The first Cannabis & Conversation panel at Telluride Mountainfilm with, from left, journalist Rob Story, The Cannabist's Ricardo Baca, Alpine Wellness' Geneva Shaunette and "Rolling Papers" director Mitch Dickman. (Gus Gusciora)

Getting high at altitude: How weed was legally woven into a film festival

Cultural snapshot: High in the mountains of Colorado, a film festival works to integrate cannabis into the mainstream

“Alright, it’s time to light it up,” said David Holbrooke, wrapped in a Mountainfilm parka while standing atop a scenic rooftop looking out on the towering box canyon walls protecting the high-altitude Colorado resort town Telluride.

Holbrooke is the festival director of Telluride Mountainfilm, the beloved 36-year-old documentary film festival known for its progressive, socially conscious and integrative celebration in one of Colorado’s most jaw-dropping settings. The festival and its iconic Tibetan prayer flags took over Telluride on Memorial Day Weekend, and I was there to speak about the film “Rolling Papers,” which followed my colleagues and me at The Denver Post and The Cannabist as we covered the first year of legal recreational marijuana sales in the modern world.

The first Cannabis & Conversation panel at Telluride Mountainfilm with, from left, journalist Rob Story, The Cannabist's Ricardo Baca, Alpine Wellness' Geneva Shaunette and "Rolling Papers" director Mitch Dickman. (Gus Gusciora)
The first Cannabis & Conversation panel at Telluride Mountainfilm with, from left, journalist Rob Story, The Cannabist’s Ricardo Baca, Alpine Wellness’ Geneva Shaunette and “Rolling Papers” director Mitch Dickman. (Gus Gusciora)

Back on the rooftop, this was a big moment for Holbrooke — and for Mountainfilm. This was the debut of their new programming called Cannabis & Conversation, a 420-friendly, open-consumption gathering to talk about marijuana laws, culture, trends and “Rolling Papers,” which screened twice at the film festival. The Cannabis & Conversation talks, which took place on a rooftop off Telluride’s main artery at 4:20 p.m. May 23-24, joined the festival’s long-running Coffee & Conversation and Booze & Banter programs, and it was Holbrooke’s idea.

Sure enough there we were: A panel of three people, being interviewed by local journalist Rob Story, in front of an audience of 25-35 people. As we filtered onto the rooftop, we talked and caught up. Some looked around awkwardly as if to say, “Is it safe to light up?” For many, it was the first legal, open-consumption event they’d ever been to. For all of us, it was the first film festival-sanctioned party that allowed the legal smoking and vaporizing of weed.

“As I thought about the film ‘Rolling Papers’ at Mountainfilm, I knew it would generate a lot of additional discussion and that we would want to spin an additional talk out of it,” Holbrooke said a few days after the festival wrapped. “For years, we have been hosting Coffee and Conversation and recently added Booze and Banter and I thought at first that we would fit a ‘Rolling Papers’ talk under those already existing formats. However when I thought about it more, I felt we could stretch and build a new kind of talk around the film where the audience could legally consume marijuana at the event. We considered Toke and Talk, Ganja and Gab but went with Cannabis and Conversation.

“Naming the talk was the easy part however.”

The town’s marijuana licensing authority hearing officer, Jennifer Fox, was in attendance at both events. She worked closely with Holbrooke and panelist Christian Sederberg (of the marijuana-focused Vicente Sederberg law firm) to make the events happen with the permission and guidance of town attorney Kevin Geiger.

“I was invited to attend, which was gracious and interesting,” Fox said a few days after the festival wrapped. “The conversations let us hear what people think about what’s going on out there. Telluride tends to be an insular community. We’re hard to get to, we’re very far away from the center of legislation in Denver, and bringing not only legal minds but people in the industry and journalists to town — people who have their finger on the pulse of Colorado and the larger picture — that was very exciting to me. It enlarged my small world.”

Fox is a by-the-rules attorney who approaches all facets of cannabis cautiously, and she refers to Colorado’s pot-legalizing Amendment 64 often in conversation. Attending the two open-consumption events at Mountainfilm didn’t change her position on the issue, she said.

The first Cannabis & Conversation panel at Telluride Mountainfilm with, from left, journalist Rob Story, The Cannabist's Ricardo Baca, Alpine Wellness' Geneva Shaunette and "Rolling Papers" director Mitch Dickman. (Gus Gusciora)
The first Cannabis & Conversation panel at Telluride Mountainfilm with, from left, journalist Rob Story, The Cannabist’s Ricardo Baca, Alpine Wellness’ Geneva Shaunette and “Rolling Papers” director Mitch Dickman. (Gus Gusciora)

“I thought the talks were pretty innocuous,” Fox said. “I didn’t think it was offensive at all.”

Not everyone consumed marijuana at the events, but many did — and you couldn’t help but notice the societal shift happening in front of your eyes as you watched joints, vape pens and chillums being passed around the crowd (and stage) with government and festival officials looking on — and sometimes participating.

“We’re making history,” Holbrooke said on that first snowy (and stoney) afternoon, passing a joint to a friend in the audience.

And he was right. Even though the address and open-consumption nature of the events had been redacted in the festival’s programs via black marker (at the town’s request), there we were, slightly stoned, talking about art and this still-newly legal substance. How was it impacting our communities? How do these businesses work without banking? What are the downsides so far?

“Oh, and wanna a hit off my vape pen?”

In a state that still finds itself struggling with the issue of where this legal cannabis can be legally consumed, the Cannabis & Conversation events were a big step toward normalization.

“We did it, and we did this with the help of a lot of locals, particularly the town of Telluride, which had real and understandable concerns but worked closely with us at Mountainfilm to make sure that what we were doing was legal and doable,” Holbrooke said. “Making history, even with something small like this, is never easy, but I am glad that everyone went the extra distance so that it came together this year.”