The blue-ribbon winner at the 2016 Oregon Cannabis Growers Fair. (Courtesy Oregon Cannabis Business Council.)

State fairs embracing cannabis displays

Activists call on state and county fair organizers to consider cannabis as another agricultural crop worth displaying to the public

In another sign of how quickly cannabis is becoming Americana, the plant may have soon have a tent at your local county fair alongside prize vegetables and livestock.

A growing number of state and county fairs, agricultural exhibitions and other public events are considering joining Oregon’s state fair in hosting cannabis exhibits and competitions.

Last year, the Oregon State Fair made international headlines when it became the first event of its kind to show a prize-winning, non-flowering cannabis plant.

For many Oregonians, this was the first time they’d seen a live marijuana plant, said Don Morse, chairman of the Oregon Cannabis Business Council (OCBC), which sponsored the exhibit.

“They had an opportunity to smell it, feel it and draw their own conclusions,” he told The Cannabist.

Oregon State Fair Cannabis Growers marquee
Marijuana joined more traditional crops such as tomatoes, beets and carrots at the 2016 Oregon State Fair. (Courtesy of Oregon Cannabis Business Council)

California may soon join its northern neighbor in allowing the plant to be shown off at state and local fairs. Late last month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a massive bill that helps set up a regulatory framework for the state ahead of the January 1, 2018 legalization of adult-use cannabis. A clause in the bill allows onsite cannabis sales and consumption by adults at “a county fair or district agricultural event provided that certain requirements are met.”

Those requirements and what the law may mean for events in 2018 is still up in the air, California Department of Food and Agriculture officials told The Cannabist. Right now, they’re developing guidelines to assist fairs in their decision-making process.

“Ultimately, such activities will require local authorization and compliance with state rules and regulations,” said Steve Lyle, department public affairs director said.

The subject of cannabis legalization has been widely discussed at fair gatherings around the country over the last several months, reported Marla Calico, president and CEO of the Missouri-based International Association of Fairs & Expositions (IAFE). The voluntary non-profit represents more than 1,100 fairs, shows, exhibitions and expositions worldwide.

Because each legal marijuana state has its own applicable laws, it’s impossible to say how fairs in those states are reacting or at what level they might look to get involved with the plant, she told The Cannabist. Some of the issues officials are facing are whether to allow cannabis retailers to have displays at the fairs, potential sales or distribution of samples and proximity of fairgrounds to local schools.

“As more states address legalization, fairs are very much aware and are watching to see what develops, as there is bound to be some impact to them because of the far-reaching effects of legalization,” she said.

Not everybody in the agricultural community is on board. Municipalities and counties across the West are already drawing lines banning cannabis displays at their local fairgrounds.

Last week in California, the Humboldt County planning department put the kibosh on the “Casual Crop Exchange” medical marijuana farmers market. The county agency cited state dispensary ordinances requiring sales be conducted inside a building by a permitted entity.

In late May, the managers of the state-owned Del Mar Fairgrounds in suburban San Diego canceled their contract with organizers of the GoodLife Festival, a medical marijuana event scheduled for September; saying the festival would not comply with federal laws.

And in New Mexico last month, a medical marijuana grower filed a federal lawsuit against Expo New Mexico, saying the company’s free-speech rights were being violated by the fair’s refusal to allow the company to set up an informational booth that would include “education materials on the medicinal and economic benefits of cannabis.”

Morse is undeterred. Next month, the 2017 Oregon State Fair will host a cannabis exhibit with a focus on topicals, edibles, concentrates and flower, he said. The exhibit will show what flowering cannabis and dried flower look like, and highlight products that come from cannabis processing.

Since the inaugural cannabis exhibit in Oregon, other state and county fairs have reached out to officials and organizations associated with the OCBC exhibit to learn more about how they can handle future displays and contests at their own events.

“We believe all state legislatures should realize that this is an agricultural crop,” Morse said. “What better place to educate and highlight what cannabis is, and to dispel the myths and taboos about the product than at the state fair?”