Oakland's Mardi Grass 

Downtown will host a huge, open-air cannabis expo on Labor Day weekend.

Organizers expect up to 30,000 cannabis fans to flood into Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in front of Oakland City Hall on September 3-4 for the International Cannabis and Hemp Expo 2011. Tickets for the event just went on sale for $18, and if everything goes as planned, will include access to three entertainment stages, three hundred to four hundred industry vendors, dozens of food trucks, guest celebrities, experts, and politicians from the movement.

"It's the first time ever a city shut down streets" for such an event, said Salwa Ibrahim, government relations coordinator for INTCHE 2011. "It's a big deal for Oakland."

The annual event's usual home is the dark, concrete Cow Palace in Daly City, but venue operators there denied INTCHE 2011 a "215 area," citing recent ecstasy overdose deaths at an unrelated rave as the reason. As a result, Daly City's loss will be Oakland's gain. INTCHE is going to attract massive foot traffic to places like Cafe Van Kleef and Flora, Ibrahim added. The 12th Street BART stop is just a block away, and bike racks will be brought in for cyclists.

"It's a real opportunity to bring as many people as possible to downtown Oakland," Ibrahim said. "We're looking forward to other businesses benefiting."

Oakland also plans on having its own version of Pride that weekend — a pleasant coincidence, said Ibrahim, as the plight of stoners is increasingly compared to that of gays and lesbians. "In many ways, pot is the new gay," said Ibrahim, who has been an assistant to Richard Lee at Oaksterdam. "We've often considered a campaign to encourage people to come out of the closet."

The 2011 expo will feature an open-air "215" area for medical marijuana patients. But city officials were adamant that no smoking could occur on the plaza grass itself. Other than that, "it's kind of a natural fit; I think that it should be in Oakland," Ibrahim said. "What we're trying to do is make Oakland and Oaksterdam a tourist destination and this really solidifies that. The police have been extremely helpful and willing to work with us."

Kim Cue, founder of INTCHE, said the Oakland Police Department — which basically runs the special events department — had rejected two prior cannabis events from different promoters. But with INTCHE's business plan and positive media reports, "they said they supported it 100 percent," Cue said.

The event will be alcohol-free, which Legalization Nation suspects had to have helped with the cops, given the fights — and puke — attendant with serving booze to the masses.

Confirming early rumors, Ibrahim said INTCHE had planned to rent out the nearby Fox Theater, but "it got too complicated. We'd have to shut down too many streets."

INTCHE 2011 will probably have the grooviest VIP package this side of Amsterdam as well. VIPs — who presumably have a medical cannabis recommendation — will get a package with something like 320 cannabis samples in it. Roughly forty collectives will donate three strains each, plus eighty hashes, eighty oils, and forty waxes, salves, and edibles.

VIPs will have a week to test out the best sativas, hybrids, indicas, and more, then vote at the event. Clubs with the most votes will win a Connoisseur's Cup trophy. "Judging the Cup will be a tough job, but someone's got to do it," Cue said. "And, theoretically, people are going to find stuff that really suits them that they don't know about. They can see what works well for them and what doesn't."

About half of the 640 VIP tickets have already sold out, said Linda Stokely, press coordinator for the event.

Between the open-air smoking in front of city hall, the booths, and the copious VIP package, the event is bound to garner some negative press from places that love to dump on Oakland. Cue says times are changing, though. "Fox Network and Bloomberg did a really good job with INTCHE last year. They did not throw a negative spin on it at all. They basically blasted out that INTCHE is going on and there was consumption on-site."

Cue's an East Bay native — Concord-born, Brentwood-raised — who became familiar with medical marijuana first after family members got cancer, then as a patient. A chemical engineer by trade, she does INTCHE full-time now.

Although the Obama Justice Department has threatened the Oakland City Council and the city's dispensaries, growers, and "facilitators" with arrest, prosecution, and prison for violating the Controlled Substances Act, Cue said she is undeterred. "I'm hopeful for the future. I don't believe in the drug war. I believe in states' rights and human rights," she said, adding, "We're not going anywhere. This is a public education event — educating people on the differences between cannabis and hemp."

Cue is also hoping to school some people on why they shouldn't refer to cannabis as "marijuana." Cannabis is a long-time scientific word for the plant, she notes. "Marijuana" is Mexican peasant slang from 1930s that prohibitionists popularized in their crusade to ban cannabis.

Cue and Ibrahim are now in the middle of booking entertainment, vendors, and sponsors. Bhang Chocolates, Angel's Care Collective, and Harborside Health Center are among the first sponsors. Proceeds go to Americans for Safe Access, California NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project. You can learn more on the INTCHE 2011 web site.

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