How to Stage a Hempfest

In planning and organizing a hemp festival, or “Hempfest”, you must figure out many things: location, stages, bands and speakers, vendors, volunteers, insurance, local and state laws, stage electricians, security, bathrooms, advertising, sponsors and more. Seattle Hempfest, held over two days on a beautiful stretch of beach, has been the biggest marijuana legalization event in the world for over 15 years and is the model for aspiring hemp festival organizers. It was started by a small Seattle activist group known as the Peace Heathens, but now boasts a 1,000-plus volunteer staff and hosts over 100,000 attendees.

In October 2004, I decided to organize a Hempfest in Spokane, Washington. I got a group together to volunteer at various Hempfests to give us insight on how they are run. Seattle Hempfest Director Vivian McPeak was always willing to answer my questions, and their entertainment-booking manager Jim Matheson was also invaluable with his advice. On top of seeking out the Seattle organizers, we researched and met local activist groups in our area and abroad with the help of the internet and magazines like High Times and Cannabis Culture.

The first Spokane Hempfest was held over two days in August 2005. It was free for everyone to attend and our costs were easily contained, as sponsors and vendors covered most of the bills. A local rock-and-roll newspaper was willing to run generous advertisements and be our official Hempfest graphic designer, so in no time we had business cards and were running full-page ads within a 50-mile radius. We were able to run ads in two of the local newspapers, and got mentioned in five others (free promotion). Even though the local cable company would not take our television ads, local radio stations had no qualms running our spots. After all the newspapers and news channels covered our second Hempfest, however, the cable company has reconsidered running our commercial for 2007! We put posters and fliers all over town and received special permission to advertise at our local colleges – we were even able to get students to run stories in their campus papers. It’s very important to appear in the local alternative and weekly papers in your area, especially if the advertising rates are cheap and the editors are willing to run edgy new ideas and promotions. We easily gave out hundreds of shirts and pipes and other various promo items to spread the word that Hempfest was coming.

We chose to hold the first Hempfest in our beautiful and popular downtown Riverfront Park. Obtaining permission to use the park required attaining park insurance with a $1-million liability, which was done through the City of Spokane’s Risk Management Department the first year and an outside company the second year. We were also required to have security and first aid facilities in place. After obtaining the permits and paying for insurance, we went through four meetings with the City Parks Department before finally getting the go-ahead. Each town and park is different, so find out the guidelines as to what type of stages, sound equipment, and vending booths you can have. For example, we were allowed glass vendors as long as an “18+ years only” sign was clearly visible, but we couldn’t sell any drinks because the city has beverage rights for local events. While in the permit process, we were advertising in the local media, networking with other hemp festivals and movement leaders, lining up bands, seeking out sponsors and vendors, and hosting public meetings to recruit anyone interested in helping.

Cops patrolling Nimbin Mardi Grass.Cops patrolling Nimbin Mardi Grass.Volunteers are the backbone of a Hempfest. By having public meetings you are able to tap into the talent of the community and find people with great assets to bring to the movement. Our meetings started with about eight people showing up; a few meetings later we had more than sixty people in attendance, and had met new activists living right under our noses. Our first year we had 100 volunteers, and the second year saw 200-plus. Artists designed fliers, web designers built websites, and countless friends acted as security staff and filled “job” positions. The first year we had 150 shirt-wearing staff members; the second year we had 300. Shirts and meals are provided to the volunteers for their services.

Other than volunteers, it is the sponsors and vendors who support Spokane Hempfest. Sponsors were not easy to get but we did find marijuana lawyers Patrick Stiley and Frank Cikotovitch, bail bondsmen, a couple of criminal lawyers, magazine sales A Nimbin volunteer oversees the crowd below.A Nimbin volunteer oversees the crowd below.companies, private citizens – and even pet stores! One of our sponsors provided our entire staff with t-shirts adorned with the official Hempfest logo, which allowed them to put our logos on their many different products – key chains, hats, mugs, etc. – to make up the cost of providing free shirts. Other finances were raised in the months beforehand by enlisting local bands to play benefit concerts and holding raffles with promotional items from local head shops. We were given literature to hand out from educational drug policy groups, had three stage areas, and hosted speakers and over 80 bands (the stages and sound system were donated). There were 27 various vendors and a few nonprofit organizations occupying booths, and two food vendors, including a pizza stand that supplied event staff and volunteers with free pizza.

The second Spokane Hempfest was held on August 5-6, 2006 and had double the attendance and entertainment, 57 vendors (including four for food), 15 non-profit education booths, and a roped-off air-conditioned camper and teepee behind the main stage for the VIP section. We traveled around the park on four-wheelers, which were the only donated items.

Hosting a bigger event came with a slew of new expenses for professional stages and sound equipment (complete with electricians); fees for increased vending booths; first aid facilities; parking permits; many more posters, banners, business cards, and programs; airline tickets and accommodation for big-name speakers such as Ed Rosenthal; limousine and van service (depending on who your musical performers or guests are); increased advertising fees; and providing food for the volunteers and bands, which we did with a huge barbecue. Don’t forget to supply vegan and organic foods, as you’ll probably have many vegetarians and environmentally conscious volunteers.

We want to help people organize Hempfests, so we plan to launch Hempfest Nation Magazine to focus on education, ending prohibition, and connecting hemp activists from coast to coast. It was the overwhelming support from hemp festivals and activist groups that really made the difference for Spokane Hempfest. We hope to see you in Washington state on the first weekend of August 2007!

• The Spokane Hempfest Hotline is (509) 217-2943. Visit our websitevs: