Del Mar Fairgrounds to host huge cannabis festival

Where the turf meets the surf meets a toke?

The Del Mar Fairgrounds has inked a contract for its first-ever cannabis festival - and the largest by far ever in San Diego County.

As many as 6,000 people are expected for the Sept. 23 event, which organizers are calling the Goodlife Festival. Attendance will be limited to age 21 and up. No sale, sampling or "gifting" of THC products will be allowed, but attendees will be able to bring their own marijuana to consume in designated areas. Goodlife will allow the sale of cannibidol and hemp, both of which lack THC's psychoactive punch.

The festival is the brainchild of Lawrence Bame of Westward Expos, which has put on home and garden shows at the fairgrounds for more than 30 years. He's been percolating the idea for a cannabis festival for the past five years, but passage of Proposition 64 in November, which legalized recreational marijuana, was the turning point he needed to move forward.

"It's the new dawn," Bame said. "This has been a long, long process. Nobody took this lightly."

Unlike Los Angeles, the Bay Area and other canna-friendly jurisdictions, cannabis gatherings in San Diego have been limited to events such as the San Diego Cannabis Farmers Market and LocalSesh - discretely promoted affairs in rented-out venues with a few hundred attendees. (A cannabis trade expo at the San Diego Convention Center in August did not allow marijuana on site.)

But with the visibility that comes with as high profile a venue as the Del Mar Fairgrounds, San Diego's cannabis activists are hailing Goodlife as their movement's coming-out party.

"This will be the biggest show at the most prestigious location in all of San Diego County," one organizer said. "It's our time to shine. If you look everywhere else, they have their cannabis festivals. But what's going on in San Diego? Not much. This is the next step up for San Diego. Definitely a watershed moment. After this it's going to be so mainstream it's not even funny."

Cities across North County have clamped down on cannabis as much as state law allows, uniformly barring dispensaries and grow operations. But because the fairgrounds is state-owned, city and county officials are powerless to resist. So for one day, at least, Del Mar will be an oasis of pot-tolerance.

Cannabis events have sparked controversy in even the pot-friendliest of places. In Denver, Seattle, San Jose and Los Angeles, local officials and venue owners have shunned the gatherings, forcing organizers to look farther and farther afield.

The purge in Los Angeles last year fanned promoters out into the dusty hinterlands in search of somewhere to put down stakes. One of those refuges has been the San Bernardino County fairgrounds. Until last spring, the 87-acre facility had never hosted a cannabis event, and their arrival whipped the surrounding towns - known as the High Desert - into a fever pitch.

Tempers there flared in the run-up to the fairgrounds' second cannabis event, the three-day Chalice California festival in July, which billed itself as "the biggest hash festival in America." The Victorville City Council called on fairground managers to cancel Chalice and bar any other cannabis event. The fair board responded by adding more events to the calendar. One of the board members resigned her seat in protest.

The 22nd District Agricultural Association Board of Directors, which runs the Del Mar Fairgrounds, does not appear to have been aware that the deal had been inked for the Goodlife Festival. Board president Russ Penniman was unavailable for comment on Monday afternoon. Board member Frederick Schenk said the board does not hear about events this far in advance.

"I'm not educated enough on the issue to have a position," he said. "Between now and September, I'm sure that the board will become much more aware."

When asked about the festival Monday night, May 1, the Del Mar City Council was caught unaware. Councilman Dwight Worden said he wants to "look into it a little bit."

"What they're doing is now legal; they have a right to be there," he said, before acknowledging that the council's influence over the fairgrounds is "limited at best."

The Del Mar version will be far smaller than cannabis festivals held at other state fairgrounds. Whereas more than 100,000 people took over most of the San Bernardino fairgrounds for the Chalice festival, the Goodlife Festival will be limited to the paddock area. Tim Fennell, CEO and general manager of the 22nd District Agricultural Association Board of Directors, said any concerns he may have had were put to rest after talking with his counterparts elsewhere in the state.

"The voters voted, it's legal and we're a public entity," Fennell said. "It'd be hard to deny somebody like Lawrence access to a public facility. Other DAA's have been doing it for years legally. How would I deny this?"

Bame is partnering with an array of local cannabis promoters and entrepreneurs to plan Goodlife's schedule of exhibits, entertainment and seminars. Doctors will be on site to speak in panels and to give evaluations for medical marijuana cards.

A large part of Goodlife's rationale, Bame said, is to reach a wider - and older - demographic that is proving to be the fastest-growing group of cannabis users.

"We want to make sure we're not just hitting the typical stoners," said one of his partner organizers, who declined to be identified. "There's those old folks in Del Mar who are going to see this and will want to come down to check it out, to learn what we're all about, so we're going to mainly go after them. Our focus is not going to be the typical festivals like High Times or Chalice. This is going to be a cool little hybrid with music and educational components."

And already, Bame is prepared for the inevitable backlash.

"If this gives people anxiety, maybe they should consider medicating with cannabis," he said. "The reality is that cannabis is legal in the state of California, end of subject. There's rules and regulations and whatnot, and we intend to follow all of them. If people have political or other objections, they can have those objections. But I think that train already left the station."
Montes writes for U-T Community Press.

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