On April 20, at least 10,000 marijuana enthusiasts, patients, and cannabis-curious onlookers are expected to gather in a public park in Scranton to celebrate cannabis culture and the state’s medical marijuana program.

Who’s not going to be at Pennsylvania’s largest annual cannabis fest?

The state’s biggest dispensaries, which provide medical marijuana to 100,000 registered patients.

In fact, the festival organizers were excited about the dispensaries committing thousands of dollars in sponsorship. Some of the dispensaries had ponied up more than $8,000 apiece to set up booths to distribute educational materials. So it came as a surprise late last week when the state’s Department of Health, which administers the legal medical marijuana program, prohibited dispensaries and growers from participating.

A crowd at last year's Pennsylvania Cannabis Festival in Scranton listening to a jam band.
Courtesy Pa. Cannabis Festival
A crowd at last year's Pennsylvania Cannabis Festival in Scranton listening to a jam band.

The festival’s organizer, Jeff Zick, said he stands to lose tens of thousands of dollars. Zick said he was confused by the health department’s motives.

“There is never any weed sales at the festival. We’ve never had a violation of the law," he said. "Not one arrest and not one parking ticket. We’re totally law abiding. There’s no reason for them to take a stance against us.”

The cannabis festival was launched in 2015 by advocates who had fought to legalize marijuana products for treating serious medical conditions. In the city’s Nay Aug Park, the fifth annual free event will have three stages and dozens of jam bands. It will also feature hundreds of vendors of food and retailers selling cannabis culture products — hippie and hipster stuff — from CBD to soap to glass pipes.

Dispensaries saw an opportunity to educate the masses on the benefits of medical marijuana.

There’s one hitch, though: All marketing and promotions by dispensaries must be approved by the state Office of Medical Marijuana. A spokesperson for the Department of Health said the festival had crossed a line.

“It’s not a medical event,” said spokesperson April Hutcheson. “We do allow dispensaries to participate in all kinds of education events with different groups. We approve hundreds of requests. What they submitted to us did not meet our criteria."

"This is not a medically focused event.”

“I think the perception is that a bunch of stoners was going to take over Scranton for the day, and that’s not the intention," said Chris Visco, owner of three dispensaries in the Philadelphia suburbs. "I don’t think any organization [any dispensary] would endorse giving out samples.”

‘Cannabis Cup’

Promotional materials for the festival mentioned a “Cannabis Cup,” better known as a competitive marijuana-judging event.

The website offered attendees packages for $450 that included a hotel and a sampling of marijuana. One of the major sponsors is a marijuana seed company based out of Canada.

Zick said the room and samples offer was associated with a “totally different event.”

“It wasn’t the same day. The Cannabis Cup is happening the day before,” he said. “It’s a totally different company organizing it. But there’s no reason patients shouldn’t get a chance to try legal product and judge it.”

Asked whether he had a role in the Cannabis Cup, Zick said, “Yeah, we manage it.”

Chris Goldstein is a spokesperson and organizer for the National Association for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Goldstein, who is no fan of big marijuana companies, said banning the dispensaries was only working against the state’s own interests.

“Part of the goal of the medical program has always been to to get underground cannabis consumers into the dispensaries. To get them legal,” Goldstein said. “If anything, the Department of Health should be setting up at the festival alongside of the dispensaries. They should be setting up Cypress Hill concerts and at Eagles and Phillies tailgating events in the parking lots. That’s how you reach people.”

Zick said he hopes the state regulators will come around to his way of thinking.

“It’s not over,” Zick said. “I think we’ll work this out. We have time.”

A vendor last year at the Pennsylvania Cannabis Festival in Scranton offers a child a hoop.
Courtesy Pa. Cannabis Festival / HANDOUT
A vendor last year at the Pennsylvania Cannabis Festival in Scranton offers a child a hoop.

Recreational use

Goldstein and Zick said they are proponents of fully legalizing cannabis.

Several bills proposing legalization are pending in both houses of the Pennsylvania legislature. Passage, however, is unlikely any time this year given Republican opposition. However, that could change if legalization laws are passed in New Jersey, New York, or Maryland. Several presidential candidates are supporting legalization as part of their campaign platforms. The state’s medical marijuana companies are hoping that when legalization comes, they’ll have first-mover advantage in a new recreational market.

The Pennsylvania Office of Medical Marijuana does not take a stance on recreational adult-use cannabis.

Justin Moriconi is an Elkins Park attorney who specializes in marijuana law. He recently won a permit from the state to grow medical cannabis on top of a former coal mine.

“I don’t think the permit holders should be pursuing activities that can be construed as recreational events, at least until there’s some agreement on a recreational law,” Moriconi said. “An event like this could taint the medical program, trying to skirt it with a wink and a nod.”

Moriconi said the state has no money to promote the medical marijuana program, and as much as he appreciates the effort the festival organizers are putting into reaching out to new patients, there may be more effective ways of doing it.

“I’m all for the Grateful Dead and ‘Let’s go to the Phish show,’ but the Department of Health isn’t going to condone that,” Moriconi said. “If the medical people want to put on a medical symposium, that would work.”

"But you don’t have to be in the face of the Department of Health about it. "

For more coverage of medical marijuana and recreational cannabis, visit philly.com/cannabis