The coronavirus pandemic has forced the shutdown of in-person events for the foreseeable future, but cannabis enthusiasts haven't let the crisis extinguish their flame for pot.
In the face of unprecedented disruptions to the way people around the world work, socialize, live and play, events for cannabis holiday 420 have migrated online to bring isolated cannabis users together on a day that's considered all about community.
"420 is typically such a communal holiday. Everyone gets together, they pass joints — it's really about celebrating cannabis, our community, and what we've created. Now that we don't have that and everyone is kind of isolated, it provides an outlet where we can still feel like we do have that social engagement," said Katie Mattox, marketing director at Colorado-based Spherex.
"With these virtual parties, people can still log in and feel like they are part of the community and still feel like they are connected — while still being responsible," she added.
Cannabis extraction company Spherex is sponsoring "Virtual 420 Party," — an 8-hour live stream of music, comedy, and cooking on Monday, April 20. Thrown by Colorado-based dispensary Lightshade, the party features a lineup of local DJs, chefs, and comedians booked to appeal to the tastes of cannabis lovers in Colorado and to support local talent who are struggling for lack of work.
The event came together after Denver's annual 420 rally was canceled to stem the spread of coronavirus. The annual event typically attracts about 50,000 people.
"420 in Colorado has been a celebration even before cannabis was really legal, so to have that celebration really taken away — we wanted to participate in whatever way we could," Mattox said.
"Virtual 420 Party" is just one of the dozens of gatherings that have gone digital as the cannabis community attempts to recreate togetherness online during what many in the industry hoped would be the biggest 420 of the century: 4.20.2020.
"Given that this will be the only time in a century that it is 420 for an entire month, this is a special time for our community," said Juanjo Feijoo, chief marketing officer of Weedmaps.
Weedmaps' "Higher Together: Sessions from Home," which the company says is the "world's biggest 420 celebration," was planned to replace the much-loved Hippie Hill gathering in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Much like 420 in Colorado, celebrations at Hippie Hill are closely intertwined with the culture of cannabis and San Francisco, and Feijoo said Weedmaps planned its event, at least in part, to encourage revelers to adhere to social distancing and steer clear of the famous meadow on Monday.
"Hippie Hill has sort of been a grassroots thing that's been happening for 30, 40 years," he said. "There was a very real fear that people were going to want to go there and celebrate so we got to thinking about what could we do so that people don't actually go to Hippie Hill?"
Meticulously scheduled to span every 4:20 p.m. in the continental U.S., "Higher Together's" star-studded lineup includes big names like Wiz Khalifa, Billy Ray Cyrus, Erykah Badu, and Tycho, as well as chefs and comedians. There is even a smoke session with Berner, a California rapper whose name has become inseparable from California cannabis culture through his brand Cookies.
The event also has strong undercurrents of social justice, benefitting Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit founded by Harborside founder and cannabis activist Steve DeAngelo. Last Prisoner Project focuses on clemency, expungement, and reentry for people incarcerated on drug charges.
Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Last Prisoner Project launched a campaign urging the Trump administration to protect vulnerable prison populations from COVID-19. The petition includes a call to release all cannabis prisoners from jail.
Weedmaps expects 250,000 to 500,000 people could tune in online, but built an interactive platform that can handle several million streamers
Higher Together isn't the only festival that has pulled big names in cannabis culture and entertainment. Luck Reunion's "Come and Toke It" boasts cannabis legend Willie Nelson, who will host a 4-hour and 20-minute variety show-style stream that features country music heavyweights like Kacey Musgraves, Nathaniel Rateliff, Margo Price, and Shakey Graves. The show will also feature appearances from Matthew McConaughey, Jeff Bridges, Tommy Chong, and Ziggy Marley, according to a recently updated lineup. Donations will benefit Last Prisoner Project.
Luck Reunion, which started off as a one-off event in Nelson's backyard on the outskirts of Austin, became an intimate festival series and collective dedicated to Texas art, music, and culture. The 420 rendition came together after Luck Reunion presented an online version of the annual festival scheduled for late March, but was canceled due to the pandemic.
Elizabeth Hogan, VP of brands at GCH, the company behind Willie Nelson's cannabis brand, said that in spite of nationwide lockdowns, technology would actually permit Nelson to connect more closely with fans on 420 than ever before, courtesy of the internet.
"Happy 420 out there, y'all. Y'all have a hit for me," Nelson says in a video posted to YouTube, inviting people to pass a hit digitally.
Innovations in streaming and video communication technology can't exactly replicate the 420 experience, but the cannabis industry is hopeful they can come close — and in so doing, introduce a new dimension of technological intimacy into cannabis culture.
For Weedmaps, that might mean more livestreamed events. Feijoo said that the company designed its streaming platform in such a way that it can be used again in the future to reach audiences far beyond the one that would typically flock to Hippie Hill. Whether the outbreak requires people to social distance for longer than expected, or if Weedmaps just wants to host another online stream, that technology could come in handy.
"We want to create meaningful connection points for cannabis consumers through video," Feijoo said. "[Cannabis knowledge] is very much something that gets passed on from individual to individual. Understanding what are the ways to do that digitally and how we can play a role in that is something we are excited to find out after this event.""
As for Hogan, she said she hopes the industry more broadly takes a lesson from this year's 420 and considers how to craft more inclusive events moving forward.
"This opens up a longer conversation and one that I hope we can explore. What I most hope is that live events come back, and that we can create live events with an eye toward how do we include people that can't be there live. For the cannabis world I think that would be a huge step forward and a really cool way to include everyone," she said.
Weedmaps' Higher Together: Sessions from Home kicks off 2 p.m. ET. Visit Weedmaps 420 page to tune in. Lightshade's Virtual 420 Party kicks off 4:40 p.m. ET. Luck Reunion's Come and Toke It kicks off at 5:20 p.m. ET. Visit Twitch or Facebook to tune in.