OPINION: Cannabis conferences are expensive to attend, snuffing out attendance by many from low-income groups

Steep fees, pricey travel costs and high accommodation tabs work against giving everyone a seat at the table

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"Access to these audiences is a critical consideration and a privilege, which should afford others the opportunity to speak from different social spaces and backgrounds." Pictured above, Jenna Valleriani, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and strategic advisor for Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

Late in January, researchers, policy-makers, law enforcement representatives and government officials met in Los Angeles for the North American Cannabis Summit (NACS) that attracted attendees from all across North America. Framed as an industry-free conference, the program touched on a variety of critical cannabis issues, including education, public safety and public health, and boasted attracting the “best of the best” in the space.

 

 

Conferences like this can be extremely valuable—they allow everyone to network, share their work, and listen to the work others have done. However, participation in these key events is subject to extensive gatekeeping through steep fees and pricey travel and accommodation.

While this built-in inaccessibility is common to other high-profile conferences, few engage in a forthright discussion on how these fees systemically weed out individuals who are low income, unfunded students, community organizations, medical cannabis patients, and some, especially early career, professionals. While there are often some opportunities for grant funding and reduced admissions fees, there is often less transparency around how these actually shake out, including feedback around selection criteria.

When bringing together some of the cutting-edge work on cannabis and related policy, it’s important to ask, Who has the privilege of sharing knowledge, and more importantly: who gets to hear it?

Registration fees only part of a laundry list of costs

The price of registration at major conferences alone, often closes the door for many. Consider instances, such as NACS, where registration came in around $1,200, and attendance also required air or other travel, hotel accommodation, food and arranging child or pet care. This may be a standard cost for industry conferences, where the assumption is businesses are able to pay these steep fees, but this should not be the case for policy and academic conferences. While there are those who may have access to conference funding through work or schools, this almost always requires payment upfront and out of pocket, to be reimbursed by their institution later.

 

 

The aforementioned isn’t an option for everyone. There are many, particularly those working with smaller organizations on the ground and those with lived experiences, that have meaningful contributions to make to this larger cannabis conversation, and will continue to be excluded despite making significant impacts in their communities.

With these high price tags, access to a potentially illuminating range of diversity in opinion, study and life experience is being limited. Consider when cannabis is discussed as a potential substitution therapy for opiates, or when talk turns to the disproportionate impacts of cannabis laws on vulnerable communities: Are people with lived experience given space to share their experiences with government officials, law enforcement, academics and policy-makers—the latter arguably the movers and shakers of North American cannabis policy?

“Ensuring these groups have a seat at the table, and that these events are accessible to a range of people interested in the development of cannabis policy, is not only good practice—it’s imperative.” Tijana Martin / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Access to these audiences is a critical consideration and a privilege, which should afford others the opportunity to speak from different social spaces and backgrounds. Researching or creating policy affecting certain groups also demands that those being researched, and the organizations that work alongside them, benefit from the knowledge being produced. Ensuring these groups have a seat at the table, and that these events are accessible to a range of people interested in the development of cannabis policy, is not only good practice—it’s imperative.

 

Jenna Valleriani is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and strategic advisor for Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Researching cannabis since 2013, Valleriani’s current work focuses on the instrumental uses of cannabis among people who use drugs and community-based distribution programs in Vancouver’s downtown eastside.

 

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