Seattle Hempfest

The last major summer hemp festival of the century took place on a surprisingly sunny Sunday August afternoon at Myrtle Edwards Park on the waterfront in downtown Seattle, Washington.
Described by medical marijuana advocate Dennis Peron as “the best single-day event in the pot movement,” 1999’s Seattle Hempfest was the biggest ever.

“We’ve been doing Hempfest since 1991,” explained Vivian McPeak, the event’s director. “We topped the crowd estimates for 1995, which was a very big year. It’s estimated that between 55,000 and 65,000 people were in the park during peak attendance in mid-afternoon. The weather helped, and we were very happy about the way city officials handled Hempfest this year.”

Police cooperation

McPeak hasn’t always been happy with Seattle officials. In 1997, the city’s Park Department turned on sprinklers the night before Hempfest.

“We had laid out all our electronic gear and power cords, so the water fried everything,” McPeak recalled. “On Sunday during the event, it rained, and that ruined the equipment we had brought in to replace the stuff damaged by the sprinklers. And then the Seattle police stepped in to help ruin what had already been a very hard day.”

At the ’97 show, Seattle police officers from the City’s west precinct ran roughshod over peaceful, pot-smoking visitors, arresting dozens and harassing hundreds more. Police on horseback, foot and bike criss-crossed the crowd, causing a poisonous air of paranoia.

McPeak and Seattle Hempfest attorney Jeffrey Steinborn spent the next two years demanding agreements that limited how the City could interfere in future Hempfests. 1998’s event went better than 1997’s, and Steinborn told Cannabis Culture that the 1999 event was almost guaranteed to be free of overwhelming police presence.

Steinborn’s optimistic prediction came true, in large part because the City of Seattle decided not to send its police force to Hempfest. Instead, the event was managed by McPeak’s 425 volunteers and by six Port of Seattle police officers.

“I don’t believe there were any arrests this year,” McPeak said later. “We really want to thank the Port police, and the crowd, and the volunteers. This proves that pot-people can come together peacefully and that the city can treat us with respect.” A Port of Seattle police officer, who spoke to Cannabis Culture with a guarantee of anonymity, said that the difference in police tactics resulted from “the fact that Seattle PD didn’t show up.”

“The Port has a different view of things,” the officer said. “We are not here to ruin this event. The organizers pledged to make this a law-abiding and safe afternoon. They have done so. We have had very little to do. In fact, this is the best-run, safest and most pleasant event we have ever seen. I wish every large gathering would be this well-mannered and pleasant.”

McPeak said he believes that “the times are changing.”

“It’s so much better than the bad old days. This time, [the police]were dumping bowls out and returning the pipes,” he said. “The only people who caused any trouble at all were people that were OD’ed on alcohol. Almost everything was handled by our staff, and the police were professional and restrained. This is the kind of treatment we should have had all along.”

Music and politics

McPeak is something of a miracle worker. Even though he’s a medical pot user who suffers severe, debilitating pain arising from a chronic neural condition, he manages to find the money, the bands, the volunteers, the sponsors and the
organizational professionalism necessary to put on a huge event like Hempfest.

He had his work cut out for him this year. Four stages featuring bands and speakers, food booths, hemp vendors and non-profit organizations formed the core of the festival, which stretched for nearly a mile along Puget Sound.

McPeak put together a powerful and eclectic musical and political menu. Some of the Northwest’s most popular bands: Floater, the Toyes, Old Lady Litterbug, Swamp Mama Johnson, Herbivores, Napier’s Bones, Katya Chorover, and others, rocked the crowd underneath a blazing sun. The sound mix on every stage was clear as a bell; visitors commented that it was amazing to attend a free event and hear such a wide variety of quality music in a comfortable, hassle-free venue.

Political speech-making was also important. Jack Herer, Dennis Peron, Steve Hager, Dana Larsen, Chris Conrad, Nora Callahan, and dozens of other authors, attorneys, entertainers and activists delivered a relentless message decrying the drug war and pleading with the crowd to become politically involved in the fight for cannabis legalization.

Horror stories

Hemp festivals have a dual mission: they strive to be entertaining while delivering a somewhat disconcerting social protest message. Some of those who appeared on McPeak’s stage had especially difficult stories to tell; some members of the crowd seemed annoyed that their desire to smoke lots of pot, watch sexy bods, and hear great bands was intruded upon by the harsh realities of the drug war.

Laureth and Matthew Little told the crowd that government goons tried to steal their baby.

“They didn’t like the way we looked,” Laureth Little said, referring to nurses at the hospital where she gave birth to baby daughter Araminta last June. “So they did a blood test, and found that the baby tested positive for cannabinoids.”

Only a few hours later, officials from Washington State’s Child Protective Services were in the new mother’s hospital room.

“They threatened to charge me with delivering a controlled substance to a minor,” she said. “They told me I couldn’t breastfeed the baby. They forced me to sign an agreement stating that they could come into our home, test me and the baby, and that I had to pump and dump my breast milk for nearly two months and test clean before I could breastfeed. They said that if the baby died of
SIDS [Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which has never been linked to cannabis ingestion], I would be charged with manslaughter. If I made one mistake or refused to sign the agreement, they’d take the baby away and put her in a foster home.”

The Little’s testimony saddened the crowd. The theme of drug war brutality continued when another speaker, Washington resident Michelle Miles, told how police had seized her family’s $375,000 home.

“They sentenced my husband to nearly five years in prison, and we lost everything, all because some snitch set us up to get caught with a half pound
of marijuana. I have never spoken like this in public before,” Miles said, “but I feel that I have to bear witness to what this government has done to us.”

Satisfaction and uncertainty

As the sun set on Hempfest ’99, McPeak reflected on cannabis politics, his “Hemp Coalition,” and the people who helped make Hempfest possible.

“We’re proud to have so many volunteers, so many talented, dedicated people who make this event function like clockwork,” he said. “We walk the walk, with people of all colors, sexual orientations and ages in our coalition. We are
proud to have many women, people of color, and gay/bisexual people helping us. They are fantastic, and so are the sponsors, especially Cannabis Culture, who helped us meet our budget. We’re a team. We showed that pot smokers aren’t lazy nincompoops who are incapable of doing anything well.”

During the event’s 4:20 celebration, McPeak told the crowd how he had turned his anti-drug dad on to pot during the last days of his dad’s life. He also talked about the toll that running a non-profit hemp event has taken on his life: money is in short supply; McPeak says he has sacrificed his health and financial security to subsidize Hempfest.

McPeak and his allies have other worries: the City plans to dig up Myrtle Edwards Park in an effort to stop raw sewage from pouring into the waters off Seattle.

“It’s kind of ironic that just when we learned how to put on a flawless event, and the police are treating us with respect, and the crowds are bigger than ever, now we have to look for a new place to do this. The park is not going to be available. We hope to find private land, a place where people can medicate and dance more freely, a place with better parking. Hempfest lives on, no
matter what.”

Vivian McPeak is looking for assistance in putting on next year’s Hempfest.
Send donations and information to: The Hemp Coalition, 916 65th Ave NE, Suite
269, Seattle, Washington, 98115-6751;