On a misty August morning Saturday in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, Janna Lutz sat sheltered in a grove of Monterey pine and eucalyptus trees carving a bong from an eggplant.
Lutz, 65, was on the West Coast visiting her son, Brian Lutz, 24, a software developer in San Jose. He’d brought his mother, an interior designer and former city council member in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, to Outside Lands, the Northern California music festival that draws about 200,000 people over its three-day run.
They were taking part in a milestone moment, one that attendees called “historic” and “cool” and that the elder Lutz called “a long time coming” — the largest event in California, and the country, to allow legal sales and consumption of cannabis. It is a preview of what may eventually become commonplace for other big gatherings such as Southern California’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival (though no such permit has yet been requested) as marijuana rules solidify.
On this second day of the festival, the Lutzes were checking out Grass Lands, a cordoned off, 21-and-over area where about two dozen vendors were, for the first time, hawking joints, infused chocolates, THC-laden nonalcoholic beers and more.
Grass Lands is a test case for California regulators trying to create boundaries for the expanding marijuana industry. For marijuana brands, it was a chance to woo new customers as cannabis morphs into an everyday commodity.
The Lutzes had purchased a pre-rolled joint earlier, but decided before partaking they would compete in a contest to create the best smoking device from vegetables. The winners would be chosen at 4:20 that afternoon.
“We’re saving ourselves because if we smoke right now the bong is going to look like sh —,” said the younger Lutz. “So we’re going to wait until we finish more of it.”
Their restraint made them a minority in Grass Lands, where enthusiastic crowds filled “consumption areas” on raised platforms, posing for selfies, painting on a communal mural and exhaling thick billows of smoke to add to the light fog lingering into the afternoon.
Though cannabis has been legal in California since voters approved its recreational sale and use in 2016, it remains illegal to consume it in public or sell it outside of licensed dispensaries without a special event permit from both state and local authorities. While more than a dozen such licenses have been issued for mostly cannabis-centric events across California, Outside Lands broke new ground through size and scope, and because alcohol was sold widely at the event, a mix state lawmakers have placed strict rules on.
“It’s kind of surreal,” said Kaydee Perreira, 29, as she passed out squares of white chocolate mixed with matcha tea, a non-laced sample of candy bars sold by Nug, a dispensary with locations in Sacramento and Oakland. “I think this is a good start for what’s going to happen in the years to come.”
Retailers and sponsors at Grass Lands saw the event as an opportunity for branding as much as profits.
The largest-growing market shares for cannabis products are among those seeking something more refined that offer a quick high, said Sheena Shiravi, spokesperson for cannabis-delivery company Eaze, which sponsored the festival and a lounge inside of Grass Lands. “Parents, soccer moms, women and baby boomers” are target demographics for her company, she said, instead of the stereotype of the “couch-locked videogamer.”
“There is a huge push for wellness, to make consumers understand this isn’t just a recreational drug,” Shiravi said. “What Eaze is trying to do and what the state is trying to do is create something that is sustainable to combat the illegal market. By Outside Lands doing this, it is a huge moment in history.”
“It reminds me of like sommeliers,” said Caleb Lee, 22, a geography student at the University of California, Berkeley. Lee was standing in front of the “smell wall,” a display that allowed passersby to pump puffs of scent from metal canisters filled with different terpenes, the oils that give cannabis its odor.
Similar to recognizing the flavors in wine, cannabis companies hope to educate users on the nuances between the aromas, the herbal character of alpha-pinene, for example, compared to the earthy tones of myrcene — two common terpenes Outside Lands consumers were sniffing.
“It’s like a whole industry now,” said Lee. “The smell, the quality, the origin.”
Though Grass Lands offered the same polished authenticity of the rest of the festival, it came together at the last minute.
The license to sell cannabis at the festival is part of a pilot program authorized by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors earlier this year that made it possible for seven large events in the city to apply. Started in 2008, Outside Lands has grown over the years to become one of the nation’s largest music festivals, in the same league as Coachella and Lollapalooza. The name refers to the fact that Golden Gate Park once belonged to Mexico, which transferred it to the United States by signing the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
Events previously known for illegal cannabis consumption were targeted for the pilot permits, with the idea that legal sales could help regulate behavior that was already taking place. State leaders said California, by issuing a permit with restrictions, is simply regulating the use of a drug that has been ubiquitous at rock concerts since before Woodstock, which took place 50 years ago.
“Let’s be clear — this is not the first time in history that cannabis will be consumed at a music festival,” said state Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco.
The pilot program runs only through the end of the year, putting pressure on the city to approve a test case before it expires. Other events in the pilot, including the cannabis-centric 4/20 at Hippie Hill in April and the Pride celebration in June, have already passed, narrowing the options further.
“We are running out of months, so we have to do this,” said Marisa Rodriguez, a former prosecutor who took over as head of San Francisco’s cannabis office five months ago.
Though Outside Lands organizers applied for a state permit months ago, the city didn’t finalize its application until about 67 hours before the festival started, due to ongoing changes to address concerns.
Those rules were still being tweaked as the weekend progressed. Hours before opening, regulators requested more fencing to block views of the consumption area, and the removal of large pot plants.
Employees were asked not to wear their festival ID badges while smoking. Later, the wireless connection kept failing, forcing some sales to be recorded by hand to meet the strict state guidelines for documenting every step of the production and sale process — but making it harder to enforce purchasing limits.
But both regulators and sellers said they worked to make the weekend a success, and by Sunday morning, Rodriguez said there had been no security or medical issues associated with the cannabis sales.
“We are all learning together,” said Abel Charrow with Kiva Confections, whose pineapple habanero and wild berry gummies were drawing long lines at $5 for a package of two. “We all want to be able to represent to everyone that … we are above board.”