On the eve of America's Independence Day, a former craft brewery in an industrial riverfront area of Portland, Oregon, was transformed into a veritable weed Disneyland. Though there were no rollercoasters, eager attendees waited in long lines for hours in the sweltering sun for the promise of receiving seven different types of "free" — for the $40 price of admission — strains of premium, locally-grown marijuana.
Called "Weed the People," the event was a celebration of newfound freedom for Oregonians, and the embodiment of the new Wild West of legal marijuana. Oregon just joined Colorado, Washington, and Alaska as the states (plus Washington, DC) that allow adults to posses and use the drug recreationally. While Oregon lawmakers and bureaucrats are still figuring out exactly how citizens will be able to buy pot in stores, organizers bent the current rules to essentially allow money and product to change hands.
It was quite literally night and day from the chaotic scene at the city's Burnside Bridge at midnight on Wednesday when the new law took effect. At that event, rumors of a weed giveaway attracted a huge crowd, but most who arrived empty-handed left that way too, as the promised handout never materialized. The Friday festivities required advanced ticketing and were organized by the Mercury, a local alt-weekly newspaper, and cannabis businesses eager to woo new customers on the recreational pot market.
"It celebrates the throwing off of oppression and the freedom of legalization," said Josh Taylor, the cannabis correspondent for the Mercury who helped plan and organize the event. "And now, people can watch the fireworks tomorrow while high. They were probably going to do that anyway, but we're just helping them along."
Though the lines were lengthy, there was more than enough pot to go around. In a small conference room in the VIP area with windows facing the street and the people waiting in line, a group of growers weighed out pounds of pot into gram-size baggies. One said it felt like Christmas in July, and they were the elves in Santa's workshop. A grower from across the river in Vancouver, Washington, even looked a bit like the cheerful old hippie version Kris Kringle, with a potbelly and a bushy white beard. He introduced himself as Farmer Tom, and entertained himself by holding up comically large sacks of green nuggets to the awe of the sweaty crowd outside.
Farmer Tom and other growers eyeballed and sniffed each other's offerings like sommeliers judging fine vintages, only instead of pinot noir the products had names like "Purple Alien," "Obama Kush," and "Super Lemon Haze."
"It smells fantastic," one person said.
"It's fire," added another. "Nice and sticky."
"There's a lot of good stuff here," Farmer Tom said with approval after sniffing one particularly pungent bag. "Everybody brought their best. They've done a great job organizing this. They're really on their shit."
Most attendees were from the Portland area, but some came from far and wide. Tyler Janks, 21, told VICE News he came all the way from Michigan, stopping by Portland on a trip to visit family elsewhere in the state. He said his first time smoking pot was Wednesday, when it became legal in Oregon, and that this would technically be the first time he ever bought weed. Asked how that made him feel, he grinned goofily and replied simply, "Exhilarating."
Outside, enjoying food from an on-site taco truck, an older couple named Ken and Cherie Dillon said they drove several hours from a small town just across the border in neighboring Idaho, where pot still remains very much illegal.
"It's not like going to Woodstock or anything, but it's definitely a once in a lifetime experience, and it couldn't happen at a more appropriate time than on the Fourth of July," Cherie Dillon, 60, told VICE News. "It's a nice camaraderie of people coming together, and much more peaceful and considerate than if this was a wine or vodka sampling event. When people get drunk, they get mean."
Indeed, despite the exhausting 96-degree heat and long waits, there were no fights or disputes, with attendees waiting patiently to meet growers, dispensary owners, activists, and vendors selling everything from jugs of organic fertilizer to fancy gold jewelry with built-in roach clips. There were tables for organizations seeking to create a fair trade certification for pot, and to get more women involved in the budding industry.
In a fenced-in area outdoors, dozens of people gathered in the "vape tent" and around shaded picnic tables to puff on joints, blunts, and elaborate glass pipes. At least two people passed out from heat-related symptoms, and the Fire Department was briefly on the scene to assist with medical treatment. Organizers provided free access to a huge reservoir of water, and volunteers worked their way through the crowd with smaller jugs to refill water bottles that had been handed out. Portland Police, who had been consulted about the event and gave it their blessing, largely stayed away.
More than just giving Oregon residents and visitors the opportunity to exercise their new legal right to get high, "Weed the People" illustrated how vast the market is for marijuana and related products, and how strange it is that the drug is now technically legal to posses but illegal to procure for people who haven't received authorization from a doctor.
Waiting in line to put one of his free samples in a fancy looking vaporizer, Portland resident Tyson DeFrance said that until medical dispensaries are able to sell to recreational users, a step that will likely happen in October, people will rely on existing black market relationships to procure their pot. As an employee of a local medical marijuana dispensary, he didn't seem the least bit worried about the situation.
"It's legalization, man," DeFrance said approvingly of the hazy and jubilant scene unfolding around him. "I'm just checking it out to see where it goes. It's historic. I'm almost tired of hearing that, but it's true."
Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton
All photos by Kirsten Luce. Follow her on Twitter: @kirstenluce
This story was produced with support from LG as part of the Photos from Beyond program — click to see more photos from this series. VICE News maintains all editorial independence in the production of this content.
Watch the VICE News documentary, Inside America's Billion-Dollar Weed Business: The Grass Is Greener