Nationwide attention is turning to New Jersey as State Senate President Stephen Sweeney has called for a vote on October 29th that would legalize adult-use cannabis. Jersey residents have been preparing for this momentous occasion since Governor Phil Murphy’s ascension on a pro-cannabis platform, and while the state government’s action continues to lag, citizens are taking consciousness-raising into their own hands.
This Saturday, October 20th, the media outlet Heady NJ and Monmouth County-based boutique/educational platform Haute Box are teaming up for a free daylong festival in Asbury Park called Haute-oberfest. The celebration of the plant will have a family-friendly appeal, with discussion sessions about cannabis’s biological makeup and ideas for parents in broaching the subject with their children, live music, CBD yoga, vendors, and more. Haute Box founder Ian Nugent and Heady NJ founder Brian Walsh, the organizers of the event, gave Honeysuckle‘s Katie Stromme the inside scoop on what to expect from this cutting-edge sociocultural awareness fest. It’s not to be missed!
KATIE STROMME: What are the respective missions of Haute Box and Heady NJ regarding cannabis education?
BRIAN WALSH: Heady NJ is all about getting an unbiased view of cannabis out there for people. There are a lot of media sources, but in New Jersey all of them have some sort of agenda, or cast suspicion on the industry. And I wanted to be a channel for news to be portrayed in a way that was positive for cannabis, because it is positive and should be portrayed as such.
IAN NUGENT: Haute Box was started by four friends. After college we were entering the workforce, and found our jobs to be kind of unfulfilling and empty and were looking to do more with our lives. We saw an opportunity that the cannabis industry presented—both financially and socially—so we decided to get into it and try to effect real change. We saw an opportunity to bring an industry to our hometowns of Asbury Park and Neptune that can not only provide jobs and economic relief but that can cause social change and be a catalyst. Not just make our area a resort town, but an economically thriving area.
Rates of opioid addiction are very high in Asbury Park and the surrounding communities. Cannabis has a lot of benefits for treating opioid dependence. How do you feel that the kind of education you provide can benefit residents here?
IN: Education has been a big cornerstone of our project. There is a lot of stigma associated with cannabis and educating on what cannabis is, what it can do, and its effects on a community post-legalization have been vital to our project. Cannabis can combat the effects of opioid addiction head-on: it’s a great harm-reducer. There are multiple ways to treat opioid addiction, and while cannabis might not be for everyone, it’s an avenue that is under-pursued and stigmatized as just trading one drug for another, when it doesn’t work that way at all. There’s not a lot of accessible help that people can find on their own, or without high barriers to entry, or even unstigmatized help. But cannabis can provide that missing link that a lot of people are looking for in opioid recovery.
BW: I’m a former educator, [in the field] for 15 years, and I left public education last year to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors such as [Heady NJ]. But I wanted to continue to educate people in different ways. As Ian mentioned, that’s the whole platform: to raise awareness for cannabis whether it’s opioid addiction and recovery or some other medical ailment that could be addressed, or the social injustices, and just educating people on the fact that it’s a lot different from things like alcohol or opioids. It’s important for people to begin to understand that, and that’s what these events are all about. In fact, at the last event we had in July, we had [Heroin Uncut radio host and writer] Jay Lassiter, and he did a ten to fifteen minute demonstration on Narcan and how to use it, why people should have it, and where to get it. It was pretty cool.
How often do you have events, and how did you come up with the programming for Haute-oberfest?
BW: We did a festival in the park in July—the Grassroots Cannabis Forum, and then Haute Box spearheaded a CBD yoga event which Heady NJ helped to promote. Collaboratively, this is our second event.
IN: Now that cannabis is at a fever pitch with legalization and medical expansion on the precipice, we find that [many events have] a high barrier to entry, and they’re more focused toward the corporate side. It’s exclusionary toward community members or people with a cursory interest in cannabis. So we look at what the paid events are doing and what people want to hear and learn about. Whether it’s about re-enfranchisement, restorative justice, educating on the component parts that make up the plant itself, or how the industry is developing and how someone can get into the industry. And we distilled it down into an easily consumable program for one day. Since it is consumer-facing, we’re lucky that we’re able to partner with other organizations that traditionally do more paid events with a high barrier to entry, down to our business model and communications platforms to make them accessible to the community at large.
When you say a high barrier of entry, you mean cost?
BW: Right. And some are great, and very reasonable—we’re not talking about events that are like $30. But events that are $200+. [Haute-oberfest] caters more toward the lifestyle and social justice components, but not as much toward getting started as an entrepreneur in the industry, or investing, or opening up a dispensary—that’s not necessarily the crowd we’re targeting. However, of course, we welcome everyone to attend and network and branch out.
Haute-oberfest is family-friendly; what programming will help people speak with their children about cannabis use? What will have the greatest impact?
IN: We’ve all grown up in an age of propaganda and misinformation perpetuated by organizations like D.A.R.E. and other institutions—coming up through completely faulty drug information. Education is the cornerstone of any healthy democracy and any kind of just citizenship. And now that cannabis is becoming legal, we can’t just turn the page on all the misinformation that has been spread. We have to go out there and paint a new narrative of what cannabis is and what it can do for the community as a whole. If we don’t go back and iterate the truth, it will just stay stigmatized and illicit and it won’t be fully recognized as a medicinal alternative, a recreational alternative, and as the economic driver that it can be.
[At Haute-oberfest] Jessie Gill, the Marijuana Mommy, will be talking about how to speak with your children about cannabis and using cannabis as an adult. Many people feel that they have to hide their cannabis use from their children, which only contributes to the stigma. It’s no different from having a beer or glass of wine after dinner. It shouldn’t be something you have to hide or be deceitful about around your children. You see how alcohol is treated in America, kept hidden or locked away from children, and then kids go off to college and you look at rates of alcohol poisoning, alcohol-related deaths, or alcoholism in the United States compared to in European countries and it’s much worse. We shouldn’t let that pattern take root for cannabis—we should start now, the soonest possible point, which is now, during legalization—and set the standard for future generations as a normal substance that should and can be used properly.
We also have Trichome Analytical, which will be putting in an application to become a testing facility for cannabis once legislation passes. They’re going to be talking about the makeup of cannabis, going through hemp, THC, CBD, all the different cannabinoids and aspects of the plant. That goes to another level of normalizing. When people don’t fully understand something, their imaginations will take hold and misinformation can spread. But if you know what something is and how it grows, you can always take that information and go forward and parse the truth. So I think those two sessions will go the furthest in terms of de-stigmatization.
What impacts do you think New Jersey’s impending adult-use legalization will have, and what are you most excited about?
BW: That people won’t have to worry about getting into trouble anymore. The social justice, and the fact that Prohibition will be over—that’s just huge. It will mean revenue for the state, and hopefully they spend it the right way and it goes to things that will actually improve the state.
IN: I think that’s wonderful, and will change the landscape of the state. Foremost, the economic impact is going to be unrivaled, especially if the bill is done in a way that makes it accessible to people in the state and smaller businesses. Having a new industry come in will provide economic reorganization, and the chance for people to own a business and become proprietors. That will change communities from the ground up: instead of creating workers, you’re creating proprietors. You’re creating generational wealth that isn’t often available to people in our positions.
Going forward from there, the social justice aspect is huge. In New Jersey, people of color and white people consume cannabis at roughly the same rates, but people of color in New Jersey are prosecuted at a rate that’s three times higher. So this has the potential to reorganize some of the class struggles and more prominent racial disparities.
Also, looking at the medicinal aspects, we all know how prevalent the pharmaceutical industry of New Jersey is, and you can start to see the conglomeration of hospital systems. Medical care has a very high barrier to entry, and medication is going up in cost. Having a plant-based medicinal treatment can help so many people. You see it in things like multiple sclerosis (MS), in seizures—it can completely change people’s lives.
One more underrated aspect to legalization is that in a time of such political strife, with a looming sense of fascism, having something that the people of New Jersey want to happen—for that legislation to go through is such a positive on a spiritual and personal level, to actually have the public good centered.
How can New Jersey residents get involved in the fight for legalization and access and ensuring that the important social justice components of the new legislation move forward?
BW: There are a lot of organizations looking for more help: NORML, New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey. There are groups that go out to town hall meetings and advocate at towns that bring up ordinances against cannabis. There are 35+ towns that have already banned cannabis before it’s even a bill before the people. But there are groups like that and CannaGather, and events like ours, or following any of these groups on social media. You can subscribe to the Haute Box or Heady NJ email lists, and we will send you information on events and news throughout the state. And you can come on our event on Saturday and find out even more ways to get involved!
IN: I think the best way for someone to get involved during legalization is to go to your municipality’s weekly meetings and reach out to people who are running your town. At this point, cannabis legalization is going to happen, whether on the 29th or the very near future. There is going to be a lot of power left up to individual municipalities, but a lot of them are lacking information about what cannabis is and what it can do. They may be older people with antiquated views. So fighting for de-stigmatization means a lot of work has to be done to educate public officials and getting out there and having your voice heard by the people making the decisions about whether cannabis becomes legal in your town or not.
And with any social movement where things are going from the fringe into mainstream society, having someone that you know participate in that movement always makes a huge difference. So getting your face out there and letting people know that you support cannabis, whether that be on social media [or elsewhere]—it doesn’t need to be to a huge following or part of some marketing movement. Just to let people know that cannabis legalization, medical expansion, social reform [are all] coming, and that you support it, for whatever reason that you do, will go a long way toward normalization in the collective consciousness.
Heady NJ’s Haute-oberfest is Saturday, October 20th in Asbury Park, New Jersey’s Kennedy Park, 11AM-5PM. RSVP for this free event at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/heady-nj-presents-haute-oberfest-the-jersey-shore-cannabis-festival-tickets-50621082019.
For more information about Heady NJ, visit headynj.com or follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. To learn more about Haute Box, visit hauteboxnj.com or follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Katie Stromme is a Honeysuckle Staff Editor. She is writer and editor who has previously served as creative nonfiction editor of Mud Season Review and assistant editor of Hunger Mountain journal. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Brooklyn. Follow her on Instagram at @strommesalami.