Attendees at this year's High Times Cannabis Cup in Las Vegas, Nevada, were dealt a double blow of disappointment last weekend when organizers announced at the last minute there would be no marijuana allowed at the event, then canceled the second day due to high winds.
The change came after U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden sent a letter to the Moapa Band of Paiutes, upon whose land the event was to be held, stating that the federal government would enforce the federal Controlled Substances Act. For its part, High Times said it had worked hard to organize an event that was compliant with Nevada's medical cannabis statutes and Moapa tribal law.
But tribal authorities apparently got cold feet when they received the letter from the feds, and told the organizers that their police would not allow smoking, selling or transporting marijuana at its festival grounds. Attendees were understandably disappointed. Many began trying to unload their tickets and VIP passes online, as what they had originally thought would be a full two days of sampling herb (with a medical card, natch) would now be essentially a concert with a lot of herb-themed product placement. A concert with Ludacris as a headliner, mind you, but not what folks really wanted.
"[High Times] used to have a set of balls," wrote one unhappy Arizonan on the event's Facebook page. "Until Congress legalizes on a federal level, every Cup in every state is going to be cannabis free, going by the precedent you just set here, so to be safe, quit putting your name on it!"
Joseph Brezny, spokesperson for the event, said in a phone interview that the fact they were allowed to have the event was a "win" for the state of Nevada.
"High Times is better than anyone in gathering marijuana enthusiasts together and celebrating in a way that follows the rules," says Brezny, adding that the proactive conversations High Times had with the Nevada Department of Health and Department of Justice helped flesh out protocol for future events.
The Cannabis Cup competition was apparently scheduled with the idea that local cultivators would be able to compete, but the full complement of laws governing distribution of cannabis have yet to go into effect. So the organizers restructured it into a pre-judged, cannabis-free "people's choice" awards. Whether or not cannabis free Cannabis Cups will become a precedent remains difficult to assess.
Robert Capecchi, federal policies chief at the Marijuana Policy Project, says the circumstances around the reversal are tangled. MPP advocates for the end of marijuana prohibition and played a leading role in the campaign to pass Nevada's Question 2, which legalized recreational marijuana in November of 2016.
But how federal laws are enforced on tribal land is murky territory. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Bogden's letter to the tribe said it may have "misinterpreted" a 2013 memo from the Obama administration granting autonomy to tribes regarding cannabis cultivation, processing and retail sales. At the time, the U.S. Department of Justice said tribal marijuana policies would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis and that prosecutors retain the right to enforce federal law.
Capecchi says the question of tribal sovereignty in regard to cannabis has been tested before, as when South Dakota forced the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe to burn $1 million worth of marijuana and scrap plans for a cannabis-themed resort in January of 2016. Crucially, however, it was the state that cracked down, as South Dakota did not have legal cannabis laws on the books at the time. Nevada did, but Capecchi says advertising the Cannabis Cup as a place where there could be public consumption might have contributed to the crackdown, as this is still prohibited under Nevada law. (Advertisements referenced a vape lounge.)
So is this a sign of things to come as the extremely unhip Jeff Sessions ascends to his position as Attorney General?
"I don't know, to be quite frank," says Capecchi. "This is a tough one to kind of hang your hat on, in terms of being more aggressive on federal law."
Linda Stansberry is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.