Coco Ono, wearing only hot pants and pot-leaf pasties, prepared an overstuffed and dripping peanut butter sandwich and suggestively ate it on stage.
In front of a less supportive crowd, her cabaret performance would risk being unwatchable. But on this night, the crowd – and almost everyone on stage – was high.
The show, part of a marijuana-themed comedy and burlesque night I recently attended in Los Angeles, took place in a jewel box performance space behind a bar. In keeping with the logistical hurdles these events still face, the “medication room”, where sponsoring brands provided samples, was across a parking lot. A touch awkwardly, it was a few doors down from a busy Alcoholics Anonymous storefront.
The novelty of a pot-centric night out can foment onstage pandering – see Coco Ono’s unusual act – while other performers clearly consider a stoned audience a chance to phone it in.
Perhaps most of the pleasure was just the opportunity for cannabis users to gather in public. As one performer, Ashley Hayward, put it: “It feels good to not have to hide how stoned you are.”
While nine US states and Washington DC have legalized recreational weed, none of them officially allow “social use” establishments – bars or cafes where a visitor can sit down and light a joint. Unofficially, they’re around, but tend to function more as social clubs for industry professionals than public venues.
It’s hardly novel to sneak a spliff on a night out. But as cannabis consumption shifts from the alley around the corner to the center of the dancefloor, it’s fostering new kinds of grown-up fun, where alcohol, which can drag on a high, is relegated to a supporting role, if it’s present at all. (Instead, many cannabis users prefer caffeine, which keeps you alert and produces a tingling in the hindbrain.)
Alcohol and nightlife are practically synonymous, and have been, in much of the world, forever. Booze is versatile. It settles nerves on a first date, instills confidence and relieves the tedium at gala dinners.
Marijuana is a more finicky psychoactive. It can amplify awkwardness and foster paranoia. Pot parties are most likely to fall short when organizers assume any activity which compliments alcohol will work as well with cannabis.
Alcohol dulls the senses, while cannabis enhances them, says Jane West, a cannabis lifestyle maven in Denver. Many of the best cannabis events are sensory-rich experiences. One of west’s early successes was “Classically Cannabis”, a 420-friendly concert by the Colorado Symphony.
Similarly, Grassfed, the events company, has been successful with a virtual reality night, and with a listening party to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper.
“With cannabis you have to create more of an experience,” says Crystal Bauer-Feldman, founder of the cannabis party company Arcane Revelry in Portland, Oregon. “You have to be more sensitive to people’s needs.”
A recent Arcane Revelry event featured a chocolate fountain, a functional bong ice sculpture and a violinist who accompanied three dancers painted as Earth, Fire and Storm. In one area, brief, non-creepy rubdowns were on offer.
Those on a more restrictive budget can achieve more or less the same effect with Legos and finger paint somewhere with a food truck in the vicinity.
As a trend, cannabis-centric entertainment is still in its early days. But cannabis supercharged by modern marketing tactics probably represents the most significant threat to the alcohol business since there has been an alcohol business. While cannabis remains stigmatized in many communities, it possesses booze’s ability to transcend barriers of race and class. Last year, for the first time, dispensaries in the posh ski resort of Aspen, Colorado, outsold the town’s liquor stores.
Alexandre Ricard, chairman of the liquor giant Pernod-Ricard, recently said the company had not noticed an impact of legalization on sales but that it was following the situation. Its smaller rival Constellation has moved more aggressively. Last fall it spent $191m to acquire a 9.9% stake in Canopy Growth, one of Canada’s largest pot growers.
In an industry obsessed with its own respectability, a mini-fad has emerged in which hosts try to impress guests with formal cannabis-infused dinner parties prepared by restaurant chefs. At one dinner I attended in a posh LA neighborhood, servers passed trays of THC-infused ceviche before the diners, most of them investors ready for priming, sat down to a meal of tuna tataki and then steak. One of the courses – I forget which – came garnished with a THC-infused caperberry.
A small drone hovered overhead for some reason. Everyone got really high, but at least some of it was owing to how much money they planned to make in the green rush.