Virtual 4/20: How the Cannabis Industry Is Adapting Its Signature Holiday for Quarantine

Dispensaries get creative, and celebrities join in, as gatherings give way to livestreams

Harvest House of Cannabis, a dispensary operating in 7 states, collected tips and recipes into an 'Insider's Guide to 420.' Harvest House of Cannabis
Headshot of T.L. Stanley

Many cannabis fans are as devoted to their unofficial holiday, April 20, as some people are to Christmas, Halloween or the Fourth of July. In recent years, as cannabis has grown in mainstream acceptance and legality, 4/20 has been marked with parties and concerts, stadium-sized festivals and pot versions of pub crawls.

But not this year, as the coronavirus response has blocked public gatherings, gutted the experiential industry, canceled nearly every major 4/20 event and substantially altered marketers’ approaches  to the day.

The celebrations will go on, though, as organizers pivot from real-world to virtual gatherings, lining up talent like Wiz Khalifa, Billy Ray Cyrus, Melissa Etheridge, Berner and Kid Astronaut for marathon live streams that revelers can watch from the safety of their couches.

Delivery services are prepped for heavy volume in the wake of a record-setting mid-March sales surge, and brands in the space are giving consumers quarantine-friendly ideas to replace their usual in-person meetups and smokeouts.

"This is a chance for the cannabis community to model to the rest of the world how holidays should be handled during periods of social crisis."
—Steve DeAngelo, co-founder, Harborside dispensary

Dispensaries in states where they’re considered “essential businesses”—and therefore allowed to stay open, while following strict safety protocols and social distancing rules—are leaning into their curbside pickup and contactless delivery options. They’ll be trying to discourage exactly the kinds of crowds at their venues that they’ve actively fostered in the past.

Mainstream, non-cannabis brands that have latched onto the holiday with psychedelic stoner-cliched ads and memes may sit it out all together, similar to this year’s approach to April Fools’ Day, so as not to appear flip or insensitive (or simply wasteful with their resources) during the current pandemic and economic downturn.

All things considered, 4/20 is expected to shed some of the raucous overkill and “amateur night” feel of the recent past in favor of a more thoughtful, subdued vibe.  

“You don’t generally associate 4/20 with restraint,” says Steve DeAngelo, a longtime cannabis activist and co-founder of the Harborside dispensary chain in the Bay Area. “But this is a chance for the cannabis community to model to the rest of the world how holidays should be handled during periods of social crisis.”

Taking no chances, the mayor of San Francisco has publicly warned cannabis devotees not to travel to or gather in the famously open-minded destination, known for its 4/20 meet-ups in places like Golden Gate Park. “We will cite people. We will arrest people if necessary,” London Breed says in an Instagram video. And the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board sent out a list of do’s and don’ts to licensed businesses, telling them not to schedule events, hire food trucks or live bands or try in any way to attract large crowds.

Another green rush

Despite all the gloom facing society as 4/20 approaches, it’s predicted to be a massive sales day, contributing to what BDS Analytics thinks will be a 30% jump in retail cannabis sales this year to $17 billion. 

One of the previous high water marks for the industry was April 20, 2019, when recreational cannabis sales increased more than 100%, versus the prior week, in states like California, Colorado, Nevada and Washington, according to cannabis data firm Headset.

“Since 4/20 is on a Monday this year, the sales uptick could start over the weekend or maybe even mid-week,” says Liz Connors, Headset’s director of analytics.

Weedmaps, a national cannabis delivery platform, is girding for a second green rush, following the March spike in sales as stay-at-home mandates were announced. “Conservative estimates could very well put us around eight times the order volume over our baseline, and four to five times what we typically see on this holiday annually,” according to CMO Juanjo Feijoo.

Pivoting from IRL

On the experiential front, 4/20 events started dropping off the calendar a few weeks into the COVID-19 crisis, including Atlanta’s Sweetwater and Colorado’s FlyHi and Mile High festivals. One of the largest gatherings in the world, Vancouver 420 (estimated crowd size in 2019: 100,000) won’t be happening for the first time in 25 years.

Weedmaps' Higher Together event program (click to enlarge)

Instead, everyone seems to be going virtual, like Denver-based cannabis company Lightshade, which will stream an all-day event on Twitch with entertainment from Kid Astronaut, Beat Gypsy and others (it doubles as a fundraiser for several nonprofit groups via Cannabis Doing Good). The National Cannabis Festival and The Emerald Cup are joining forces for HighStream 420 Festival with Etheridge, The Pharcyde and other performers, panel discussions and workshops during a full day of programming on Nugs.TV.

And in a last-minute switch, Weedmaps will turn a location-based sponsorship into “Higher Together: Sessions from Home,” billed as “the world’s biggest virtual 420 celebration,” with performances and DJ sets from Khalifa, Cyrus and Berner, among other entertainers, plus comedy, cooking demos, “smoke sessions,” celebrity guests and giveaways.

The platform had signed on as the presenting sponsor of Hippie Hill, a legendary gathering in San Francisco that drew 14,000 people last year. When that event was scrapped, execs at Weedmaps changed the name, kept many of the same partners, and migrated the physical event onto the internet. 

“Higher Together” will start at noon PST and span five hours, covering every 4:20 in the continental U.S. and debuting new music from several artists. (The show, which aims to raise funds and awareness for the Last Prisoner Project, will replay in the evening). It’s one of the largest events ever mounted by Weedmaps, which has a number of pop-ups like the successful Museum of Weed in Hollywood under its belt.

“Core cannabis consumers have been waiting for 4/20/2020 for a very long time,” says Feijoo. “They still want to celebrate, but it’ll just be in different ways than they may have imagined.”

Curaleaf, a cannabis conglomerate that recently acquired Portland-based Cura Partners, has planned a virtual yoga and wellness session for 4/20, according to CMO Jason White.

“This moment of responsibility doesn’t have to be boring,” says White, whose company is giving its front-line employees a 4/20 bonus. “It can be fun. And it will be uplifting. I think we’ll see a unified spirit, a lot of gratitude and some great human connectivity.”

Mary Jane-inspired mix tapes

Harvest House of Cannabis's Insider's Guide features multimedia ideas for quarantine.
Harvest House of Cannabis

Other brands are heeding the call, too. Harvest House of Cannabis, which operates dispensaries in seven states, has created a digital “Insider’s Guide to 420,” that’s packed with quarantine-centric tips for enjoying the holiday (make your own cannabutter or mix tapes, for instance, or try some rolling paper origami). There’s a dedicated microsite, colorful animation, top-10 lists, discounts and promotions.

“We’re showing our customers how they can get involved and still be responsible,” says John Moyers, the chain’s director of marketing. “And it’s a time for us to be empathetic. There’s so much gloom and doom that we thought people could use a smile. This guide isn’t about getting blazed. It’s about the goodness of cannabis.”

Retail-me-not

While digital parties and programs are encouraging cannabis fans to stay put, dispensaries will do the same. That’s a sea change from previous 4/20 tactics that intended to drive foot traffic.

“In the past, you’d see consumers going from one dispensary to the next, taking advantage of all the specials. This year will be very different."
—Steve DeAngelo, co-founder, Harborside dispensary

DeAngelo says the typical 4/20 has involved “really juicy deals” and fierce competition between venues. 

“In the past, you’d see consumers going from one dispensary to the next, taking advantage of all the specials,” he says. “This year will be very different, and it’s entirely appropriate for the holiday to get reconfigured.”


@TLStanleyLA terry.stanley@adweek.com T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.
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