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“Free the People, Free the Plant”: The 2019 NYC Cannabis Parade

The crowd at Union Square Park attending the annual NYC Cannabis Parade & Rally. All photos (C) Becca Giampolo.

By Becca Giampolo

On Saturday May 4th, cannabis advocates, industry experts, elected officials and self-appointed connoisseurs flocked to Union Square Park for the annual NYC Cannabis Parade & Rally. What started as a “Smoke-In”, organized by the Yippies in 1973, has since evolved into a full-fledged, two-part event with revolutionary, real-world effects.

Now organized by Steve Bloom, editor in chief of Freedom Leaf Magazine and publisher of CelebStoner.com, and Empire State NORML (the New York chapter of the National Organization for Marijuana Laws, about to have its 50th anniversary), the current incarnation of the NYC Cannabis Parade & Rally is truly a channel for social change. At its core, it’s also a celebration, a breeding ground for good vibes and a gathering of like-minded people with a passion for reform. Speakers of every age, gender and ethnicity graced the stage to explain their personal relationship with the plant, as well as enlighten and inform the public about its positive aspects. They touched on every relevant topic, from medical use, to legal distribution, to the heart of the movement: civil rights.

Representation was wide. The message was clear. As a first-time attendee, I didn’t know what to expect. But I think Jake Plowden and Nelson Guerrero, co-founders of the Cannabis Cultural Association, an organization that advocates for social justice and diversity in the industry, summarized it best when they had the whole crowd chanting: “FREE THE PEOPLE. FREE THE PLANT.”

Nelson Guerrero and Jake Plowden of Cannabis Cultural Association

The rally started around 1pm, after the parade of activists marched into the park holding a large, inflatable joint that read: “Tax Don’t Jail, Deschedule Cannabis Now!” Despite the morning mist, the sun appeared just in time, which felt like a metaphor of sorts, as if the heavens were shining a light of approval from above.

One of the first speakers was crowd-favorite Arlene Williams (aka Ganja Granny), who used her time on stage to empower women. “Cannabis is the common denominator. The days of women standing behind men are over. We don’t want to stand behind a man, and we don’t want a man standing behind us,” she shouted. “We want to be standing side by side.” And to that I say: Amen, sister.

Arlene Williams the Ganja Granny, left, and emcee Joy Beckerman, right

Another noteworthy speaker, Brittany Carbone, founder and CEO of Tonic, a prominent CBD brand that creates products using handcrafted blends, asked attendees to “focus on the true meaning of this plant: love and healing.”

NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams delivered a moving speech where he reiterated the far-reaching effects the War on Drugs has had on people of color. “Police make money off the criminalization,” he proclaimed. “No one should make money off marijuana until Black and Brown communities have access to sell the thing that will be legal.”

NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams onstage at the Cannabis Parade & Rally

The event was moderated by Joy Beckerman, president of the Hemp Industries Association, and Tanya Osborne, NYC Market Leader for Women Grow (a women-run entity that empowers the next generation of leaders in the cannabis community). It was filled with live entertainment, free education and a sense of community I have never personally been privy to. Musical acts including SoulCake, the High and Mighty Brass Band, the CCB Reggae All Stars and Clip Payne’s 420 Funk Mob had the crowd grooving in high (no pun intended) spirits; while artists like Cambatta and Scribe the Verbalist leveraged the power of spoken word mixed with a steady beat to highlight their love of marijuana.

Rapper Cambatta performs in the name of social justice
SoulCake provided smooth grooves onstage
Emcee Tanya Osborne reminds the crowd why their presence matters

Sponsors included Sensi Seeds, Etain Health (New York’s first women-owned dispensary), PrestoDoctor, SunBud Solutions, Curved Papers, CannaGather, Tonic, and TribeTokes. Each group set up a booth in the back of the park, behind the massive conglomeration of people, where they handed out free reading material and fun stickers to support the increasingly popular cannabis cause.

As the event came to a close, I—as well as everyone else in attendance—left with a fresh, educated outlook, armed with a new “Cannabis Commitment.” That is, to “ensure the industry looks just like this group. Every color. Every gender.”

And as the journey to legalization continues, that is certainly a sentiment I can stand behind. So, in the famous words of Bob Marley: “Let’s get together and feel alright.”

The CCB Reggae All-Stars honored Bob Marley with soulful tunes

To learn more about the NYC Cannabis Parade and Empire State NORML, visit cannabisparade.org and nynorml.org respectively.

Becca Giampolo is a full-time fashion copywriter and a die-hard Delevingner. She spends her weekdays pulling together layered ‘fits. Her weekends are spent pursuing creative endeavors or participating in brunch.

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