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The fight for legalization isn’t just about getting a joint whenever you want. It’s a civil rights issue, a medical rights issue for parents trying to get their children medicine, and it might even help in the opiates crisis.

Caroline Phillips is optimistic about a lot right now; the cannabis industry, the law, and especially her festival. Phillips started working on the National Cannabis Festival in 2015 after Initiative 71 legalized cannabis use in 2014. While the initiative legalized cannabis, it remained illegal to sell and buy, creating a rather unique market in D.C. The market Phillips describes as a “cottage industry” sets D.C. apart from other states who have legalized. There’s a more even playing field in D.C., which can be attributed to a general absence of big out of state companies with big backers.

We spoke with Phillips about how she founded the NCF, love for her community, and hopes for the future of D.C.’s cannabis world.

Tell me about the first year of the festival, and how it all got started.

The first year of the festival was 2016. I started working on it in January of 2015. Legalization happened that November with the vote for Initiative 71 in 2014. It all sounds so long ago now…

At the time I was working for a human rights organization. I noticed that as Initiative 71 was preparing to become law but there was a lot of events coming into our city put on by outside entities that were charging people a lot of money to attend. I had the opportunity to produce one of those events and I just remember walking into the room where the conference sessions were taking place on the day of the event and looking around and not seeing any of the people that was my understanding Initiative 71 was passed to benefit.

I looked around the room and I saw a lot of old people, didn’t see very many people of color and didn’t see very many women and that rubbed me the wrong way.

I grew up in D.C., I’ve lived over by RFK for a really, really long time and I know that there have been communities in our city that have been impacted in unimaginable ways having young men and women in their families sent to jail over and over again for offenses that on the other side of town people aren’t going to jail.

I saw the events coming in, I realized they were high priced and that a lot of the people who’d been most impacted by the inequity and justice around cannabis weren’t able to attend these events. They can’t attend these events, that means they can’t network, if they can’t network that means they’re not finding those organic business connections that so many people do benefit from. If they don’t create those connections, then how do you get your foot in the door?

I wanted to put on an event that was affordable and accessible and approachable. That’s affordable to every ward, and people outside the city. Accessible, so I wanted it to be at a place everyone could get to. And I guess I’m a little biased, I think RFK is the center of the universe.

The last one is approachability and that’s really important. There are a lot of stigmas around cannabis and a lot of those stigmas have been used to oppress the lowest income people around this issue.

I wanted to put on an event that was welcoming to people, whether or not they use cannabis. And that’s why we have so many different programs. We have a full day concert, so if cannabis isn’t your thing, maybe Cypress Hill is.

We have an education pavilion where people will be talking about policy and entrepreneurism all day. There’s a grow school where you can learn from home growers, commercial growers, nutrient companies.

This year we’re introducing a wellness pavilion where you can start the day with a guided meditation and yoga. We’ll have the dispensaries doing a talk about like what’s it like to run a dispensary in this city. I think they will have some other interesting wellness mind and body sessions happening there.

Who helped you get the festival off the ground?

Working in human rights meant I was also used to producing events with not a lot of money but a lot of support. I had no money when the idea started bubbling in my head. What I knew that always worked well in the human’s rights and foreign policy space was forming coalitions.

I formed a coalition of non-profit advocacy groups that I knew that had really pushed for Initiative 71 to become law. I reached out to them and explained the idea, told them that this was a festival that’s about social justice. It’s about recognizing their contributions because the work isn’t done yet. For anybody that’s just thinking about money like no, there’s still a lot of activism that has to take place.

On the other side, I realized I needed to get the support of our local community and the best way to do that was to go to business owners in D.C. who are doing good work. I went to folks inside the cannabis space like Vanessa West with Metropolitan Wellness Center, Chanda Macias, who owns National Holistic Healing Center—I should mention those are two women of color. They were open to doing that and even more important was the support of business outside the cannabis space who were willing to put their names on the line with this new phenomenon in the city.

Dew Drop Inn has been with us for three years now. DC Brau has supported us from day one. There are some great non-cannabis companies who’ve said “we believe in D.C. voters rights to choose how they treat their bodies and what can happen in their home.”

I went on what turned out to be a six-month hunt to find a field in D.C. to hold this on. I really didn’t want the festival held in a parking lot because in my mind I always pictured it taking place on a big lawn where people could sit down.

I grew up in D.C. and way back when I was a teenager I used to stop by the smoke in on the National Mall which took place every Fourth of July and was kind of really the first. They set the tone, they set the stage. I can only hope that we do a good enough job following in their footsteps.

The festival needed to be on a lawn. People needed to be able to sit down and picnic and hangout and not have to walk around holding drinks and food all day. But most of the lawn space in D.C. is federal property.

Eventually we found a piece of land by RFK and approached them in person. I walked into their office one day holding an application because I really wanted them to see that we were serious, that I was serious. Shortly thereafter I paid them the contents of my savings account to put down part of the deposit for the stadium.

That kicked off an exciting Indiegogo adventure where after realizing that you can’t really advertise cannabis stuff on Facebook the campaign wasn’t going so well. I just posted something on my Facebook page being like, “You guys, I don’t know what’s going on but we’re being blocked right and left by Facebook promoting this Indiegogo, essentially I’m screwed this might be the end of the National Cannabis Festival.”

That day, I just remember seeing shares starting to happen, being liked, and I’m like, “Well this is nice, people are noticing this project that’s not going to come to fruition.” But then I started to notice that night, I was like, “Oh this is interesting!”

For like the next two weeks support just started pouring in and that’s what the cannabis community is about. That’s when I knew this might work. We brought in a small portion of the money we needed by February of 2016, so we are two months out from the event. At that point I went into warp speed mode to book talent.

There weren’t a whole lot of people willing to sponsor an event that had never taken place, let alone a cannabis festival in a federal city. Let alone a cannabis festival being put on by a woman that has no profile in the space. Let alone a cannabis festival being put on by a woman of color. I really did rely on the people in this city to make it happen and they stepped up and they made the first National Cannabis Festival happen.

First festival we had 5,000 show up. Members of Congress (Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C. Council member David Grosso) spoke between the bands which was awesome. We continued that tradition into year two where even in sideways rain, 7,000 people plus came out. That was a testament to the community here and people’s desire to congregate and be able to be able to be in public and talk about cannabis the way you would talk about a beer festival or wine festival.

We’ve had two straight years with no violence, no medical incidences, no arrests.

To further meet our mission of providing free education to the community we’ve added the National Cannabis Policy Summit that’ll take place the Friday before the festival at the Newseum. That will be on 4/20. That gives our non-profit partners a chance to dig in a little bit more, have a full day of conversation around the major issues in cannabis right now.

Let’s talk about those major issues. Kind of a big elephant in the cannabis room. What kind of issues will be talked about at the summit?

The festival on Saturday will be more activist focused and a celebration all day. The summit topics we’ll be looking at are criminal justice.

We have the McIntosh family coming in, Peter Tosh’s family, the reggae legend. His son was beaten in Bergen County Jail last year. He was there for possession of weed. He didn’t have a criminal record or a history of violence. He’s been in a coma since last February. He’s 37-years-old. He has three children. Now these kids don’t have a dad.

We’re also going to be looking at the opiate crisis and how cannabis could possibly be an alternative to a lot of the opiates people are being treated with.

We will also be talking about, this is less sexy, but about tax code. Tax Code 280E is the tax code that’s used for like drug kingpins. It prevents you from being able to use money gained from your business for expenses so you can’t claim anything with tax expenses. It also adds a ridiculous tax rate, and it really impacts dispensary owners. They’re getting taxed about 35% on their revenue.

The last panel is about how media coverage has impacted cannabis legalization and how it’s changed as legalization has rolled out around the country. We’ll have Ricardo Baca, who was the editor of The Cannabist. We have some great local activists sitting in on that panel and folks from some publications as well.

We wanted to do it at the Newseum because it’s like a pretty iconic space in our city. On a day like 4/20 it’s exciting to think we could add to the 4/20 coverage, which is always fun and sometimes tongue-in-cheek. That stuff is great and should keep happening but there are also really serious things we should be talking about on 4/20 as well.

There will be additional discussions on what we’re calling D.C. ‘ganjapreneurs’. That’ll be looking at all the issues facing all of these aspiring entrepreneurs who are finding themselves turned around and tied up by Initiative 71 gray area confusion.

We’ll also be looking at pediatric cannabis, we have a couple of moms with children who have chronic conditions who’ve been treating their children. We’ll be looking at what specifically is happening in the D.C. area so there will be some more local focus content for people at the actual festival.

Ultimately, all we do is put up a fence, put up a stage, and put some ideas out there but it really is the D.C. area exhibitors and sponsors, people that attend the festival who permeate such a great vibe. Have you had a chance to attend any cannabis events in D.C.?

Yeah, I’ve gone to some pop up, farmers market type of events, I wanted to get a feel for them. What are your feelings on them, especially the arrests that have been happening?

It’s a smart and ambitious community that sees opportunity and is trying to get in front of it. A lot of people are trying to position themselves so that when we do have a tax regulated environment, they’re there and they’re ready. They’ve seen what’s happened in other communities. They’ve seen people be blocked out by bigger companies coming in.

It’s been hard to watch the arrests because it feels unfair. This has been happening for two years, people have built networks and a community of followers around these parties and to go from turning a blind eye to enforcement it’s just difficult.

I’ve been heartened to see the conversations that have been online recently with folks going back and forth and clarifying to each other, so that’s good. I think that’s a way we can keep ourselves safest, if we continue these conversations about where the boundaries are on the law.

I hope the D.C. council is able to wrestle whatever control they can from Congress so that we can have the budget control that we need to enact the laws that the citizens of our city have voted for. It’s pretty remarkable that our votes just don’t count right now.

I’m interested to see where things go in the next couple of months. I really hope that as a community we can continue sharing accurate information about the law and it’d be really exciting to see MPD or the D.C. council provide a bit more clarity.

How are you feeling about Initiative 71?

I feel great about Initiative 71. It was put in place to advance us towards full legalization, so I think it was an interesting measure as activists in the city with groups like DCMJ continue to push for a fully taxed, regulated industry. Is it perfect? No. Is it unclear? Yes.

The good thing is that it’s given all these aspiring entrepreneurs in D.C., something to really chew on and think about how can they operate within the rules that have been given to us.

The bad thing that totally well-intentioned people have occasionally found themselves on the outside of a really unclear law. With that said, I think that’s also something that you find in a lot of industries, people work out what’s okay and what’s not okay.

I was talking with The Gentleman Toker and he made the point that because of the way Initiative 71 is, it’s giving people who wouldn’t have the chance in other states where it’s legalized. In those states you have to come ready with a ton of money, and backers, and a big plan, but here you can just be anyone. So, we’re having more entrepreneurs that are predominantly people of color, women…

It’s really exciting to see that happen and I think that is true. I think that one thing that the community probably does realize is once that we have a fully taxed and regulated industry in D.C., we’ll also have big companies coming in that are maybe more established in other states ready to serve our customers here. I think that we have a really unique cottage industry here and it’s really wonderful to see thrive.

That’s another issue, there are all these businesses and many consider federal legalization inevitable and there needs to be a way to protect those businesses so they have the opportunity to get licenses in the full legalized world.

Right. I think what we’ve seen happen in San Francisco recently is inspiring and hopefully an example D.C. will follow. I don’t know if you’ve heard about this but they expunged

In Oakland, right?

Yeah, in Oakland they expunged all these marijuana convictions and I guess my hope is that when D.C. can get control they’re able to do something similar. I appreciate our council is trying to balance some pretty complex issues at the congressional level and I do believe that the council recognizes what’s happening with Initiative 71 is not ideal.

I hope our community can continue to conduct itself in way where people understand there isn’t a cannabis threat here. You don’t hear about fights at these parties, you don’t hear about people getting hurt, you don’t hear about overdoses happening at pop-up parties. You hear about people hanging out and enjoying themselves.

I hope that NCF continues to be a place for the whole community to come together to talk about these issues and I’m excited to see the way our community is working to find their way into this industry just to be there and be ready when we’re given rules we can work with.

Looking forward to a point where we have more reasonable regulations in our city that make it so that the dispensaries can provide services to medical patients and these aspiring entrepreneurs can take care of everyone else but we’ll get there eventually.

It takes time…

It does take time. I think good things tend to move in inches. If it happened too fast we’d be dealing with a myriad of other issues like, “Oh, half of the companies in our city are from out of state.”

I think that while it is frustrating and it does feel like this is taking longer than anyone wants it to for legalization to arrive. Silver lining is it’s really given D.C. a chance to really develop our own personality, community, and traditions which is kind of cool.

Recreational freedoms are literally an issue of voting rights. The people of our city—a really smart, diverse, and cool city—voted to legalize marijuana and Congress is saying no.

To legalize cannabis we need the support of the liberal community, we need support from independents, and we need support of Republicans. I think that’s one of the things we’re trying to show off with the summit is that there is diverse political support for this plant.

Cannabis isn’t as partisan of an issue as some may think.

Legalizing cannabis is one of the most popular things the President could do. Except with his Attorney General, but no one really likes him anyway.

I feel like with respect to the Attorney General, all I can feel about that is like it’s the last final throws of a dying way of thinking. When he’s come out to speak recently, his thoughts have been so archaic on the issue.

Right now, he’s being sued by a 12-year-old girl named Alex Bortell, and I’m really proud of the groups involved in that. Another of our advocacy partners, Cannabis Cultural Association, is involved in that lawsuit. They are going to make the federal government say they do believe there are medical benefits to cannabis. If that’s true then cannabis should no longer be a Schedule 1 substance.

I think it will all get a little uglier before it gets better, but it’s the final throws of an old way of thinking headed out the window. And they’ll go out kicking and screaming but the clock is ticking. We’ve moved past a critical point of decision making around legalization and it’s something that we need in this country.


I wanted to talk to you a little about being a woman in the industry and your job and what that’s been like

It’s really hard being a woman in a lot of business spaces. Being a woman in the cannabis industry is not easy. Being a woman in the music industry, which I’m not of the music industry and I don’t consider myself the festival promoter or anything, but that’s been interesting.

I’ve had people more times than I can count ask to speak to my boss. I’ve had people call me little girl on the phone and have to remind them I sign their check.

I’ve had some really interesting moments. I’ve had people not believe that I’m a producer of this festival and they ask to speak to other people. I’ve been in meetings where they keep looking at a guy sitting next to me assuming he’s in charge.

I think that’s true of the music and cannabis spaces but it’s pretty cool we’re in D.C., breaking the green and glass ceiling. This is definitely a woman owned and operated event. We have a team of kick ass women who are making it all happen.

There are amazing organizations set up to support women in cannabis. There’s Women Grow. There’s a group called Estrohaze. There’s another called Supernova Women. But these are resources put in place specifically because people recognize that frequently at the meeting table women get talked over and talked down to so let’s put together our own networking groups and make it all work and it’s been incredibly powerful to watch that happen.

I would say we buck all the nationwide trends. If you look around D.C. it is women and people of color who are stepping out in front and making stuff happen and I could not be happier or more proud to be here.

You hear about Denver and California and they’re making great strides to ensure there’s equity and diversity in their industries. It’s amazing that this kind of hiccup and the confusion around Initiative 71 has given a chance for all of us to get here.


The inaugural NCF Policy Summit will be held Friday, April 20 at the Newseum. The 2018 National Cannabis Festival will be held Saturday, April 21 at the RFK Festival Grounds. Cypress Hill  Backyard Band, See I, Beau Young Prince and more are scheduled to perform.