To see arch-conservative Grover Norquist and former NAACP president Ben Jealous in the same room sounds like the set-up to a bad joke. However, on April 20, they will both appear as part of Washington, D.C.’s first annual National Cannabis Festival Policy Summit. Meant to “highlight progress in reforming cannabis laws around the country,” the day-long event is a new addition for the festival, which celebrates its third anniversary.
Organizer and founder Caroline Phillips has delivered an impressively diverse list of speakers for the event’s inaugural edition, from Niambe McIntosh (daughter of reggae legend Peter Tosh) to Jose Belen, the army veteran currently suing Attorney General Jeff Sessions in hopes of decriminalizing cannabis on a national level and removing it from the DEA’s list of controlled substances.
Phillips says part of the inspiration behind assembling the lineup was her past work as a producer of events focused on human rights.
“I noticed that the best events I attended were the ones that convened unlikely allies,” she says. “It’s really easy for all of us as civil rights activists and advocates to get in a room and tell each other things that we all agree on, but it’s even more powerful when people who may not agree on all of the issues find themselves on the same page on certain issues.”
Hence the inclusion of anti-tax crusader Norquist, who joins social-justice champion and Brookings Institution deputy director John Hudak on a panel called “Tax Fairness & Cannabis.”
“To be able to put Grover Norquist on the stage with somebody like John Hudak, and to have them echo each other in their belief about fairness for cannabis tax is something that I think will hopefully maybe move the needle an inch towards progress on sensible cannabis policy,” Phillips says.
Progress in cannabis reform is something Phillips believes is best measured in inches, not yards. With so many potential topics to choose from for the National Policy Summit’s first agenda, she’s quick to credit her collaborators in helping her decide on topics.
For example, Adam Eidinger, director of social action for Dr. Bronner’s Soap and D.C. Marijuana Justice (DCMJ) co-founder, suggested an afternoon panel on the media’s impact on cannabis policy.
“They’re the ones that rolled joints in Jeff Sessions’ office,” Phillips says of the DCMJ. “They passed out free weed to brave Congressional staffers. [Adam] is someone that definitely has used the media as leverage to help bring attention to issues, but he’s also somebody who is extremely sensitive to how media coverage can negatively influence a movement.”
Along with Eidinger, the panel will also feature Minority Cannabis Business Association president Shanita Penny, famed cannabis entrepreneur Jane West, George Washington University Professor Dr. Imani Cheers, and moderator Ricardo Baca, who founded the Denver Post’s Cannabist vertical.
While it makes perfect sense for the National Cannabis Festival Policy Summit to make its debut in Washington, D.C., Phillips acknowledges that information being shared at the event is of interest to patrons wide and far. At present, she’s hoping to secure funds that would allow the organization to livestream the proceedings, but confirms that the summit will be filmed either way.
Beyond the wealth of information made available attendees — the summit is free and open to the public — it also sets a precedent for other municipalities to follow.
For instance, a panel called “Amplifying Equity to Create a Stronger Industry” will focus on the efforts of Maryland’s Legislative Black Caucus to rectify the troubling fact that last fall, zero African Americans were among the state’s first 15 medical marijuana licensees. Swap Maryland for Oakland and San Francisco, and an equally important and telling discussion could take place.
The emphasis on keeping things bipartisan — and creating, as Phillips calls it, “a safe space for conservatives and liberals” to discuss cannabis reform — is a concept that some may find hard to digest. However, as Phillips points out, there is very little to be gained by uniting a group of people who already agree with each other. There is power in numbers, but there is perhaps even more power in empathy.
“I think if we can create a space where people can come and hear about cannabis and see people that they recognize and respect talking about it,” Phillips says, “then that’s hopefully a win for everyone.”
Zack Ruskin covers news, culture, and music for SF Weekly.
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