Cannabis at Festivals and Events

April 20, 2022

Cannabis at Festivals and Events: How event organizers are navigating hazy regulations

Editor’s Note: This post was first published in August 2019. It was updated on April 20th, 2022 to include more current information and examples.

When it comes to the impact of marijuana legalization on Canadian festivals, things were certainly hazy at first. Health Canada’s Cannabis Act came into effect on October 17th, 2018, making recreational weed legal in Canada – and the festivals and events industry has learned some important lessons since then.

Given the popularity of beer tents at outdoor festivals, it was reasonable to wonder whether we’d see event organizers try and accommodate cannabis users, too. Or would non-medical marijuana continue to be treated like contraband, as the industry struggled to grasp a law in its infancy?

The answer, it seems, is: it depends on the region.

Municipalities Hold the Power

Though the Cannabis Act sets out federal laws and standards, specific laws on many marijuana-related issues are left up to the provinces and even municipalities. Cities are empowered to impose bylaws that are even stricter than federal regulations. What’s allowed in Toronto may not be allowed in Montreal.

Organizers of the Journey Cannabis and Music Festival learned that the hard way. They picked Boyd Conservation Park, located just north of Toronto in Vaughan, ON, as the site of their three-day event. In Ontario, cannabis consumption is generally allowed wherever tobacco smoking is permitted. However, individual municipalities have the ability to set their own rules – and the City of Vaughan did just that. As Journey organizers were busy planning their festival, Vaughan passed a bylaw that would prohibit consumption of recreational marijuana in all public areas – forcing cancellation of the event mere months before it was to take place.

However, other festival planners were more successful in integrating the cannabis culture into their events. The media paid a lot of attention to several Canadian festivals that had planned designated cannabis consumption areas. It seemed these festivals were setting an example for other events to embrace marijuana. In this post, we’ll review how those event organizers navigated the cannabis issue in the first year following legalization, and compare to their plans for this year.

Cannabis Lounges Across the Country

Toronto Craft Beer Festival, held every June at the Canadian National Exhibition fair grounds, added a pot patio (or “POTio”, as it was called) to its layout in 2019 following the legalization of cannabis. It was billed as the first big venue to publicly allow cannabis consumption in Toronto. The festival converted its smokers lounge to a cannabis lounge, and the space was strictly alcohol- and tobacco-free.

Developed in conjunction with HotBoxCafe and Detonate Cannabis Agency, the lounge appeared to toe the line of what is and isn’t allowed by the Cannabis Act’s promotion provisions. The Act sets strict guidelines regarding the promotion of cannabis, and prohibits communications regarding price or distribution. A spokesperson for HotBoxCafe stated that the lounge was “within regulations”, as there was no cannabis sold.

Interestingly, the event site does not mention a pot patio, cannabis lounge, or any other marijuana activation for this year.

The 2019 edition of Kitchener’s Ever After festival allowed attendees to bring up to 10 grams of marijuana, as long as it was pre-rolled. That works out to roughly 20 joints, according to experts. The festival required cannabis users to smoke their joints in a designated smoking area, which was enclosed with temporary fence. The cannabis lounge was large enough to accommodate as many as 900 people.

Similarly, this year Ever After is permitting attendees to bring “personal use amounts” of legally purchased cannabis. According to the festival’s rules, it must be sealed in packaging from official government owned sources and can only be consumed in designated consumption areas. The sale of cannabis at the festival is strictly prohibited.

In Alberta, the Calgary Folk Music Festival added a designated cannabis consumption area in 2019. Organizers created a dedicated space using temporary fencing, and added screening for some privacy. Security staff was on hand to ensure those entering were of legal age – which is 18 in Calgary.

Public consumption of recreational cannabis was (and still is) prohibited in Calgary, but the city allowed permits for designated outdoor cannabis consumption areas, not unlike beer gardens. Festival organizers worked with the city’s bylaw and parks departments, as well as the Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Commission, to receive an exemption to operate the designated area.

Since the Folk Music Festival is seen as a family-friendly event, the cannabis lounge was intended as a way to allow visitors to “experience the festival as they like to experience” – whether that meant smoking cannabis, or avoiding it. As was the case with Toronto Craft Beer Festival’s POTio, Calgary’s Folk Music Festival collaborated with a local cannabis player. Ambassadors from cannabis dispensary Four20 Premium Market were on hand to educate consumers and answer questions about non-medical marijuana.

Though details about the 2022 Folk Music Festival are still sparse, there has been no mention of any planned cannabis consumption area.

For all of the attention these cannabis lounges received in 2019, it seems event organizers are less keen to build 2022 event plans around the substance. It’s possible that the Cannabis Act had less of an impact on festival organizers than we’d predicted. After all, anecdotal evidence would suggest marijuana use has always been a part of the festival experience.

A multi-case study out of Manitoba seems to support this theory. As one interviewee in the study said, “I think that people who would partake would partake prior to it being legal and people who are partaking now that it’s legal are likely the same people.”

Looking Forward: Evolving Cannabis Policies

One thing remains true: regulations remain rather hazy as they are ever-changing. As marijuana consumption becomes increasingly normalized, municipalities and even provincial governments are reassessing their cannabis policies.

British Columbia offers a great example. Although the province generally allows public consumption of cannabis wherever smoking is permitted, dedicated cannabis consumption spaces are not allowed. Recognizing the importance of cannabis as an agricultural crop and economic driver in more rural parts of the province, British Columbia is now considering allowing cannabis consumption spaces like outdoor cafes or lounges at festivals. The province is currently gathering feedback to assess the level of public support for these “non-medical consumption spaces”.

We’ve also witnessed a major marijuana milestone in Alberta. The province now allows private licenced pot retailers to sell products online and deliver purchases.

This legislative change represents a big opportunity for the Alberta festival industry. Cannabis beverages, edibles, and other non-combustible pot products can now be couriered directly to live event attendees. Festivals and events must offer designated consumption areas where the products would be delivered and consumed with food or beverages. These spaces cannot allow alcohol, and the policy is also still subject to municipal bylaws.

Cannabis at Festivals: Tips for Success

Festival organizers clearly recognize that marijuana will be consumed at their events – it likely always has been – and are trying to find a way to accommodate users on their own terms. By creating a safe and private place for cannabis consumers, they can better control consumption while also respecting attendees who prefer to stay away from weed.

Here are four key tips for success we’ve gleaned from the above examples, as well as events we’ve worked with:

1. When creating your cannabis policies, check both provincial and municipal regulations

Don’t just assume the provincial regulations for cannabis consumption apply everywhere. Check the municipal bylaws to make sure cannabis is permitted in the area you plan to host your event.

Be sure to understand when, where, and how it can be consumed. Even in places where public cannabis consumption is generally allowed, there may be exceptions for specific spaces or certain forms of marijuana. You should also be familiar with legal quantities. Always keep the legal carry limits in mind if you’re planning to distribute cannabis to event attendees.

Beyond provincial and municipal regulations, the city where you’re hosting your event may have more specific requirements for live events and festivals. You may need to work with the city or provincial liquor and gaming commission to obtain a special event permit or exemption for cannabis. You might also be required to have a designated consumption area. In Calgary, for example, you must apply for a cannabis consumption area and provide a site map, security plan, and medical plan.

Most importantly, be mindful of any pending changes to legislation that may impact your event in the future. Though the Cannabis Act has been in place for a few years now, provincial and municipal rules are still evolving. Don’t allow yourself to be blindsided like Journey Cannabis and Music Festival organizers were.

2. Make your cannabis-related rules public

Once you have your cannabis policies in place, share them with your attendees. Post your cannabis-related rules on your event website and on site at the event. For instance, specify whether the festival will be “smoke-free” outside of designated tobacco and cannabis smoking areas. If you are only permitting cannabis in certain quantities or formats (i.e. no edibles), make that clear on your event pages, like Ever After Festival does. Your attendees will certainly have these questions, so get ahead of them and be clear about the rules from the outset. This simple step prevents confusion for your attendees and mitigates the risk of penalties.

3. Take a “harm reduction” approach

Whether your municipality requires it or not, a detailed plan is a good idea if you will serve or allow cannabis at your event. When hosting any event with a substance that causes impairment – whether it’s cannabis or alcohol – you need to be mindful of the risks.

Essentially, we understand that excess consumption of cannabis – like alcohol – can cause someone to make poor decisions and may increase their chance of harm. Although cannabis differs from alcohol in its effects, the way it is regulated, and the way it is consumed, alcohol use policies can still serve as a helpful guide. Your cannabis use policies could reasonably follow the same best practices that apply to serving alcohol at an event.

In other words: always check credentials to ensure patrons are of legal age, and make sure you’re hiring professionals who understand appropriate cannabis amounts and can monitor attendees’ levels of impairment. Excess consumption of cannabis can be harder to pinpoint as, unlike alcohol, there is no standard dose. This means it is even more important that you work with experts if you plan to serve marijuana at your event.

4. Make your cannabis lounge a safe space

If planning to fence off your cannabis lounge, make sure it’s safe. Screening or scrim may be required by the city, and can add some welcome privacy. It also prevents marijuana from being passed through the fence mesh to underage attendees. But especially in large, open fields, screening on fence can become a serious hazard due to winds. Plan to reinforce your fence with t-bars, concrete blocks, or sandbags.

Additional Resources for Event Organizers

We’ve learned a lot over the past few years, and it was largely thanks to trial and error. There are still a lot of grey areas when it comes to cannabis in Canada, particularly where outdoor events are concerned. Your regional festivals and events association may be a great resource as you navigate local bylaws and best practices.

The Canadian Public Health Association also offers a list of helpful resources on their Harm Reduction, Health Promotion, and Cannabis Screening tools page.

Author: Joanna Bieda

Joanna Bieda is the Director of Marketing and Communications at Modu-Loc Fence Rentals, and has been with the company since 2014. She loves writing and is a self-professed data nerd. She thoroughly enjoys teaching customers about all things fence via Modu-Loc's blog.

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