This 4/20 was a monumental one for stoners in New York City. This was the first 420 Day after Governor Al Cuomo announced marijuana legalized in New York State. While it was certainly a time for partying, it was also a chance to address many economic and legal issues that have plagued marijuana prohibition. It was under this political climate that the National Cannabis Freedom Festival (NCFF) held its first post-legalization event in NYC.
Returning after a brief hiatus due to Covid-19, the National Cannabis Freedom Festival welcomed tokers back with a large array of vendors and advocates promoting the recreational and therapeutic benefits of cannabis. Formed in 2017, the NCFF seeks to promote cannabis as a legal industry and encourage minority-owned businesses to flourish in states where prohibition has been lifted.
This was not just evident in the attendees, but in the speakers, vendors and sponsors of the event, as there was a great deal of representation from the city’s Black and Hispanic community. While a common criticism of the way legalization has been rolled out is that the ones benefiting the most have been white businessmen. At the NCFF, minority cannabis entrepreneurs were out to end the stigma.
As for what these new cannabusinesses are selling, it’s just as diverse. Of course, there were growers pushing their unique strains and sprouted plants. A great deal of the vendors offered a selection of baked goods and treats. Cannabis-infused cookies, lollipops, gummies, and even rolled ice cream were for sale. Prerolls were a quick and easy deal at almost every table. We also saw plenty of smoke accessories like roach clips and resin rolling trays.
Items made with CBD oil which offers calming effects without the actual high that comes with marijuana were also available. Putting to use all parts of the Cannabis plant, THC and CBD have entered the wellness industry. On hand at the NCFF was a masseuse giving massages with infused oils, while other vendors sold CBD body scrubs, soaps and bath bombs. Other vendors like Tellaro Cosmetix offered beauty products like lip gloss infused with cannabis.
The atmosphere was very upbeat during the event. The recent news of legalization and the incredibly warm weather that day contributed a positive vibe independent of the great deal of marijuana smoked. For many people, this was the first real event they have attended since the pandemic. As the DJ entertained the crowd and the host Brooklyn Mike handed away raffle prizes, the conference of entrepreneurs and advocates became a party.
Of course, the main goal of the National Cannabis Freedom Festival isn’t just to party. This was evident in the serious points made by the headliner speaker of the event, Dianne Morales. Representing the progressive voters of the New York City, Morales is running for mayor. Morales made headlines when at a debate she gave the answer, “I prefer edibles”, when asked about marijuana legalization and if she smokes. That quote is proudly emblazoned on the t-shirts her staff wore and sold at the festival.
Drug law reform is among the many progressive issues addressed in Morales’ platform. While Dianne Morales is pleased with Cuomo’s recent announcement, she knows there’s still much more to be done. “The legalization of cannabis in New York City is a milestone in equity and justice for the Black and Brown community,” said Morales. “This is something that we should celebrate at the same time we keep our eye on the prize and make sure that is rolled out in such a way that maintains equity as a priority.”
Specifically, Morales wants to remedy the negative effects the criminalization of marijuana has left on minority communities. As a proud Afro-Latina, Morales said that her goal is to, “Push and advocate for expunging records for people who have been criminalized because of possession of marijuana or distribution of marijuana. Releasing people from prison and prioritize investment in communities that have been harmed the most in the criminalization of marijuana and they can actually own businesses and profit from the legalization of cannabis.”
Dezo El, President of the National Cannabis Freedom Festival shares Morales’ concerns. While he admitted he was surprised about how quickly legalization has gone mainstream since founding the NCFF, he admits that there is still a lot more work to do.
“Some of (the laws) are good and some of them are a little awkward,” Dezo El said. “These laws are made by people who don’t smoke, who have never been arrested for cannabis. So, it’s always going to be a kind of, ‘were going to put out the law and see what happens with the people and how we (NCFF) react.”
The National Cannabis Freedom Festival is there to represent the community that often has no representation according to Dezo El who also runs ButterMilk 420 Farms. “For the people that know me as a master grower,” he said, “I attended community meetings and roundtables. I was talking to the governor and they did ask my opinion. We need programs for people getting out of jail that were committed for 2 or 3 ounces and they’re doing 5 to 6 years in jail. You need to reprimand those, educate them, let them be the first ones online to get jobs.”
Growing criticism of the legalization trend sweeping the nation is that the dispensaries, ranches, and other cannabis-based companies are being dominated by white entrepreneurs. Often these businesses are being backed by the same people who previously endorsed drug prohibition but have since changed stances when it became obvious this would be a new legal avenue to make a profit. There are even indications that major corporations like Big Tobacco, may sweep into this emerging market.
When asked about this trend, Dezo El was defiant. “You need to ask Budweiser that,” he replied. “When prohibition came, they never stopped selling beer. Is bootlegging part of Budweiser’s history? Yes.” Pointing to the many minorities working the vendor booths, “Should these people stop doing pop-ups? No. You’ve got to push the envelope. They put us in jail, they kill us, they put us on our backs for a single plant. It’s ridiculous.” The NCFF President sums up the general motivation of all those involved in the festival saying, “Treat the community first. Black and Hispanic folks need to thrive in this first and foremost.”
In the growing calls for tolerance and justice, legal cannabis may be the most vital component for achieving racial equity in the United States. With strong advocates such as Morales, Dezo El, and the National Cannabis Freedom Festival hard at work to fulfill this goal, 420 Day may as well be Independence Day for our Black and Brown communities.