The smell of pot smoke frequently pervades concerts, but cannabis’ presence is a bit more tangible at shows at the Salt Shed. One of the first things attendees at the new music venue’s summer shows encounter is a kiosk from Curaleaf’s Grassroots where they can learn about the brand, grab free rolling papers and tote bags, and preorder products to pick up less than a mile away at Curaleaf’s Weed Street dispensary.
“We’re really excited about a lot of what’s going on in the music scene in Chicago and a lot of our consumers that visit us at our dispensaries and buy our products are the same people that are attending these festivals and shows, so those are places that we want to be,” Curaleaf CEO Matt Darin said.
The green tent decorated with palms, ferns and lounge chairs piqued the interest of plenty of attendees at an August show from indie rock band Mt. Joy. While they were happy to pick up some swag, all of the visitors the Tribune spoke to said they’d like to be able to actually purchase cannabis products to consume at the show.
“People are going to bring it in anyway,” said Maddy Dobnar. “It’s just like alcohol, but I think it’s safer.”
“If the option was there, I’d rather smoke than drink, especially at a Monday night concert,” added West Loop resident Jessica Grahek, 30.
Grassroots has a multiyear partnership with the Salt Shed and wants to see the city’s cannabis regulations change so it can fulfill those desires. Cannabis consumption is currently banned in public places in Illinois, though the Local Cannabis Licensing Act proposed to the Illinois General Assembly last year could allow counties and municipalities to issue special licenses for events.
“The notion that they’re not legally allowed to consume cannabis at some of these shows when they’re freely consuming alcohol is really not consistent with where our culture is at and what people want,” Darin said. “Ultimately, we are hopeful that some of these rules are going to change to allow for this to take place legally and professionally in settings that are appropriate. You can now drink a cannabis beverage that gives you the experience of drinking at a concert, yet is not going to give you a hangover the next morning to go to work.”
Recreational cannabis consumption became legal in January 2020 and as concerts and festivals have returned to pre-pandemic operations, more brands are looking to tap into the connection between marijuana and music. Chicago’s Green Thumb Industries sent brand ambassadors to the Sacred Rose festival in Bridgeview in August to offer attendees wearing 21+ wristbands hats and other swag, and to provide suggestions on what strains and cultivations from its Rhythm brand might be best for their needs.
“We love music and we love weed, in no particular order,” said Ryan Marek, Green Thumb’s senior vice president of marketing. “We thought this was a great opportunity for us to help bring the brand to life and really showcase what it stands for among a culture that generally has an appreciation for our product.”
Green Thumb also operates the RISE cannabis dispensary and consumption lounge in Mundelein, where it hosted DJ sets and ticket giveaways ahead of the festival. Marek said he’d love to be able to sell products at future events.
“You have people who are openly consuming [cannabis] whether it’s allowed or not,” he said. “People are smuggling it in their socks, their bras, their pockets, you name it. You can sell beer and liquor on site. One day we’d like to see the same thing happen with cannabis.”
Quirks in regulation mean similar products are already for sale at music events. The 2018 U.S. farm bill classified products with less than .3% THC as hemp and ruled they were no longer a controlled substance. The North Coast Music Festival in Bridgeview in September featured a large space set aside for brand activations where Corona sold beer, Monaco offered cocktails, and Lifted Made’s Urb doled out hemp-based joints and psychedelic gummies made from mushrooms and kava. At Urb’s space, 21+ festival attendees could lounge and smoke, fill out surveys to get swag, and chat with “budtenders” in an air-conditioned trailer.
“It’s great to be able to bring quality products into these environments where a lot of people try to bring in cannabis products off the streets,” said Lifted Made founder and CEO Nick Warrender. “I don’t think it could have gone any better. We sold a ton of product.”
Warrender wasn’t concerned by the idea that other cannabis brands offering products with more THC might eventually be able to sell at festivals.
“These products are different in nature with different effects,” he said. “There are people who want lighter options so they can still be fully functional. We’re offering the market more options.”
Both the Rhythm and Urb activations were arranged by Chicago-based marketing agency Groundswell Experiential. While they were the first cannabis partnerships for their respective festivals, Groundswell Executive Vice President Joe Lucchese said he expects they’re just the start.
“I think in the next two years there’s going to be a lot more traditional cannabis brands activating at large events,” he said. “I think you’ll see a larger increase if festivals and large events are able to have designated areas for sales, but I think it’s important for those brands to just get out there.”
North Coast founding partner Pat Grumley said he expects the presence of cannabis at festivals will slowly increase.
“The interest from our fans is there,” he said. “We like to be a progressive festival and celebrate our differences and that can be extended to however people want to treat their own body. As long as it’s safe, doesn’t affect other people and it is lawful, we’re definitely open to it.”
The Salt Shed’s summer series wraps up on Sept. 24 with a sold-out Death Cab for Cutie show, but Grassroots expects to continue to grow its presence once the venue’s indoor space is complete. The brand also sponsored the Labor Day weekend Out of Space concert in Evanston and is looking into future collaborations with Chicago festivals.
“That’s just scratching the surface of what we’re ultimately going to be able to do,” Darin said.
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