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By next summer, after cannabis is legalized in three months, the area at the Ottawa Bluesfest for medical-marijuana patients and cigarette smokers will be opened up to anyone who wants to use the drug.Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

Part of Cannabis and consumers

Hidden behind a thicket of porta-potties directly east of the main stage, Ottawa Bluesfest’s first cannabis-consumption zone drew only a few tobacco smokers over the course of several hours on opening night last Thursday.

But by next summer, after cannabis is legalized in three months, the area for medical-marijuana patients and cigarette smokers will be opened up to anyone who wants to use the drug. Organizer Mark Monahan says the so-called “pot garden” is the first of its kind at any music festival in the country.

It won’t be the last as event organizers search for ways to balance the public’s desire to use the drug with the enjoyment of those who don’t want to partake.

All-ages events such as Ottawa Bluesfest are looking to limit secondhand smoke of any kind and ensure young patrons don’t get exposed to widespread use of a drug that has been smoked at festivals since the days of Woodstock.

“Honestly, we have had issues over the last few years just around tobacco and cannabis use on-site in areas that we would consider smoke-free,” Mr. Monahan said, noting that about a third of the 300,000 patrons last year were teens or people in their early 20s.

Cindy McLeod, founder of Calgary’s Bluesfest, said cannabis has never been an issue at her long-running festival, which plays host to about 5,000 people a day at the city’s Shaw Millenium Park. Each July, the marijuana smokers seem to separate themselves from the wider crowd and retreat to an unassuming corner of the site wedged between the nearby light-rail transit line and the site’s porta-potties.

“To be honest, I drive by in my golf cart and wave at them,” Ms. McLeod said. “To me, it’s such a benign thing, I think alcohol is way more dangerous than pot will ever be.”

Still, next summer, she will apply for a special exemption from the City of Calgary, which saw its council recently amend its no-smoking bylaws to allow for such spaces at special events come October.

Samuel Gutman, a Vancouver physician who has been providing medical care at concerts and special events for more than 25 years, said he is not in favour of smoking anything, but making space for people to smoke or vape cannabis products is a sensible approach that creates fewer problems at a music festival.

That’s because those “less noxious” methods allow people to better control their dose of the drugs compared with more covert options such as eating edibles, which can result in people taking way too much and ending up in the festivals’ first-aid tent.

Dr. Gutman also noted that the drug that causes the most problems by far at these events is alcohol.

“It’s still alcohol always … most people [who drink too much] are passed out drunk and get in fights or whatever,” said Dr. Gutman, whose company RockDoc Consulting crafts medical plans for events around the world. “In terms of complexity and risk, it would be things like the stimulants – cocaine and Molly [MDMA].”

Trina Fraser, an Ottawa-based lawyer specializing in the cannabis industry, said many provinces and territories have created strict rules outlawing the consumption of cannabis in most public places. Combine that with a landlord’s ability to restrict tenants from using it in their own homes and many Canadians will be left wondering where it is possible to consume this legal product, she says.

Cannabis companies are already viewing outdoor concerts as a massive marketing opportunity.

Aurora Cannabis, one of the country’s largest producers, has sponsored a summer concert series spanning 12 cities and featuring big-name international artists such as Post Malone and Kings of Leon.

Cam Battley, the company’s chief corporate officer, said Aurora has made a “not insignificant investment” into the 20 free shows “to create awareness of our company.”

But he’s frank that this promotional window for such creative marketing will be limited: New federal laws restricting cannabis companies’ ability to advertise don’t kick in until legalization is final on Oct. 17.

However, licensed producers such as Aurora are betting that Ottawa will relax the advertising rules in the not-to-distant future to be similar to what is in place for alcohol companies, which are allowed to sponsor all manner of sporting and entertainment events.

“There is ample scientific evidence to demonstrate that cannabis is a more benign substance than alcohol, on an individual health impact basis and on a societal basis,” Mr. Battley says.

In the meantime, there’s ”kind of a free-for-all” advertising environment as companies take advantage ahead of legalization, Ms. Fraser said.

With a report from The Canadian Press