For decades, San Francisco’s massive 420 fiesta at “Hippie Hill” in Golden Gate Park was merely tolerated by the powers that be.
Then, in 2017, the City and County of San Francisco moved from turning a blind eye to the bud bacchanal to officially permitting the event. A fence was erected, porta-potties were wheeled in and security was deployed.
This year, for the first time ever, the city will allow vendors to sell pot to attendees of the festival, which is scheduled to kick off at 10 a.m. at Robin Williams Meadow on April 20.
Speaking at a press conference today at City Hall, Mayor London Breed—who had previously said city hall was loathe to officially sanction the event—sought to frame the latest shift in city policy as a matter of public safety.
Introducing on-site cannabis sales—and making it clear that attendees are “strongly encouraged” to purchase from permitted vendors at the event—means that the city has some modicum of quality control over what is consumed at this year’s gathering. Another new rule restricts entry to the 21-and-over crowd, unlike in years prior.
In addition to announcing these rules, Breed also underlined a number of beefed-up safety protocols and traffic mitigation strategies for the 2022 event—including more public transit options, increased parking enforcement in neighborhoods surrounding the park and a greater police presence.
“We want to make sure that the city is able to host this just like any other major event, so that people are safe and people have an enjoyable time,” Breed said.
Nikesh Patel, director of San Francisco’s Office of Cannabis, echoed the mayor’s sentiments while also making sure to plug local pot purveyors.
“It's really imperative from a public health and safety standpoint,” Patel said of buying weed from officially recognized Hippie Hill vendors. “But it's also just really important to help support the local cannabis dispensaries in San Francisco, particularly the equity cannabis dispensaries.”
Cannabis Cash Grab?
The Hippie Hill gathering is just one of many cannabis-centric festivities included in a slate of weed-related events that are being promoted under the banner of Evergreen San Francisco.
The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, San Francisco Travel, the Hotel Council of San Francisco, the Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefit District, the San Francisco Cannabis Retailers Alliance and even the San Francisco Public Library are all listed as partners for the inaugural nine-day festival celebrating cannabis culture in the city.
Evergreen San Francisco—which sparked up on Saturday, April 16, and rolls through April 24—highlights the city’s cannabis lounges and dispensaries but also features educational, literary, film and musical events throughout San Francisco. It also marks the first time that the chamber of commerce and SF Travel have openly promoted 420.
Viewed from a particular vantage—and considering how slow San Francisco’s tourist economy has been to bounce back from Covid—this could all be seen as a bid to pull in traveling tokers and their dollars.
Rodney Fong, president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, said he believes cannabis has the potential to be a driver of tourism in the city.
Fong noted that those visiting the city for a cannabis-based event will likely dine out at restaurants, stay at a hotel or hail an Uber. “It is another way to enjoy San Francisco. … Cannabis and our great restaurants and our great bars and nightlife, museums, all come together as different options and ways to explore the city,” he said.
The chamber is not an official sponsor of the Hippie Hill festival. Still, Fong said, it was listed on Evergreen San Francisco's website as an event option, because it was “quintessential to 420” in the city.
Or Business As Usual?
Then again, one could interpret increased buy-in from the city, the chamber of commerce and other business interest groups as the inevitable next step for a city that has served as a beacon of cannabis culture—and the cannabis trade—since at least the 1960s.
Brian Applegarth, chief strategy officer of Cultivar Brands, SF Travel’s cannabis marketing agency of record, observes that having a multi-day cannabis festival hosted in San Francisco is a natural marriage of the city’s “history,” “culture,” and “storytelling” with cannabis, citing the city’s role in forwarding the legalization of medical marijuana and the use of weed for compassionate care to treat AIDS.
To have so much “foundational” community support from some of the city’s most prominent groups is “historic,” he said. But it was also something of an inevitable and organic evolution of the legalization movement.
“Having all these groups come together is a milestone of normalization and it's a sign of the times,” said Applegarth. “I think it was all leading up to this.”
Whether San Francisco actually sees an influx of cannabis tourists this week remains to be seen, but Fong is sure that bud is and will continue to be a key aspect of business and tourism for San Francisco. The way he sees it, Evergreen San Francisco is no different from how the chamber promotes Beer Week or how it has served other types of small businesses, especially in the wake of Covid.
According to a Forbes report from early 2021, the California cannabis industry was worth $4.4 billion in 2020. And according to San Francisco’s Office of the Controller, 2021 legal cannabis sales citywide totaled about $240 million.
“We don’t know how much of that was related to tourism,” wrote Ted Egan, the city’s chief economist, in an email to The Standard.
It Is What It Is
But for some local business owners, it doesn’t really matter where the money comes from as long as it comes.
After living on Haight Street in his early 20s and falling in love with the vibe, Roman D’Argenzio, the proprietor of vintage T-shirt shop Trove SF, chose his store’s location on the iconic street specifically because of the crowds that are drawn to events like the Hippie Hill 420 extravaganza.
“It's like a mecca for stoners, for lack of a better term,” he said. “It draws in tons of people to Haight Street and all the surrounding neighborhoods and businesses. … I wanted to move here because that's an advantage.”
Alex Aquino, organizer of the first city-permitted Hippie Hill back in 2017, said he’s just glad to see the chamber and SF Travel embracing the event.
“The more, the merrier,” Aquino said. “It's great to be, you know, normalized.”
Christina Campodonico can be reached at [email protected]