New Vaughan bylaw butts out cannabis music festival

Journey Cannabis & Music Festival, which was set to take place this August, has been abruptly cancelled

Journey Cannabis & Music Festival has been cancelled after the City of Vaughan passed a restrictive bylaw prohibiting virtually all pot smoking within the city. In a cancellation notice on the event’s website, organizers claim the legislation was “designed to remove [the festival] from the summer calendar.” 

Vaughan passed the bylaw in May, intended “to largely prohibit the smoking of recreational cannabis in public places,” which laid out broad restrictions against smoking cannabis in any public place unless it was for medical purposes. Then in June, Vaughan city council passed a series of amendments, almost all of which were designed to make more explicit references to cannabis. At the same time, it made an amendment to the special events by-laws that, according to a staff report, “explicitly [prohibits] special events in which cannabis is consumed or promoted in any way.” 

“It was like a kick in the face. A total shock to us,” says Journey’s chief experience officer Murray Milthorpe in a press release. “We hadn’t heard any feedback from [the city] directly or indirectly if there were any issues. There was no mention of a bylaw change or anything [during the planning process].”

Organizers of the festival are now accusing the City of Vaughan of targeting them. Milthorpe tells NOW that the bylaw “was obviously to, in essence, force closure” of the festival. 

Organizers officially announced the festival on May 8 – six days before the bylaw was passed. Representatives for Journey say they had already signed a contract with the Toronto Region Conservation Authority, which owns Boyd Conservation Park where the festival was to be held, and that they were working with city staff on getting their special events permit when they learned through the media that city council had passed a bylaw that would limit weed smoking to private dwellings. 

Speaking to NOW, Milthorpe calls the cancellation an “uncontrollable that we didn’t anticipate,” and says they are now hoping to find another venue for the festival in 2020. The City of Vaughan has not responded to NOW’s request for comment.

“We have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars invested into the program,” says Milthorpe. “We really tried to go out and see if we could find an alternative venue, [but for] an event of this magnitude, it’s difficult to isolate another venue that makes sense.” 

The bylaw could explain why the festival went virtually silent soon after it was announced. After the initial media blitz, there was no further information about the festival. Journey had not announced any musical acts, and their only “headliner” was YouTube #hustle guru Gary Vaynerchuk, who was slated to host a weed-themed TED-talk type series (called the We-ed Talks) during the festival weekend. Online, the radio silence from the festival had led commenters to compare it to Fyre Fest. 

“Honestly, to me it just seemed like some people were trying to turn a quick buck with a festival,” says Christian Borys, who was familiar with the festival’s organizing efforts early on, in a text message. “Who wants to smoke weed and listen to Gary Vaynerchuk yell at you about how you should be hustling and grinding right now?” 

It’s unclear what the festival might have looked like. Milthorpe says that they were “all systems go,” but declined to name any of the musical acts that the festival had booked. Despite claiming that they “had great success from the east to the west in terms of selling tickets,” Milthorpe also declined to say how many tickets were sold. 

Milthorpe adds that the city was on  “the other side of history” with their decision to limit cannabis smoking in public. “It’s legal, it’s okay to smoke. What we’re doing is giving [people] a platform.” 

That may be the case – but that platform isn’t coming to Vaughan any time soon.

UPDATE, July 7: After this piece was first published, Vaughan’s director of communications Michael Genova provided NOW with an official comment from the city. It’s printed in full below:

“No special event permits were applied for or issued for this event (Journey Cannabis & Music Festival) by the City of Vaughan. Smoking By-law – No. 074-2019 has been under development since 2018. This by-law introduces new regulations for smoking of tobacco, vaping and cannabis, further aligned with the provincial government’s Smoke Free Ontario Act. The timing of the adoption of the by-law was based on public process and reasonable timelines, following the passage of the legalization of recreational cannabis which took place in Oct. 2018. It should be noted that following a Special Committee of the Whole meeting on Jan. 21, Council endorsed Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua’s motion to opt-out from allowing licensed retail cannabis stores to operate in Vaughan.”

@nowtoronto | @grilledscheese

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