Q&A: Caroline Phillips, Exec. Director of the National Cannabis Festival

As the live event industry collectively scales and develops and moves toward deeper data, cashless payments and rigorous access control, there is one exciting sector where the rules and best practices are still very much being written: the cannabis festival space.

Uniquely shaped by an evolving landscape of public and political opinion, and yet spurred by the momentum from one state after another decriminalizing the once-vilified plant, cannabis events represent huge opportunity and—as you’ll discover throughout this interview—significant responsibility on the part of the organizers.

Caroline Phillips is no stranger to the nuanced challenges that the industry faces. As the founder and executive director of the annual National Cannabis Festival in Washington D.C., she has made cannabis’ turbulent journey towards legal status the event’s core message. With consumption prohibited on site, the event encapsulates the culture of cannabis through music, conversation, and commerce, while creating an important platform for the activist groups that fought tirelessly to bring the industry to this point.

Intellitix’s Ross Gardiner reached out to Phillips to chat to some of the unique traits of the National Cannabis Festival, and how its core philosophy could be an important blueprint for cannabis events conscious about having a positive impact on the future of the industry.

Intellitix: Perhaps the best place to start is by explaining a little bit about yourself and why you felt compelled to start the National Cannabis Festival.

Caroline Phillips (CP): Sure. I founded the National Cannabis Festival because I noticed that, as legalization swept across the country, a lot of folks were running towards the cannabis industry with dollar signs in their eyes. I have spent 12 years working in human rights, so I’m very familiar with how lower-income communities in Washington D.C. have been impacted by the inequity and arrests around cannabis issues, so I thought it was a little bit strange to see all of these high-priced conferences coming to town offering people the opportunity to network and start a business. I ended up going to one of these events, and I realized that I didn’t hear anyone discussing the impact of the War on Drugs, and that really rubbed me the wrong way.

We started National Cannabis Festival by forming a coalition of nonprofit groups who felt that there has to be a better way to talk about cannabis, and the whole festival is really a celebration of the work these groups have been doing to ensure that there is a space for this industry to exist.

The National Cannabis Festival is also the only event of its size and scope that is produced by a woman, and a woman of color. It’s also not owned by a large production company. We’re very proud of that!

What would you say are the core objectives of the National Cannabis Festival?

CP: The first one is to highlight the work of these nonprofit advocacy groups. I personally think it’s really important that for-profit businesses continue to donate money to these groups because, without them, there wouldn’t be an industry to have a business in.

The second goal of the festival is to continue to highlight the social justice challenges that lie ahead, and the third goal is to celebrate the progress that’s been made.

In your experience, do you think many of these other events would do well to start looking at activating these nonprofit groups and having education and social justice as foundational pillars?

CP: Absolutely. I would be so incredibly proud as someone working in this industry to think that every major cannabis festival had an activist or advocacy component to it because, again, our festival wouldn’t exist without the work of these groups.

We don’t expect people to learn the finer points of drug legislation, but our goal is to send people home with a new piece of information, whether that’s learning the name of the nonprofit groups that operate in their region or learning more about recent returnees and their voting rights. I think that we can plant a seed of activism in every single person that comes into contact with the festival. In doing so, we have an opportunity to use this event to really shift the conversation, and if every cannabis event aimed to do this, too, it would have a very positive impact on the industry.

Remaining inclusive and accessible is very important to the effectiveness of the event. You keep your ticket prices really low. Can you talk to me a little about that?

CP: Unfortunately, with the cost of producing a festival, we weren’t able to make the National Cannabis Festival free, but we have maintained the same $35 general admission ticket price for three years. We do that because we want people from all areas of D.C. to be able to attend. For the summit, we were able to control the cost of the conference a little bit more, so we are just over the moon to be able to offer that to people free of charge!

A huge part of being able to keep the ticket prices down is commercial partnerships as well. Lyft was exciting for us because they’re a brand that is recognizable to people that aren’t as well acquainted with cannabis. So, having their involvement with the event is an important mainstream symbol to a lot of people that are still learning about the industry. Dr. Bronner’s is another company that we’re just thrilled to be working with for the third year running. If there could be an award given to a for-profit business for genuine and sincere work to support activists, it should go to Dr. Bronner’s every single year. They do incredible work.

It seems like finding commercial brands to partner with in this space could be a challenge.

CP: Yes, it can be. In the cannabis space, there are a finite number of companies large enough to be big time event sponsors.

So, for an event like ours to really succeed, it’s incredibly important that we invest in our local community and that we help build up those businesses so that they are able to support our events in the years to come. It’s been a very reciprocal thing here.

So D.C. “went legal” three years ago. But obviously, cannabis is still very much illegal federally. How do you navigate the unique circumstance of both addressing a local community that is moving forward and a federal government that is staunchly stationary on this issue?

CP: Well, we are in a federal city. I think that there is a certain awareness of not poking the bear in an unproductive way. And for that reason, we take our work with the festival extremely seriously because, being in Washington D.C., one mile from the capital, in a city that’s under Congress’s thumb in terms of how we use our budget, it’s especially important that we represent the cannabis industry and the cannabis activists well. If we don’t do our job and present this new burgeoning industry in a responsible way, then we’re just feeding into the narrative of the detractors who have been trying to prevent cannabis legalization for so long.

But there is no consumption on site. How do you communicate that when other cannabis festivals are very much consumption-focused?

CP: I think, first, I would say that the National Cannabis Festival functions much like any other music festival that you would attend. Cannabis consumption is not permitted on site, and I’ll leave it at that. We don’t promote breaking D.C. law because we know that that doesn’t help the long-game approach, and we communicate that to our attendees through humor. The D.C. community loves a good pun.

Ahh yes, what was it again?

CP: “Weed like you to know the law.”

Ha!

CP: We just let people know that D.C. law prohibits cannabis consumption outside the home. But we’re going into year three, and we haven’t had a single arrest, we’ve never had an incident of violence, and we’ve never had any medical issues. I think that really speaks to our audience, which is probably more diverse than you would see at any music festival. And it’s old people and young people and people of all backgrounds and all socio-economic backgrounds, and this year we’re excited to see people flying in from other parts of the country.

Where do you think the major challenges lie at the moment, generally?

CP: One thing that’s going to be incredibly interesting to watch over the next few years is how individual states roll out their laws around cannabis. And I think that will be a challenge. It’s interesting because, with alcohol, we have a pretty uniform set of rules across the board. We haven’t had a chance to establish those standardized rules in the cannabis industry because we’ve been forced to patch it together.

And what advice would you give someone who’s looking to organize a cannabis festival?

CP: I think that the first thing you should do is form your coalitions of supporters. You’re going to need them. You’ll need the people that can help you speak to the city or town that you’re in to help them understand what you’re doing. You’ll need people to lend their credibility to you so that,if you approach new companies, they know that you’re the real deal.

And I think my second thought on this is don’t make it about you. Cannabis is a unique topic. I can’t think of any other festival or celebratory event that has been built around something that has been such a tragedy for so many people. When we celebrate on April 21st there are still going to be thousands and thousands of people—mostly people of color—who are still sitting in jail cells for crimes that other people are now able to profit from.

So, I do encourage people in this space to please, like, please think about the much bigger picture. For this industry to survive and then thrive, we need a lot of players who are going to be in this for the long game. But I think if we’re pragmatic with the way that we build this industry, and if we do it thoughtfully, thinking about equity, thinking about reparations for people that have been treated unfairly, and always thinking about a socially conscious way to move this forward, then we can all share in the success of this exciting new industry.

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