol sales were allowed.
Joe Devlin, Sacramento's chief of cannabis policy, said the event would generate more than $200,000 in tax revenue. Devlin said High Times “has a distinguished track record of hosting safe, successful and compliant cannabis events,” noting that the company had developed a “comprehensive security plan” that was approved by law enforcement and had organized a ride share program for those attending the festival.
Stang said High Times had contracted with two separate security firms to ensure no attendees purchased more than the legally-allowed amount and to check for impaired drivers. Ticket buyers were given Uber and Lyft codes at the time of purchase in order to minimize the risk of attendees driving under the influence.
For those in the industry, the event served as a safe demonstration to convince skeptics and state government officials.
“We want to make sure that people understand what a great, compliant, adult-use event can be, because we want this to be the model for the rest of the country," Stang said.