Fairgrounds to craft its cannabis policy this spring

With state guidance in hand, the Del Mar Fairgrounds hopes to have a cannabis policy in place as early as March or April — in time to have clarity when the fairgrounds books its peak-season, late-summer events.

Over the past several years, California’s 52 state-owned fairgrounds have lingered in a mosaic of pot-friendliness, with some fairgrounds reaping huge revenues from massive, multi-day cannabis festivals while others have shunned such events altogether.

By putting a clear-cut policy in place, the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which runs the Del Mar’s Fairgrounds, hopes to avoid the firestorm that erupted last year when a proposed cannabis festival stoked staunch opposition from anti-marijuana activists and city officials in Del Mar and Solana Beach.

The Goodlife Festival was expected to attract some 6,000 partakers of pot to Del Mar on Sept. 23, making it San Diego’s largest-ever cannabis event. Goodlife’s contract had been signed without approval from the DAA’s board of directors — typical procedure for events that small, but given the community clamor, the board held a special hearing less than a month after news of the festival spread.

Four hours of testimony on May 30 culminated in the DAA canceling Goodlife’s contract so a new one could be written that expressly prohibited cannabis. (The promoter, Lawrence Bame, dropped the festival about a month later, alleging that a fairgrounds official told him not to reapply.)

The May hearing was also scheduled to tackle a general policy on cannabis, but after wading into a swarm of legal vagaries, the DAA board decided to wait for guidance that the California Department of Food and Agriculture was preparing for fairgrounds statewide.

CDFA issued that guidance in October. It calls on each DAA to develop its own policies for cannabis events and on-site consumption. Topping the recommendations: each DAA should publicly deliberate whether or not to host cannabis events, weigh the potential for federal enforcement and consider its relationship with local law enforcement and California Highway Patrol.

All cannabis events, regardless of whether they allow consumption, will be deemed a “hazardous activity” and thus require $2 million in insurance coverage.

Beyond that, CDFA’s guidelines vary according to whether medical or recreational marijuana is involved. But at its heart, the guidance advises DAAs to defer to local preference despite the fact that nearly every fairgrounds (Del Mar included) is owned by the state and is therefore not beholden to the laws of its surrounding jurisdictions.

CDFA’s guidance also discourages events that combine marijuana and alcohol. For example, the sale of cannabis at a fairgrounds would require a special license, and that license prohibits the sale of alcohol. For medical marijuana events, the CDFA warns against selling alcohol. And for concerts and non-cannabis-themed events at which alcohol is being served, “it is strongly recommended that the event organizer does not provide for a medical cannabis use area,” according to the guidance.

While Del Mar’s DAA said at its Jan. 9 board meeting that it will develop its cannabis policy in the next 60 to 90 days, a few key points are settled already.

Under California’s landmark cannabis law that went into effect Jan. 1, smoking for recreational purposes is prohibited in public, while smoking for medical purposes is to be regulated the same as tobacco — cordoned off in designated, security-controlled areas. And during the five weeks of the San Diego County Fair, neither recreational nor medicinal marijuana will be allowed anywhere on the fairgrounds.