People ambled through the Oregon Hemp Convention on Friday, casually inspecting colorful glass bongs and trying samples of rice crispy treats and chocolates, chatting with vendors about growing marijuana plants at home and extracting cannabis oil safely.
Our more relaxed attitude toward marijuana is nothing new, but this was all still a bit surreal.
But as Oregon eases into recreational marijuana, bigger festivals and conventions like this weekend’s event should become the norm, popping up throughout the year at venues in and around Portland.
They should become the norm, but as of now the Oregon Hemp Convention is the only big marijuana event officially scheduled in Portland this year. Oregonians will be hungry for celebration this summer, but will there be anywhere in Portland for them to go?
The state voted to legalize recreational marijuana use in November (it becomes law in July) but despite the mainstream status, Portland doesn’t have any official Boulder-style 4/20 smoke-outs on the calendar, nor other mass cannabis gatherings.
Hempstalk filled that void for ten years before the Portland Parks Bureau denied its permit for 2015, citing unchecked illegal public consumption at previous events, despite organizers’ over-the-top efforts to curb it.
High Times Magazine saw an opening in town, and announced that its touring Cannabis Cup would come to Portland in July, but organizers have released no further details, growing concerns that it too will fall through.
That leaves the Oregon Hemp Convention, a strictly smoke-free event focused less on the culture and more on the industry, as the sole major marijuana event in town. As far as convention director Jerry Norton is concerned, that’s just fine.
“We’re back by popular demand,” Norton said of his free public event, which runs Saturday and Sunday at the Expo Center. “I thought it as a good opportunity to educate the general public.”
After the inaugural convention last September drew roughly 2,000 people, he decided to run another one only six months later. This weekend he anticipates more people, and if no other major events find a foothold in Portland over the summer, he said he might just organize another one to fill the need.
He apparently has the local resources — connections with venues — to make it happen, something he claims other organizers have been struggling with.
“People are coming in like sharks, trying to get their piece of the Oregon market,” he said in a thinly-veiled criticism of High Times. “They’ll try to float into town.”
While you’ll have to take Norton, who is competing with the Cannabis Cup and other events, with a grain of salt, his claims sound fairly plausible given the resistance Portland officials have demonstrated toward events that promote pot.
Nobody in Portland understands the struggle of organizing large-scale marijuana events like Paul Stanford. The local marijuana advocate started Hempstalk in the early 2000s, and has faced pressure from police and city officials practically every step along the way.
The Portland Parks Bureau’s permitting refusal sounds like an endgame, but Stanford sees it as just another roadblock.
In November Hempstalk’s lawyer filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging a denial of free speech. Stanford is so confident of their case that he’s not even looking for another venue. He expects Hempstalk to return to Waterfront Park, without a doubt.
“We’re still fighting the city,” he said. “This is a free speech issue and they can’t tell us we can’t do this … we’re not going to take ‘no’ for an answer.”
The city’s position is that organizers had little or no control over public consumption of marijuana, and that organizers went as far as to encourage attendees to get high.
It’s a bit disingenuous.
Anyone who has been to the waterfront (during a big event or not) can tell you that open consumption of marijuana is not isolated to the marijuana-themed event. And the claim that organizers encouraged it? Well, an emcee did tell people to get high in the open, but he directed them outside the festival gates — an attempt at freeing Hempstalk from blame.
All of it underscores the often pithy relationship between the city and organizers of big marijuana events. It’s easy for officials to dismiss the vocal organizers of Hempstalk and other events, but they seem to be ignoring the people who could be hurt the most by the prohibition.
Angel Armstrong has been making marijuana-laced edibles for the last five years out of a kitchen in southern Oregon. As the state’s medical marijuana industry prepares to join to a recreational market, she and her son, Joseph Armstrong, see either an opening for expansion or closed door ahead.
“Only recently have we been able to sell our product,” she said at the Oregon Hemp Convention on Saturday. “We’re still afraid that the bubble will pop.”
The Armstrongs, who operate as Angel’s Homemade Edible Medibles, appear to be in better shape than most. Rather than craft typical chocolates and candies, they make things like salsa and cotton candy, all laced with marijuana.
But while unique product gives them a leg up, they still rely on events like the Hemp Convention to promote themselves to the general public.
Mackenzi Maier, a fellow edible baker from Salem, said many in the industry started out by manning booths at big events. But massive outdoor festivals can get out of hand, she explained, and more laid-back conventions like the one this weekend offer a better chance to connect with people.
“Right now this is about education and information,” she said at her Miss Mack’s Medibles booth. “When it gets so large it’s hard to get answers.”
Still, both cannabusinesses said that they aren’t concerned. Maier said she prefers the convention, but isn’t ruling out festivals, and the Armstrongs said they’re confident those kinds of events will crop up around Portland later this year.
“I don’t have a preference,” Maier said. “I’ll go anywhere that lets me get my name out there.”
In other words, there are very few worries in the marijuana events scene in Portland. We could very well see the Cannabis Cup, Hempstalk and another Hemp Convention in the rest of 2015, or a whole new event could rise up to fill the void.
We’re truly in uncharted territory here, and there’s no telling what festivals will emerge from the newly legalized smoke. If one thing is certain, it’s that Portland smokers will be able to celebrate legalization somewhere this year.
The Oregon Hemp Convention is only the start.
–Jamie Hale | firstname.lastname@example.org | @HaleJamesB