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“It Feels Surreal:” Attendees And Dispensaries Fill Riverfront Park In First Niles Cannabis Festival

On July 31, Niles hosted its first ever recreational cannabis festival. And from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. the city’s riverfront park was filled with dispensaries, vendors, live music and people.

The Niles Cannabis Festival had been in the works for several months. Attendees could browse cannabis products from seven dispensaries and even consume them on site in two specially designated areas.


The festival also featured live music and entertainment from five acts, 25 vendors, four food trucks, a gaming area, free water and a photo booth.


George Pitenturf is the head of purchasing at the ReLeaf Center, a medical and recreational dispensary in Niles. He came dressed for the occasion in a suit patterned with marijuana leaves, complete with a tie and matching sunglasses. He said it’s his way of networking.


“I didn’t sew it myself,” he said. “I want people to come up and talk to me. I want people to ask me questions about our dispensary and other people’s dispensaries.”


ReLeaf was selling a variety of cannabis products — including edibles, chocolates, gummies, cartridges and waxes — all grown and made in Michigan. 


“Niles is allowing us to do that in the city,” Pitenturf said. “They’re really big supporters. If you have the support of the city, of the local municipalities, you’re going to go far.”


Mike Vlasich is the owner of Mother Nurtures, a dispensary located about two hours north in Big Rapids. He’s been a cannabis user since age 16, and said the festival was going fabulously.


“We were ready at 10:01, and we’ve had a steady stream of people,” Vlasich said. “It could go anywhere between $10,000 and $20,000, $30,000 — it just depends. We don’t know how much product we’re going to sell, but if we sell most of our product, I think we’ll do pretty good.”


He said never thought he’d see something like it in his lifetime.


“It feels surreal,” Vlasich said. “I want to give a shout out to the city of Niles, Mayor Nick Shelton and the whole town council for taking the risk on this. Because it is to show what cannabis is — it’s not evil, it’s not going back to the days of reefer madness or things like that.”


Mel Spencely is one of the festival’s organizers. She said as of Saturday morning, tickets were almost sold out.


Due to the pandemic, they split the festival into two halves to manage crowd size — 500 people in the morning, and another 500 in the evening, plus about 100 staff.


“We have a great turnout,” Spencely said. “Things are going really well, but we’re definitely learning — we’ve had a couple of parking issues and things like that.”


Spencely even gave 100 free tickets to the Niles Senior Center. She said got the idea from her parents — her mom is 79 years old and uses CBD to manage pain.


“They have had so many people come in — they were calling and wanted to come to the cannabis festival,” Spencely said. “And I tell them, I go ‘Well, today’s your lucky day. You just got 100 free tickets.’”


And attendee Janet Stancliff said she’s very excited to be at her first cannabis festival. She’s been using it since she was 14, except while raising her children.


“We’ve all been kind of hiding in the shadows, you know.” Stancliff said. “Even with the dispensaries open now and everything, people — especially my age, I’m in my mid 60s — are a little hesitant that the people you go to church with are going to see you go into the dispensary.”


Stancliff grew up in Traverse City, but has lived in Los Angeles for the past 40 years. Now, she’s retiring and looking to move back to Michigan — and legal cannabis “absolutely” impacted her decision.


“I will move to Michigan, not Indiana,” Stancliff said. “I’m staying there, so I can’t buy anything and bring it home tonight. I don’t want to get busted, although those policemen on the top of the hill are awfully cute.”


The festival had EMTs on site, and security from both a private company and Niles police officers.


Michigan resident Brad Flora also attended the festival. He’s a combat veteran, and has been using marijuana for several years to manage pain.


“I don’t really agree with pills, because I know a lot of other vets have gotten addicted to them,” Flora said. “It’s not the right road for a lot of people.”


One Indiana couple drove threehours from Indianapolis to attend the festival. They didn’t want to give their names as marijuana is not legal in Indiana, but the man said he hoped to see it legalized there as well.


“I’ve seen cannabis help a lot of people with a multitude of different problems,” he said. “Indiana is really behind the ball on even the medical legalization of cannabis.”


Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb has said he won’t sign any marijuana legalization legislation unless the federal government legalizes it first.


Michigan legalized medical cannabis in 2008 and recreational cannabis in 2018, both via state ballot initiative. The first recreational dispensaries opened in December 2019.


Spencely said the festival followed Centers for Disease control regulations. It was outside, so no masks were required despite a nationwide rise in cases due to the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant. Attendees could also present their Covid-19 vaccine card for a free gift.


And if you feel like you missed out, don’t worry. Spencely said the July 31 festival was sort of a trial run — they are planning to do a larger version of the event in Niles on September 25.


Contact Jakob at or follow him on Twitter at @JakobLazzaro.


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Jakob Lazzaro comes to Indiana from Chicago, where he graduated from Northwestern University in 2020 with a degree in Journalism and a double major in History. Before joining WVPE, he wrote NPR's Source of the Week e-mail newsletter, and previously worked for CalMatters, Pittsburgh's 90.5 WESA and North by Northwestern.