Seattle Hempfest’s 20th Anniversary and Beyond: An Interview with Vivian McPeak

Vivian McPeak, executive director of Seattle Hempfest, on stage at this year's event. Photos by Jeremiah VandermeerVivian McPeak, executive director of Seattle Hempfest, on stage at this year’s event. Photos by Jeremiah VandermeerBy any scale of measurement, Seattle Hempfest is undoubtedly a huge achievement.

With an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 in attendance and an unpaid volunteer army of over 1000 rallied every year at three large waterfront parks in downtown Seattle, it easily takes the title of ‘Biggest Marijuana- and Hemp-Related Event on the Planet’.

With a permit from City Hall and the cooperation of local law enforcement, the gathering has grown to be one of the city’s prominent tourist attractions, overflowing local hotels and taxi cabs with skunky-smelling patrons from locations across the globe.

The 20th Anniversary of Hempfest, held this year from August 19 – 21, was another big success. According to Hempfest co-founder and Executive Director Vivian McPeak, 2011 may have been the festival’s greatest year so far.

“2011 was the hardest year of my entire 52 years on this planet,” McPeak told me in a telephone interview a week after Hempfest. “We’re talking anxiety and stress at critical levels. Now I know why it was so stressful – because we were putting together the best Hempfest ever. Everything just worked. How can I question it after all of my prayers have been answered?”

Earlier this year, it looked like Hempfest 2011 might not even happen due to construction of a pedestrian footbridge planned by the City of Seattle at one of the waterfront parks. McPeak was forced to file a lawsuit against the city before the Mayor’s office finally relented and agreed to let the event continue – and have a permit for three days instead of two.

Storm clouds were also on the minds of Hempfest organizers – as usual.

“In Seattle, if you are a promoter, you know that the weather is the Big Unknown that no amount of pre-production or planning or money can do anything about,” McPeak said. “It ended up being the best weekend we had seen in a year in Seattle.”

I was fortunate enough to attend this year’s Hempfest on all three days, and had an enlightening and uplifting time meeting and conversing with many of my favorite cannabis luminaries. Some well-known cannabis freedom-fighters, including Douglas Hiatt, Russ Belville and Jodie Emery, took to three main stages to give passionate speeches about Drug War politics and inform the large crowds of the latest developments in cannabis movement.

This year featured appearances by several politicians including U.S. Congressman Dennis Kucinich, Democratic members of the Washington House of Representatives Roger Goodman and Mary Lou Dickerson, and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn.

Hundreds of vendor and activist booths stretched out along the green waterside hills, giving out free information and selling everything one would find at a local head shop and much more. Whether looking for the latest glass smoking technology, some hemp soap or ice cream, or information about the Marijuana Policy Project or other groups, I didn’t have to travel far down the concrete paths that weave through the park’s grassy embankments.

Hempfest can also boast its status as one of the largest multi-day music festivals in the United States, with an eclectic mix of bands from genres including rock, jazz, funk, folk, metal, electronica, reggae and hip-hop. Smoked-out rap/rock crew Kottonmouth Kings headlined this year with about 100 other bands and artists on the slate.

“When I saw that we had Congressman Kucinich, Mayor McGinn, the Kottonmouth Kings – I saw all of it – I was blown away,” McPeak said. “I knew the perfect Hempfest was lining up.”

I took over 500 photos and videos at Hempfest 2011. View the CC photo gallery or watch video here, here, and here.

Meet Vivian McPeak

If there’s anyone in a position to know what elements come together to make a good Hempfest, it’s Vivian McPeak.

As the co-founder and long-time lead organizer of Hempfest, McPeak has been through the good times and bad since the festival’s humble beginnings in the early 90s. McPeak, an anti-war activist, musician, and organizer of local benefit shows conceived the Hempfest concept at a meeting of the statewide chapter of NORML with a man he had just met named named Gary Cook. Cook, a producer of punk shows in Oregon during the 80s, had found Jack Herer’s seminal book about hemp and marijuana, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, and the two men were excited to discover many hidden secrets of the cannabis plant. Cook wanted to produce an event that would promote cannabis awareness and McPeak was the man with the know-how and connections to pull it off.

The Washington Hemp Expo ’91, as it was called in its first year, was a surprise success, with hundreds in attendance to hear live music and special keynote speaker Jack Herer. The original event took place in Seattle’s Volunteer Park, less than five miles from the waterfront parks Hempfest now calls home. The rest is history.

The Protestival

That history, or as McPeak likes to say, “hempstory”, has just been preserved in a new 20-year retrospective book about Hempfest called Protestival. McPeak, the book’s author, was asked to write it in the months leading up to Hempfest 2011 and was given very little time to complete the task.

“I was given one month to write it,” he said. “30 days, and I almost had a heart attack. We were already five months behind because of the permit battle with the city. We had no idea what was going to happen but when we finally figured it out, all of a sudden there was this book deal. I had to help plan Hempfest while I was writing the book and it was very challenging.”

Vivian McPeak signing a copy of his new book Protestival for Princess of Pot Jodie Emery.Vivian McPeak signing a copy of his new book Protestival for Princess of Pot Jodie Emery.McPeak, who has always worked as an unpaid volunteer, described some of the other challenges associated with running such a large event – one that is free of charge and fundraises strictly by donation.

“We’ve been operating for 20 years without an office, out of our homes, very frugally with the absolute minimum,” he said. “The whole event costs less than $400,000 a year. No one else is doing an event of that size for less than $400,000 anywhere, I can guarantee that. It’s a multimillion dollar event if anyone else is doing it with those numbers.”

Charging for admission may at first seem like a viable solution to money woes, McPeak said, but is actually an impossibility.

“We’re never going to charge money for Hempfest as long as it’s a free speech rally,” he said. “Number one, we can’t or we will lose our free speech constitutional protection and they won’t have to give us a permit. Number two, we don’t want to prevent anybody from coming to hear our message of reform and responsibility and charging money is going to prevent some people from coming.”

Financial concerns are just one of many hurdles Hempfest organizers must leap every year. Others include dealing with law enforcement and local corporate interests, and the massive clean-up process that continues for more than a week after the event shuts down.

This year, Hempfest organizers met with the Seattle police department at the state Homeland Security operations center to discuss safety plans and other details before the event.

“It was strange but exciting,” McPeak said. “They had pictures of our crowds up on the big flat screen monitors. Just doing that is historic. No pot rally organizers have ever been hanging out with the cops in their command center station on some positive communication level – where they’re like, ‘Hey man, how can we help?’ That was cool.”

As far as safety concerns went, this year was a 100% success, McPeak said.

“Legalizing pot is a secondary goal, the first goal is that nobody gets hurt,” he said. “And if you can pull something that big off, all volunteer and nobody gets hurt, that’s a victory.”

The Meaning of Hempfest

In the glossy, magazine-style program made for this year’s event, McPeak calls the last 19 years of Hempfest a “testament to the responsible, peaceful nature of the Pacific Northwest cannabis culture.” In our conversation, he gave me further insight into the meaning of Hempfest.

“I like to say that Hempfest is a demonstration against prohibition, but it is also a demonstration of what cannabis enthusiasts are capable of and what bullshit the stereotypes are,” he said. “We have to define it as what it really is – prohibition is hate. It is the last refuge of hate. They hated the Blacks, they hated the Mexicans, they hated the Gays, they hated the Arabs, and now there is really only one group in America you can get away with hating on really hard and no one will defend them – and that’s us. Prohibition is a hate movement and this is the opposite. Hempfest is about love.”

The Road Ahead

Hempfest has evolved considerably over the past 20 years, and the future unquestionably has more evolution in store.

“We really need to sit down and take a fresh review of everything we’ve been doing and ask ‘how do we prepare for the next 20 years to work smarter and not harder? How do we create mechanisms that are going to bring in the extra revenue we need to keep going?’ For the last twenty years we have been staffing and fundraising for the event and not the organization, and it’s time for us to switch gears and reverse that – because, with increasing costs, I don’t think we can sustain the event or the organization just based on the money we make at the event anymore.”

On the positive side, future plans include a “real office” with accessible storage facilities for equipment and possibly a retail space.

On the other hand, McPeak said he is concerned about the city’s plans to continue construction on the new waterfront park footbridge.

“We successfully stopped construction of that project this year so we could have Hempfest, but now they’re starting to work on the project and they’re planning to complete it this year,” he said. “If the construction goes as planned, they’ll be done in time for Hempfest next year, but there is absolutely no guarantee that that will happen.”

Looking for a secondary location presents a number of problems, and none of the proposed alternatives measure up to the current spot. But one way or another, unless we see some serious political change and a repeal of prohibition in the United States, we can be sure there will be a Seattle Hempfest in some incarnation.

“The day pot becomes legal in America is the day we start looking for some private land to hold our event on and then we can become a commercial celebration; hopefully a camp out thing or something like that,” McPeak said. “Who knows? But as long as pot is illegal we are going to stay in the city of Seattle and be a free event.”

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Jeremiah Vandermeer is editor of Cannabis Culture. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.



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