DEL MAR — Unless elephant rides and the possible sale of the Del Mar Fairgrounds are being discussed, few people attend the monthly meetings of the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which governs the state-owned facility.
But a small group is on hand nearly every second Tuesday to share recent information with board members about the harmful effects of smoking and drug use, particularly on youth.
After years they successfully lobbied the 22nd DAA to make the San Diego County Fair a smoke-free event. They continue their efforts to eliminate marijuana smoking at the many concerts held onsite.
So controversy was imminent following a recent announcement that the fairgrounds would host The Goodlife Festival, “Where Cannabis, Great Food, Live Music and More Come Together By The Surf and Sand” to make the “good life” even better, according to a press release.
Eventgoers must be 21 and older to attend the Sept. 23 “celebration” that will include “hundreds of the best award-winning local and regional cannabis growers, experts, dispensaries, delivery products, cannabis-derived health products and more.”
Billed as educational and informative, The Goodlife Festival will feature exhibitions and seminars that will guide attendees to appreciate and learn more about how cannabis — “when used in a safe, appreciative, legal, and healthful way — can enhance a creative, spirited, relaxed (and pain-free!) lifestyle.”
Topics are slated to include what’s available, how to ingest it, what the medical world has learned, what’s legal “and how to play by the rules.”
How did such a potentially provocative event find its way to the fairgrounds?
Westward Expos, a Del Mar-based company headed by Lawrence Bame, has been producing home and garden shows at the seaside venue for more than 30 years.
“Lawrence has been after us for four or five years now (about the festival),” fairgrounds General Manager Tim Fennell said. “Lawrence calls us on a regular basis.”
This past November, Bame made his latest pitch to the 22nd DAA. Two months later he said there nothing to report because he was “being ignored” by the directors.
“It’s a nonstory,” he said. “They didn’t ask me any questions. They didn’t want to touch it.”
But on March 22, Bame signed a $12,000 contract to hold The Goodlife Festival at the fairgrounds.
“We’re an agricultural facility,” Fennell said when asked why he finally agreed to the event. “Cannabis is an agricultural crop and it’s being embraced by the Farm Bureau and the Department of Food and Agriculture in the state.
“I don’t know if I can respond to everyone that’s anti everything,” he added. “This is not during the annual fair. It’s a one-day event and basically it’s educational.”
Fennell said a changing climate about marijuana use, which he attributes to the 2016 passage of Proposition 64 that legalizes recreational marijuana, also affected his decision.
“But the show has nothing to do with Proposition 64,” he said. “The show that Lawrence is putting on is educational. In all fairness it’s unfortunately being represented, in my opinion, incorrectly in some of the media.
“It’s going to celebrate the legal use of cannabis — everything from medical cannabis appreciation to its various health benefits,” Fennell added. “If I attend, which I assume I will, I’m going there for the educational aspects of it. I’m not consuming.”
Fennell said his late brother had disabilities and was prone to seizures.
“I want to know if it helps people with seizures,” he said. “Could this have helped him? I don’t know. I think we need to learn about it. Whether we partake in it, that’s something else.”
At the festival, only people with medical marijuana cards can bring and consume their own products and smoking must be done outside. Cannabis products on display during the event cannot be purchased, sampled or consumed.
Goodlife will include cooking-with-cannabis demonstrations and the Del Mar Cannabis Cup, during which a professional panel will judge “the best of the best in cannabis products” with a People’s Choice Award and salutes to the winners, the press release states.
The nine-member 22nd DAA board generally does not approve the more than 350 events held annually at the fairgrounds, other than major ones such as KAABOO, a three-day entertainment festival.
While members were aware there was interest to host a medical cannabis event that would focus on medical usage and education, most heard about Goodlife through the media or a 12:40 a.m. email sent by Fennell before the event was made public.
“I do think there were a couple of board members that were blindsided a little bit and that’s my fault,” Fennell said. “I take full responsibility for that.”
“This is not like having a wedding,” Director Lee Haydu said. “For something this drastic, I would like to have known about it beforehand.”
Director Stephen Shewmaker said the board needs to review and approve a policy regarding cannabis events in a public forum that includes input from all stakeholders.
“Hosting a cannabis event is a policy decision which needs approval of the board,” he said. “A special meeting will be scheduled in the near future which will consider a policy which conforms to guidelines that are being finalized by the Department of Food and Agriculture.”
After seeing the press release, another director said the event “appears a little light on the education and medicinal focus.”
Local legislators, who have no jurisdiction over fairgrounds events, also were caught off guard.
“I was surprised to first hear of this event after the contract had been signed by the 22nd DAA staff,” Del Mar City Councilman Dwight Worden said. “The controversy now surrounding this event was entirely predictable. Good practice, whether legally required or not, would have been for the 22nd DAA staff to put this proposal on their public board agenda for public review and board direction.
“Del Mar and many of our concerned residents could have participated and expressed our views, but unfortunately, that kind of open process was not followed,” he added.
Medical marijuana has been allowed in California since 1996 but all uses are still considered illegal under federal law.
“The 22nd DAA needs to address whether or not it is appropriate for a public agency to be contracting for and promoting an event that may be in violation of federal law,” Worden said, adding that “surprises like this” run counter to a recent trend of improved communications between the city, in which the facility is located, and the board.
Councilwoman Ginger Marshall, from adjacent Solana Beach, was equally disappointed.
“The decision to hold the cannabis festival at the state-owned fairgrounds was irresponsible,” she said. “It sends a disturbing message to our children that marijuana use is OK.
“This event will undoubtedly attract pot users from all over the state and create a strain on our emergency personnel,” Marshall added. “Solana Beach maintains a family friendly destination and is a place to raise our children in a healthy environment. (It is) not an attraction for pot users and cultivators. My hope is that the fair board will reverse this decision and cancel the event.”
Peggy Walker from San Dieguito Alliance for Drug Free Youth and a regular at the monthly fair board meetings said she was “flabbergasted and dumbfounded” when she heard about the event.
“I feel that this decision is an affront to … Del Mar and Solana Beach,” she said. “There was no heads up to the community, to elected officials or even to fair board directors. I did not move to this beautiful seaside haven to live in an oasis of pot tolerance.”
Her colleague Judi Strang said at the very least the festival should be postponed until January, when state regulations for recreational marijuana use are in place.
Even though the festival is a 21-and-older event, she said her organization is concerned because word is already out among teenagers, who see the festival as normalizing marijuana use.
Bame said he would not consider rescheduling the festival because the regulations apply to recreational use and Goodlife is focused on medical use.
“Remember that a majority of voters, both in (California) and especially in North County cities (such as) Del Mar and Solana Beach, approved Prop. 64,” he said. “This event is the best opportunity to educate large numbers of San Diegans about just what cannabis is and how to safely use it, if it is right for them.”
Bame is expecting about 6,000 attendees. He said security will check IDs at the entrance to verify age. Tickets are $35. In addition to the $12,000 from the contract, the fairgrounds will receive revenue from parking and food and beverage sales.
Bame said he plans to attend the May 23 board meeting, which begins at 1:30 p.m.