The final fest

Bill Conde is a feisty redneck-hippie-businessman who spent three decades building a lumber business in the broad, flat valley north of Eugene, Oregon.
As soon as he’d made enough money, he began spending it on political activism, music festivals and counterculture parties. He took 30 acres of flat, dry land next to Interstate 5, and turned it into a gathering place for Deadheads, mind expansionists, homeless waifs, vegetarian vendors, bright-eyed hippie chicks, and a collection of volunteers and staffers crazy enough to create multi-day events filled with music, sex, drugs, activism and family fun.

My first visit to Conde’s compound was in 1997, when High Times magazine used his venue to run its WHEE festival. High Times came back in 1998 for WHEE2, but Conde now says that the relationship between his staff and the magazine’s event coordinators was dissonant and counterproductive.

“People had been trying to stop our parties for many years before WHEE,” Conde says, “but the way High Times handled it gave the cops and my other enemies some excuses to come down real hard on me. I was already on the cops’ shit list, but after WHEE I was really in the toilet!”

According to Conde, Linn County Sheriff Dave Burright and a team of battle-ready officers raided Conde during Labor Day weekend in 1998.

“We were having our annual Cannabis Carnival that weekend,” Conde recalls. “My wife and I were especially happy, because we had been living in the Conde’s Redwood Lumber Office, with our two kids, and finally had been able to afford a manufactured home. And then they came in and took all our computers, trashed the house, terrorized my children, threatened to deport my wife, tried to seize my business and property, and filed a bunch of bullshit charges against me.”

Those charges, which Conde says primarily came from alleged undercover police observations during the WHEE festivals, included “aiding and abetting the distribution or transfer of unknown controlled substances to or by unknown individuals.”

“From what I can determine, the cops were on my private property, interfering with my audience, trying to get them to sell or buy dope, and not having any success,” explains Conde. “So they charge me with a bunch of vague crap that doesn’t make any sense. They ruin my lumber business and my reputation. They give my kids nightmares. It made me realize that the America I loved is gone.”

The last waltz

After the 1998 arrest, and another set of charges laid on him in 1999, Conde decided to give up on America. His wife is from Belize, so he went there, built a thatched-roof home, and met with the Belizean Minister of Agriculture to talk about growing industrial hemp in Belize.

“It’s a Third World country to some people,” the 57-year-old Conde says, “but to me it is more free and safe than the United States. The people are better, and the government is better. I feel so good down there. I don’t have to worry about lying cops, bureaucrats, and rip-offs who were supposed to be my friends.”

Conde’s supporters in Oregon convinced him to do one last “hemp festival,” and Conde reluctantly agreed. Linn County authorities responded by passing a special ordinance designed to prevent Conde from having festivals.

To their amazement, Conde and his team put together an 82 page event plan that complied with the draconian anti-Conde ordinance.

“They had no choice but to let us do this event,” Conde said.

So, in mid-July, Conde’s land again hosted a counterculture carnival, filled with 10,000 people, bands, vendors, tribal rhythms, marijuana, and mushroooms.

The famous 70 foot high electric sign that faces the freeway read: “Our last World Hemp Festival.”

Cops and crusaders

Fool Numero Uno, an anti-pot crusader named John English, was in his usual position at the end of the road leading to Conde’s parking lot as I drove in to the event on the Friday it opened.

In 1998 and 1999, I had stopped and talked to English, a fundamentalist fanatic who stands next to the road holding signs that say “Ask the DA to confiscate Conde’s land.”

English is living proof that Satan might actually exist, so I avoided him this year. A friend of mine talked to him. He told me English was gloating about Conde’s financial ruin and legal problems, but was angry that authorities had allowed the festival to take place.

Uptight people like English are the only ones who couldn’t find fun in this year’s event. Even Sheriff Burright, who talked to me as he strolled through the venue, couldn’t find much to complain about.

“These people look pretty harmless,” Burright said. “There’s too much dope smoking going on, but what can you expect ? it’s Bill’s event.”

Burright and his officers maintained a non-intrusive stance, although the private security team that the ordinance had required Conde to hire was overzealous and unprofessional in searching people and confiscating pot and shrooms.

As the event ended Sunday night, it appeared that few if any people had been arrested or detained on drug charges.

One officer said that the most serious crime he’d heard about occurred when a 350 pound man and his less-portly female partner jumped onstage and disrobed.

“The guy was huge and very white,” the officer said. “I think that most people felt that this was indecent exposure. He bent over with his back to the crowd. None of us had the heart to arrest him.”

Yearning for freedom

The Conde World Hemp Festival, almost killed by government harassment and financial problems, was largely a success. Its final hours were marred by an early closure order that Conde received via telephone from the sheriff’s department, which meant that the event’s highly popular glass competition wasn’t rewarded by a proper awards ceremony.

Conde came on the stage, and in a voice choked with rage and sadness, told the crowd that he had been ordered to end the event or face police action to clear his property of all visitors.

The impeccable and suave master of ceremonies, Michael John, had earlier asked me to fill in for him during closing ceremonies. He strolled off into the distance, crossed Conde’s fence to where his plane sat on a tiny airport runway, and flew off just as Bill was delivering his final farewell to the crowd. Michael circled the venue once, tipped his wings in salute, then headed into the ether.

The next day, I visited Bill, and noticed that he had put a for sale sign up.

“We showed that we could jump through all their stupid hoops, we put on a good clean party without any problems, and now we can move on,” Conde said. “I am ready to sell everything I have built here and move to Belize. Ruby is going to be bringing another Conde into the world soon, and I want that baby born in a free country.”

As I drove away from Oregon, I silently applauded Bill Conde’s courage and the sheriff’s restraint. Lots of people were smoking pot and tripping on shrooms at Conde’s festival, but the cops had walked by them without incident.

Having had my ribs kicked in at a hemp festival in early July, I knew how bad police could be, and how negligent hemp festival promoters could be. Whatever flaws people attribute to Conde, he’d at least prevented police from brutalizing his audience during the festivals I had attended on his land. He’d brought in great musical acts and speakers, and had provided enough food, water and toilets for his guests. He’d put together a staff of volunteers and employees who cared about the audience and Conde’s reputation. And he’d done it while facing serious criminal charges.

As for the larger lessons learned, I yearn for a time when the cannabis culture can meet publicly and without fear in America, on private and public land, to ingest herb, listen to music, dance, make love, network, activate.

We desperately need people who care enough, and who are bright enough, to stand down the police, to find the money to pay for crowd amenities, to bring in popular pro-pot bands, to do quality multi-media advertising, to provide education and entertainment for all ages and all types of people.

Right now, the Seattle Hempfest is the only event that comes close to this dream of an ideal hemp event, and it’s too short, lasting only one day.

Why do I care? Because pot gatherings are spiritual and necessary. As Conde said before the microphone was yanked from his hand by an anxious handler, “Someday, people will drive by here, and all they’ll see is an empty field of grass, driven down by the wind, with a few sticks poking up, and they’ll never know the family and spirit we created. It will never be the same, it will never live again, because you won’t be here.”