Cannabis enthusiasts light up at Oakland street festival

Touted by locals as the center of the medical marijuana industry, Oakland seems a fitting host for California’s first marijuana outdoor street festival: the two-day International Cannabis and Hemp Expo, which opened its doors Saturday.

Spanning five downtown city blocks, the event is also the first of its kind to provide an open-air cannabis consumption area, where anyone with a doctor approval for cannabis use may smell, taste or otherwise imbibe an astonishing array of marijuana-based products—from edibles and hash to massage oils and medicinal ointments. For this weekend only, card-carrying cannabis connoisseurs are invited to exercise their medicinal rights by lighting up on the steps of City Hall.

For many festivalgoers Saturday, smoking openly before the seat of local government was a surreal, if not long awaited, experience. While the sale and possession of marijuana remains a federal crime, despite medical marijuana laws in effect in California and 15 other states, no federal presence was visible in downtown Oakland yesterday. Even city police officers kept their distance, poised peaceably—and, according to one officer, indifferently—on the outskirts of the festival. Within the event, hired security did little more than give directions and check wristbands at entrances.

“For a long time we had to hide behind darkness, buying this stuff in alleys, where you’re as afraid of the guy selling to you, as you are of the cops,” said Angela Grasty, 27, a Harborside Health Center staffer. “So this is great. It feels good to let everyone see that it’s not a bunch of riff-raff. Everybody’s at peace, just living their day.”

Peace was a recurring theme at the festival, where visitors patiently and quietly waited in lines more than a block long to receive a temporary doctor’s recommendation that allowed them to smoke on site. Though pockets of eager festivalgoers lit up outside of the event without repercussion, most seemed content to shell out $99 for a temporary recommendation, after being briefly interviewed by on-site doctors about medical conditions ranging from migraines to bipolar disorder. Once equipped, more waiting ensued as participants contentedly fell into line to enter the open-air consumption area, or sample the newest “Granddaddy Purp” strain.

“You can smoke all you want and no one gets in fights,” said Miguel Uribe, 30, while rolling a joint in Frank Ogawa Plaza. “It’s all peace and love. It’s amazing.”

As if to drive the point home, a few women pushing babies in strollers wandered through the crowd, seemingly unconcerned about wafting smoke and blaring music. Meanwhile, a handful of excited senior citizens bee-lined for the booth selling “canna-bananas”—frozen bananas dipped in THC-laced chocolate. Nearby, a vendor calling himself “Big Jay” emceed a joint-rolling contest that seemed a tad too mellow to be a real competition.

Many of the exhibitors attributed the event’s easy mood to the sprawling, outdoor venue. “There’s so much space that it doesn’t feel crowded,” said Rosie Gibson, 29, while handing out cubes of non-medicated chocolate on behalf of the Shambhala Healing Center. “This is the most public place we’ve ever worked in. It’s like being at a concert.”

For 64-year-old Maryfrancis Wasson, a tourist from Sugar Land, Texas, the sights and smells of the festival were surprisingly familiar. “I was a child of the 60s,” she said, “and this reminds me of what we used to do back then in parks—except we didn’t advertise.”

Wasson decided to drop by the festival on a whim with her friend Ruth Hoffman, 61. “We sure don’t have anything like this in Sugar Land,” Hoffman said.

Dozens of dispensaries, bakeries, clinics and other vendors are represented here—there’s even a lawyer handing out provocative photographs of marijuana buds with his contact info on the back. As the afternoon wore on, DJs spun, bands played and a panel of speakers related medical marijuana’s origin story for the handful of people who could sit still long enough to listen. Freebies abound at the festival, which continues through Sunday. Novelty wares, like gas masks and football-shaped bongs, are steeply priced and food trucks offer everything from falafel to several types of barbequed meats.

Beer drinkers, though, are corralled into barricaded tents on the far side of the event. Here, at least, drinks and drugs don’t mix.

The festival continues through Sunday. For more information: www.intcheevents.com/expo

You can read Oakland North’s complete coverage of marijuana-related issues in Oakland here.

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