Should You Go Next Year?
There is something delightful yet eerie about going to a Cannabis Festival in the Nation’s Capital in 2019. Just five years ago such an idea would have felt absurd, impossible. But now you can buy legitimate tickets online, put on your favorite stoner attire (tie dye shirt and paisley fanny pack, here we go), and show up fearlessly.
You might even make eye contact with a bored cop as you walk in.
Was there a freak accident in spacetime that somehow brought our reality onto a better timeline? Scientifically speaking, probably. Or at least that was what I thought a little bit after 4:20, on 4/20.
Want this inside scoop on the festival? The 411? Don’t worry, I’ve got you. Should you go next year? Depends on what you’re into.
When you first show up at the RFK stadium grounds you will either have to park in a lot filled with cars and people, or you will be dropped off there by your Uber/Lyft. There aren’t tons of people around, so you just kind of flow in the direction everyone else is flowing in, towards a tunnel.
Like bemused cattle we herd to a parking lot where a crowd gathers. Slowly it will dawn on you that this is not a crowd, it is a line, ten across and fifty deep. You will find a spot and begin to look around.
Or at least that is what my boyfriend JP and I did. We stood under the hot sun and took everything in.
You’ll noticed immediately that there are all types here. Beautiful girls, terrifyingly fashionable, seem to have been transported from Coachella as they scroll through their phones. Old men with Grateful Dead t-shirts look around bemusedly, showing off their braided grey ponytails. Dudes with cornrows who dress like rappers from 2004 stand next to other dudes with killer sock style, and they in turn stand next to anime bros with animal hats and fruity colored vape pens.
Some people talk loudly about weed. The people who talk fearlessly in large groups compliment their neighbor’s band tee and start conversations. Groups laugh loudly at inside jokes. We quiet ones all look at each other.
This event has security, but when it was my turn at the front of the line they quickly classified me as a non-threat. A glance into my fanny pack and I was in! Nobody even noticed my crack. I’m just kidding, probably.
The walk to the festival area reveals a dirty, badly kept stadium area. The RFK grounds seem abandoned; nature quietly explodes through cracks in the concrete and tumbles down over dilapidated fences and stairs. Scalpers call out at you. If you don’t have business here just keep your eyes forward and keep going.
The crowd walking the long path to the festival is lighthearted, peaceful. We walk past shambly fences and a lot with some kind of construction project in it; it seems a bit neglected. The trees are newly bright and green, the sun dapples through them onto us.
The neglected grounds bring you into a dystopian future, as if the apocalypse already happened a long time ago and the humans of the future have turned the old world infrastructure into a place to party in peace.
The Festival Itself
Suddenly the world opens up and the crowd you walk with spills out into the festival grounds.
To the right is a land of hot pavement, port-a-potties, and a broad expanse lined with orderly rows of food vendors, like an endless open hallway of pizza, burgers, and drinks.
In the middle was the land of trees, populated by the people who sit among them. More like a peaceful patch of grass with some trees on it, claimed by those who seem unable to do more than lay down, incapacitated.
As we walked towards them I remembered a saying: the closer you look the more there is to see.
It proved true. You can see those who are “potted” in the ground, staring at the clouds, but you will also see young people in lawn chairs discussing things avidly, smiles on their faces. You will see older couples with matching t-shirts, pairs who look like friends, groups who look like siblings.
Perhaps you will mill past a mysterious man in a yellow shirt tenderly taking care of a small marijuana plant, or the youth with cerebral palsy in a wheelchair surrounded by kind friends, or statuesque babes sitting on lawn chairs like queens. The more you look the more you’ll see, so look.
Behind the world of trees is the world of tents, which ends with a large stage. There are even more people sitting around in the front of the stage, but the tents are where all the action is.
What You Will Find
As you walk through the tents and display areas it will become obvious which companies are dishing out major money on the festival. Dr. Bronner’s, the soap brand, had a massive set up in which you could get washed off inside the world’s largest shower while a woman stands saying crazy things into a microphone. Weedmaps, a company dedicated to hooking up medical marijuana patients with dispensaries, was also a big spender this year.
I mean, it’s pretty clear that when weed is legal recreationally Weedmaps will be the corporate giant overlords that we rely on to find it, but right now they are still just little baby overlords, working their niche as much as they can. They had a tent with a DJ setup and their name was plastered everywhere. Everywhere.
If you don’t know, DC has some weird rules about weed. You can’t just sell it; only dispensaries can do that. You can, however, gift it. This means you can sell something else, like a tshirt or a bag of chips, and give your customer a little something extra, if you know what I mean.
So a lot of tents were full of interesting items for sale that came with gifts. When we got to the Pink Fox tent (Pink Fox? Imagine your friendly neighborhood weed +edibles dealer upgraded to a lifestyle brand but somehow pulled it off) we realized that we could simply receive a pre-rolled joint there with a t-shirt purchase. (The friendly man we talked to in the tent explained we had missed it -- they had been giving out joints for free earlier in the day.)
Same with the delightfully well-crafted Roll-A-Bong game board we ran across in a far corner, whose creator, Gary Schwartz, clarified: the game was designed to get you perfectly high by the end, not right off the bat.
Not everything was about weed. One tent was a Nipsy Tribute. There were jewelry makers, a bookstand, glass bowl makers who wielded torches in front of eager crowds. It seemed like CBD informational brochures kept appearing in my hands.
As we wandered and chatted with people we found not one person from DC or Virginia. We talked to people from Delaware, Kansas, Florida, Maryland, and Massachusetts. All of them had scheduled their trips to DC to visit family and friends, but made sure to make it here. Guess the word has spread.
Stuff and Substance
There were tents dedicated to teaching people how to grow marijuana plants properly, a tent called the Wellness Pavilion where yoga mats were set up on the ground, and multiple tents that were dedicated to educational discussions with panels and individuals in the industry.
You could listen to a panel tell you all about marijuana laws and your rights in DC, then right after that listen to talk about women and technology and the cannabis industry.
There was a cool talk at 4:30 with some NORML and National Cannabis Industry Association lobbyists who work on Capitol Hill all day, drafting legislation and figuring out the best policies possible and navigating the legal landscape. Definitely not something the average stoner gets access to everyday.
If you care about community organizing then you might not want to miss the amount of industry and policy people that walked around these temporary but hallowed halls.
The earlier talks we checked out were not heavily attended. The average person seemed more interested in walking around with their friends and finding cool things to look at.
When 4:20 Arrived...
Shit. We hadn’t brought any weed. It was 4:20 and people all around us were beginning to light up in groups, laughing together.
We eagerly eyed a group of four that were our age and felt like the sort we would be friends with, but the girl in the group wasn’t feeling it closed us out.
Okay, cool. Cool, cool, totally cool. No problem, just a fun time. We can handle rejection, totally. Totally.
JP and I decided to continue walking around and see if the universe would give us something for free.
Dylan was a slight young man, with soft pale skin and long red hair. He was missing a few teeth and at first I didn’t know what to expect -- though I imagined he would be hardened, untrusting. He wasn’t. He was kind. He was holding one of those Roll-A-Bong board games and holding a blunt. Dylan as in “Bob Dylan,” he said, so we’d remember. He was from New Jersey.
He laughed about the game in his hand, chuckling sheepishly about buying it to get his gift of weed.
We laughed with him, eager to make him like us, greedy little mongrels who wanted in on his blunt. He saw my eyes flick towards it.
With a soft smile he lit it, and offered it to me like it was no big deal.
We appreciated it. We all stood around, sharing it.
Finally, finally, the sun came out from behind the clouds. Light streamed onto us, waterfalling off of the tents and onto everyone in the crowd. It transformed everything it touched; the leaves glowed bright, Dylan’s hair glowed light red, and my mind glowed with wide-eyed appreciation for the beauty in everything that up until now I hadn’t quite been able to see.
Something about the strain Bob Dylan gave us was extra nice. It melted our hearts like butter; we found ourselves wandering the crowds, amused, feeling a simple kinship towards all who wandered with us.
“We’ve been doing this wrong all day” JP remarked, walking just ahead of me through the crowd. “We should have been high this whole time. We’ve been so uptight!”
He was right. There really is only one way to go to this festival, and that is smacked. Before we had been mechanical, rigid, unsure what to do with ourselves, overthinking our approach.
Now we had been pulled into an organic matrix, plugged into the same something that everybody else there was plugged into, and all we could do was flow peacefully with the crowd.
“Yeah! That strain was so great, I’ve never had it before. What did he say it was called again?”
“I don’t think he did say. Yeah, we’ve got to find that strain…”
We both stopped in our tracks at the same time, then turned slowly to look at each other. We were thinking the same thing.
A quest! Finally, a journey, an adventure, something to do! We had to track down that strain of weed.
It was going to take guts. It was going to take gusto. It was going to take willpower, something that isn’t easy to come by when you’ve just smoked something so sweet, so heavenly, so transportatively mellow. But I had an article to write, and he was there to help make sure I got it done. This wasn’t for us, it was for you, our dear reader. We needed to find out what this strain was for you.
We aren’t heroes. Anyone would have done it. It was just the right thing.
All we had was one clue: the board game. The Roll-A-Bong board game was near the giant chess board and the bookstand.
The thing about cannabis festivals is that crowds move very, very, very slowly.
And yeah, it gets a lot more crowded as the day goes on.
Going on a quest in that swirling in the crowd of a more beautiful world like fully armored knights trying to fight our way through slow moving molasses. We had to search through paths that seemed like they went nowhere and everywhere at once.
But suddenly we were back near where we started, talking to Gary about his Roll-A-Bong game, and asking the gentleman next to him about the strain exclusively sold with the game.
It’s called Mrs. Butterworth, and is only found here, at the National Cannabis Festival. The gentleman grower, who shall remain unnamed, says that it’s a strain he just grows on his own and gives to his friends from time to time. He paired up with the Roll-A-Bong seller for the day, just for kicks.
So while I can come away with a strain recommendation, it’s bittersweet. I think I found the best weed known to humankind, but the veil between worlds only opens one special day of the year: 4/20.
Maybe you are looking for a bottom line here. Should you drop $50 on a ticket for this festival? With all of the things you’ll want to buy while you’re there let’s assume you spent $100 (food, random merch, a game and some Mrs. Buttersworth flour…). Is it worth it?
Well, the answer basically depends on how much of a stoner you are. Do you love weed and weed culture? Do you want to know how the industry is taking shape? Do you want to dress in a Grateful Dead shirt and smoke weed with friendly strangers in a crowded outdoor space?
Then hell yeah. Go. Try it once and let us know how it worked out for you.
Galey Richardson is a writer and enthusiast in the DC area. What is she enthusiastic about? Well, what are you offering?