Pot's a fixture at music fests but what happens when it's legal?

The law has never stopped people from getting high at music festivals, but there could be some big changes on the grounds once marijuana is legalized.

Corralling smokers into 'dope moats' is one approach

A Glastonbury reveller smokes up on the first day of the 2013 instalment of the festival in England. What happens to marijuana at music festivals when it's legalized in Canada is still a tad foggy. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

The law has never stopped people from getting high at music festivals. But what changes on festival grounds when marijuana becomes legal in Canada is still a bit of a mystery.

Will music-lovers be able to bring their own pot to a festival and smoke it anywhere they please? Will they be able to buy it on site, just like beer or wine?

If booze rules at these events are any indication, the latter might not happen for a long time.

"It took literally decades for the [alcohol] rules to loosen up," said Dan Malleck, an associate professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., who studies the history of alcohol and drug regulations. "A lot of this is going to come down to what are the rules going to be about smoking in public."

A large crowd rocks out during a pro-marijuana rally at Civic Center Park in Denver. Some music festival owners are concerned about how they'll manage the second-hand smoke if legalized pot is allowed inside the festival grounds. (Brennan Linsley/Associated Press)

The marijuana legalization bill the Liberal government tabled Thursday didn't specifically mention exactly where Canadians will be allowed to smoke but it did say organizations won't be allowed to sell marijuana, which might put a hitch in any festival's plans to sell it. However, the legislation doesn't clarify if licensed producers could set up at festivals and sell their goods; the federal Justice Department said that would be up to the provinces and territories to decide.

Malleck doesn't think festival vendors will be selling marijuana anytime soon. But he knows music festivals will need a plan in place for all the folks carrying pot who want to light up legally.

'Makes their job a hell of a lot easier'

A few Canadian music festivals have gotten ahead of legalization and already found solutions.

Cannafest, a classic rock festival in Grand Forks, B.C., has a fenced-off area where festival-goers are allowed to smoke up — festival owner Chuck Varabioff doesn't tell them what they can and cannot smoke in there.

He said police and security have had no complaints.

"From a security point of view, it sure makes their job a hell of a lot easier," he said.

If his security catches patrons smoking pot elsewhere on site, they tell them to put it out or head to the smoking area — and people have been following the rule, he says.

A look inside the fenced-off smoking area at Cannafest in Grand Forks, B.C. (C. Gauld Photography)

Varabioff, who runs two marijuana dispensaries in Vancouver, said he came up with the idea for the smoking area because he knew people were bringing pot to the festival anyhow.

"I know a lot of people, and especially a lot of the smokers, they think it's their right just to go and smoke wherever," he said. "You can't come there expecting to smoke pot in front of the stage ... the last goddamn thing I want to do is be at a concert and be breathing in your second-hand smoke."

Pot as a festival money-maker?

Varabioff says his festival is far from a "big stoner event" and he doesn't allow anybody to sell marijuana on site, though he says he hopes to do so legally one day.

Alcohol sales can be a big money-maker for festivals and marijuana could mean even more.

"The discussion has been that it will be a new revenue stream and we don't feel it will risk causing harm to our guests," said Jimmy Bundschuh, the founder of B.C.'s Shambhala, a festival known for its harm-reduction approach to drugs. The festival doesn't sell alcohol.

The rules regarding marijuana at music festivals in U.S. states where it is legal are all different. (C. Gauld Photography)

Bundschuh knows he won't be able to sell marijuana at Shambhala right away but says he's been thinking about what will happen when it first becomes legal. 

He said any added second-hand smoke "could be offensive" to some of his patrons. So depending on the law, he says it's possible his event would follow Cannafest's approach and create a designated area where people could smoke. He says it's all about "respecting other people."

'There is no one that has the expertise'

The issue is on the radar of other Canadian festivals, too, like Wayhome, held north of Toronto. Organizers are waiting for more direction from the province and looking into how other festivals have handled it in states where marijuana is legal, like Colorado and Washington.

There's no one answer.

Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado lets people bring in their own pot but asks them to smoke it on the outskirts. Seattle's Capitol Hill Block Party also allows marijuana, but you can't smoke it anywhere.

And Sasquatch Festival in George, Wash., and Telluride Blues & Brews Festival in Colorado don't allow it at all.

An overhead look at the Cannafest grounds in Grand Forks, B.C. Note the smoking area in the bottom right corner. 'I don’t tell people what they can and can’t smoke in there,' said festival owner Chuck Varabioff. (C. Gauld Photography)

Gary Genosko, a professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology who's studied administrative surveillance of alcohol and drugs, thinks music festivals will start "on the side of extreme isolation," adopting what he calls "dope moats" for smokers, like the one at Cannafest.

But that approach has its problems, he said, because "dope smokers" haven't traditionally been corralled at music festivals.

He said there's really no one with expertise in managing marijuana at festivals. 

"This is really a vacuum that we are entering."


Haydn Watters is a roving reporter in Ontario, mostly serving the province's local CBC Radio shows. He has worked for the CBC in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and entertainment unit. He ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont. You can get in touch at haydn.watters@cbc.ca.