The smell of marijuana smoke frequently permeates concerts, but the presence of cannabis is a little more tangible in the shows of the salt shed. One of the first things attendees of the new music venue’s summer shows find is a Curaleaf’s Grassroots kiosk where they can learn about the brand, grab free rolling papers and tote bags, and order merchandise in advance for pick-up. Less than a mile away at Curaleaf’s Weed Dispensary across the street.
“We’re really excited about a lot of what’s going on in the Chicago music scene and a lot of our consumers who visit us at our dispensaries and buy our products are the same people who attend these festivals and shows, so they’re places where those of us who want to be,” said Curaleaf CEO Matt Darin.
The green tent decorated with palm trees, ferns and loungers piqued the interest of many who attended an August show by indie rock band Mt. Joy. While they were happy to buy some swag, all of the visitors the Tribune spoke with said they wish they could buy cannabis products to consume at the fair.
“People will bring it anyway,” Maddy Dobnar said. “It’s like alcohol, but I think it’s safer.”
“If I had the choice, I would rather smoke than drink, especially at a Monday night concert,” added West Loop resident Jessica Grahek, 30.
Grassroots has a multi-year partnership with the Salt Shed and wants to see the city’s cannabis regulations changed so they can fulfill those wishes. Cannabis use is currently prohibited in public places in Illinois, although the Local Cannabis Licensing Law 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 use cannabis at some of these shows when they’re freely consuming alcohol is really not consistent with our culture and what people want,” Darin said. “Ultimately, we are hopeful that some of these rules will change to allow this to take place legally and professionally in appropriate settings. Now you can have a cannabis drink that gives you the experience of drinking at a concert, but won’t give you a hangover the next morning to go to work.”
Recreational cannabis use became legal in January 2020, and with concerts and festivals returning to their pre-pandemic operations, more brands are looking to tap into the connection between marijuana and music. Green Thumb Industries of Chicago sent brand ambassadors to the holy rose festival in Bridgeview in August to offer attendees 21+ wristbands, hats and other giveaways, and to provide suggestions on which strains and cultivars from its Rythm brand might be best for their needs.
“We love music and we love weed, in no particular order,” said Ryan Marek, senior vice president of marketing for Green Thumb. “We thought this was a great opportunity to help bring the brand to life and really show what it stands for in a culture that generally appreciates our product.”
Green Thumb also operates the RAISE cannabis dispensary and consumption room in Mundelein, where DJ sessions were organized and tickets were given away before the festival. Marek said that he would love to be able to sell products at future events.
“There are people who are openly consuming [cannabis] whether it’s allowed or not,” he said. “People smuggle it in their socks, their bras, their pockets, whatever. You can sell beer and spirits on site. One day we would like the same thing to happen with cannabis.”
The quirks in the regulation mean that there are already similar products for sale at music events. The 2018 US Farm Bill classified products with less than 0.3% THC as hemp and ruled that they were no longer a controlled substance. The North Shore Music Festival in Bridgeview in September featured a huge space set aside for brand activations where Corona sold beer, Monaco offered cocktails and Lifted Made’s Urb handed out hemp-based joints and psychedelic gummies made from mushrooms and kava. In the Urb space, more than 21 festival-goers could relax and smoke, complete surveys to receive gifts and chat with “budtenders” in an air-conditioned trailer.
“It’s fantastic to be able to bring quality products to these environments where a lot of people are trying to bring 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 was unconcerned by the idea that other cannabis brands offering higher THC products could eventually be sold 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 are offering the market more options.”
Both the Rythm and Urb activations were organized 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 hopes they are just the beginning.
“I think in the next couple of years there will be a lot more traditional cannabis brands getting activated at big events,” he said. “I think you’ll see a bigger uptick if festivals and big events can have designated areas for sales, but I think it’s important that those brands just get out there.”
North Coast founding partner Pat Grumley said he expects the presence of cannabis at festivals to increase slowly.
“The interest of our fans is there,” he said. “We like to be a progressive festival and celebrate our differences and that can extend to how people want to treat their own body. As long as it’s safe, doesn’t affect other people, and is legal, we’re definitely open to it.”
The Salt Shed’s summer series concludes on September 24 with a sold-out Death Cab for Cutie show, but Grassroots hopes to keep building their presence once the venue’s indoor space is full. The brand also sponsored the Labor Day weekend Out of Space concert in Evanston and is considering future collaborations with Chicago festivals.
“That’s just scratching the surface of what we’ll eventually be able to do,” Darin said.
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