“People are knowledgeable about a lot of different things. They know the laws, they know we live in suppression from Congress. There’s a general knowledge in the community about how the government works and doesn’t work. You see activism on so many levels.”
Caroline Phillips tells me this while I’m on lockdown in my home, practicing social distancing because of the very real and serious Covid-19. And she’s the right person to speak with, because if anyone knows a thing or two about local activism, it’s this D.C. native. She’s produced countless events with her company The High Street, and is the founder of the largest marijuana-themed event on the East Coast: the National Cannabis Festival.
“I wanted to make an event that tapped into the knowledge and diversity of D.C.,” she says. “I wanted people to learn how to be helpful, and I knew that would resonate in our community.”
Phillips became familiar with cannabis and its relationship with the city during the battle for clearance as a medicinal use drug in the early 2010s. Her awareness heightened further when the city was battling for decriminalization in November 2014 via Initiative 71, the voter-approved legalization of the recreational use of cannabis.
“I worked with a local dispensary to host a small happy hour and it became so much bigger than we expected,” she says. “That’s when I first became aware of the medical access [and] banking issues. All these amazing advocates showed up and spoke up.”
From there, she produced other events in the area but felt they didn’t represent the D.C. she knew and grew up with. The attendees were largely affluent and white, which left too many voices unheard. She needed to create something local that would include all people who care about the issue.
“We really try to create opportunities for participation at all levels. We have the medical dispensaries from Maryland and D.C. who give out info. We have the local craft makers who have things you can decorate your homes with. We have glass blowers [and] local clothing stores. The focus is local and regional.”
The first iteration of the festival on April 23, 2016 brought together 5,000 attendees from 30 different states to the RFK Festival Grounds. The festivities include everything from exhibits and panels to a marketplace and musical acts. Though the fifth annual event has been postponed until September 19 because of coronavirus, it’s still set to feature Method Man and Redman, Young M.A. and other big names.
“I think the overall response has been very positive,” she says of producing such a large festival in her hometown. “When I started, I didn’t have a crystal ball with how laws would unfold in the area. I think the festival is very much a reflection of the community in D.C. and in some ways, it highlights the challenges in how things are regulated in the city. It also highlights how important it is to get out of the way of D.C. voters, and help build on these opportunities for people that live here.”
Despite the stay-at-home order in the District, Phillips has heard positive buzz about the state of cannabis culture in the nation’s capital, including a boost in sales and a dedication to keep serving people in a safe way.
“There are a lot of people who use it as medicine who are now restricted to their homes. Maybe people are making dispensary visits part of their plan. It’s interesting to see how the medical cannabis community is able to understand and execute on plans to continue business.”
The fifth annual National Cannabis Festival is rescheduled for September 19 at the RFK Festival Grounds. Tickets $55-$85.
National Cannabis Festival: 2400 E Capitol St. SE, DC; www.nationalcannabisfestival.com