Seattle Hempfest 2012: Unity Under Fire

The next time you hear someone say potheads are lazy or disorganized, just tell them about Seattle Hempfest.

A quarter-of-a-million marijuana-lovers came together this month for the 21st-annual Seattle Hempfest, a “protestival” that started as a small pot rally but has grown into the largest cannabis celebration on the planet.

The event is a Heaven for Heads that spans several of Seattle’s gorgeous downtown waterfront parks and features hundreds of pot-related vendors, speeches by the biggest names in the marijuana game, live music from artists of various genres, and an unfathomable amount of cannabis consumption.

This year’s event was packed with pot people for three full days, from August 17 to 20.

Large audiences gathered around six stages providing non-stop entertainment and education; the speeches and performances all seamlessly tied together by dedicated MCs and stage crews.

Multitudes of smiling, glossy-eyed people crowded the cement paths lined with vendor and activists booths, while staff and security members manned posts throughout the park and sprung into action whenever necessary.

All of this planning, co-ordination, and execution takes an incredible amount of hard work from a 900-strong volunteer army, under the guidance and supervision of Hempfest Co-founder and Director Vivian McPeak, who is also a volunteer.

“Everybody on our crew works very hard,” McPeak told Cannabis Culture last week after finishing the clean-up of this year’s event, “we work people 16 hours days, day after day. That’s dedication.”

Many of the volunteers are part of Washington State’s growing medical marijuana community and devote their time in spite of their illnesses.

“Some of these people are on-site working everyday, all-day.” McPeak said. “People with inoperable brain tumors, with cancer, with HIV, with MS, with diabetes. Who is available to volunteer for something like this everyday? It’s people who are already marginalized in some way for whatever reason. So we have a disproportionate amount of people in our movement who are sick, retired, or disabled.”

With 80,000 attendees a day (estimated by the city of Seattle), it’s obvious their work is paying off, making Seattle Hempfest the largest gathering of the cannabis culture in the world.

“I would venture to say that more marijuana has been smoked at one time at Myrtle Edwards park than anywhere on the planet earth,” McPeak said, “or cumulatively even. Where else would it be?”

See the Hempfest 2012 – Day 1 CC photo gallery on Flickr.

Policing Ourselves

With that many people in one place celebrating a controlled substance, one might assume police enforcers and government stooges from an alphabet of federal agencies would be breathing down the necks of event organizers, ready to pounce on the first person in the crowd to spark up a fatty.

“All the meetings that we have with the SPD focus on public safety,” McPeak said. “In the entire 21 years that we’ve been doing Hempfest, rarely have we had permit discussions about people smoking pot. It’s come up before but it’s just not something that we spend a lot of time talking about. Since Mayor McGinn and Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes have taken the helm, the police seem to have a lot more respect for the lowest police priority mandate that the citizens voted in several years ago.”

McPeak said the police haven’t been eager to “come into the event and charge people” in part because Hempfest staff have “put a lot of emphasis in the last several years on stopping illegal vending of all kinds, including sales of brownies and other edibles. There is certainly less open selling of that kind than in the past. We think, the more attendees at our event can police ourselves, the less the police are going to feel it’s necessary to come in and police the event on their own.”

Last year, Hempfest organizers had difficulty in securing permits, and even considered alternative locations before the city eventually allowed the event to continue in its long-time home at Myrtle Edwards park.

Though Hempfest is free for all attendees, McPeak said it cost about $450,000 to produce the festival in 2011, and that the price goes up by about $50,000 a year. Most of the money comes from vending, sponsorships, memberships, merchandise sales, and advertising, with less than $90,000 annually in donations.

“Hempfest has had to make every dime on our own,” he said. “There is no big financier throwing money at Hempfest. … We’re a little concerned this year that we might not have paid the bill because donations and our merch sales are a little low. We’re waiting to see how things shake out.”

See the Hempfest 2012 – Day 2 CC photo gallery on Flickr.

Cannabis Culture at Hempfest

For the last four years, I’ve had the pleasure of accompanying Cannabis Culture publisher Jodie Emery at Hempfest to cover the event as a photographer and journalist. I’ve also been lucky enough to bring along my girlfriend and photographic collaborator Carina Gonzalez. We have a great time every year, and enjoy our trip to the United States from our home-base in Vancouver, Canada.

Jodie has given numerous passionate speeches at Hempfest over the years, advocating an end to the Drug War and the release of her husband – pot entrepreneur and freedom-fighter Marc Emery – who is currently imprisoned in a US federal penitentiary for selling cannabis seeds and using the money to fund legalization activism.

Volunteer staff and organizers, as well as other speakers and performers, have always treated us with the utmost respect. The vibe in past years had always been one of unity and the sense that we are all working together on the same project with a common goal: to legalize marijuana.

Jodie was again invited to speak several times at the 2012 event, on a slate of presenters including cannabis movement luminaries like NORML’s Keith Stroup, radio host ‘Radical’ Russ Belville, High Times Editor Rick Cusick, travel writer Rick Steves, and David Bronner of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Hemp Soaps, as well as political big-wigs like US Vice Presidential Candidate Judge James Gray, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, and many more.

Jodie, Carina, and I were excited for another trip to see our American friends, though we were all a little worried that Hempfest’s spirit of ‘working together’ might be diminished somewhat by Washington State pot politics.

See the Hempfest 2012 – Day 3 CC photo gallery on Flickr.

Initiative 502

When Washington State voters step behind the curtain to make their decision during the November 6, 2012 elections, they’ll be asked if they support a state-wide ballot initiative that “would license and regulate marijuana production, distribution, and possession for persons over twenty-one; remove state-law criminal and civil penalties for activities that it authorizes; tax marijuana sales; and earmark marijuana-related revenues,” according to the language to be printed on the ballot

Initiative 502, spearheaded by a group called New Approach Washington and its Director Alison Holcomb, would decriminalize up to one ounce of “useable marijuana,” 16 ounces of marijuana-infused products in solid form, 72 ounces of marijuana-infused products in liquid form, or “any combination” of the three, for adults 21 years or older.

It would set up a licensing system for growers, processors, and retailers (yes, pot stores!) under the authority of the Washington State Liquor Control Board. The initiative would also set up a legal exemption to grow hemp (with plants containing 0.3% THC or less) and earmarks a percentage of the profits of marijuana sales for health care, drug abuse treatment and education, and marijuana-related research at local Universities. Read the full Initiative (PDF).

Supporters of the initiative include NORML, the MPP, the ACLU, the NAACP and a huge list of pot activists, politicians, and media personalities. See New Approach Washington official endorsement list for some of them.

I-502 also has its critics. The initiative has sparked a firestorm of debate in Washington, splitting the local pot community in two, with pot-law reform group Sensible Washington and long-time cannabis activists like lawyer Jeffrey Steinborn and publisher Ed Rosenthal standing firmly against it.

Critics of I-502 point out that personal cultivation would remain illegal for those without a medical card and say the initiative was “not written to withstand a federal challenge” so the “entire distribution and taxation system will be rendered invalid in court.”

But most ire-provoking to critics is a section of I-502 that mandates a 5 ng/ml THC blood limit for adult drivers and a zero-tolerance policy for drivers under 21. The 5 ng/ml limit, they say, is unscientific and far two low, and could leave recreational and medical marijuana users with an increased risk of arrest while behind the wheel. If I-502 passes, critics fear the Feds will stomp through the state leaving nothing behind but the safe-driving provisions.

Designers of 502 say the DUI changes were included to appease the concerned-public’s fear of stoned drivers, but that the initiative would “not change the legal requirements that must be met before a police officer can take a driver to a medical professional for a blood test,” and that “it doesn’t give police officers any tools that they don’t already have” or give them “the ability to profile you any more than they profile you right now.”

In a heavily-attended debate over I-502 at the Hempfest 2012 Hemposium tent, Holcomb noted that there are at least two ways to fix the DUI provision, if I-502 passes, to exclude medical marijuana users through the legislative process.

“You can do this immediately in the next upcoming legislative session which begins January 2013,” Holcomb said, “and in fact, both Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Representative Mary Lou Dickerson introduced legislation in this past session to do that very thing. That legislation did not get out of committee because we didn’t have a per se law at that time, so it was actually prematurely introduced. Once a per se law is on the books, then there is reason to pass legislation like that.”

A number of well-known figures in the cannabis movement have voiced support for the initiative, including the imprisoned former publisher of Cannabis Culture, Marc Emery, who wrote that 502’s critics “foolishly and dangerously oppose this great step forward over trivialities, much the same way as done by many so-called members of the movement who killed Prop. 19 in California in 2010.”

The debate turned ugly when blogger Steve Elliot of the Village Voice Media-owned Toke of the Town lobbed personal insults at Jodie Emery, Marc’s wife and current publisher of CC (who is also an I-502 supporter), repeatedly calling her a “trophy wife” and writing statements like, “I get waaaay more pussy than Mr. Emery” in the comments of his blog posts.

Critics of I-502 have also taken their lumps from the ‘Yes’ side. Hempfest Director Vivian McPeak, who initially came out against the initiative, was targeted for criticism in several articles by The Stranger and other online publications.

“There is an incredible division of this community that has come out of 502,” McPeak admits. “It’s an unparalleled, shocking amount of vitriol against anyone who strays from either side of the debate. Both sides are taking the same approach.”

The activist told CC he was “shocked when Hempfest started to get attacked” because he had come out against I-502. “Frankly, I made a mistake by coming out against 502, because I didn’t really realize that I am ‘joined at the hemp’ with Hempfest. I guess I should have not been that naive but I’ve never been in this situation before. I’m only one vote on the Board. I’m not the King of Hempfest.”

After a number of board meetings discussing the issue, organizers of Hempfest voted to remain neutral instead of taking sides, something McPeak said has led to more criticism.

“We’ve been attacked for that as well,” he said. “It’s one of those no-win situations where no matter what you do, you are going to be attacked. But I’m proud that we were able to present all of our speakers with an equal amount of dignity and respect, and that all ideas were able to be presented without any bias. I think Hempfest did the right thing.”

McPeak admits that months of debate on the issue may have chipped away at his original opinion.

“I’ve been looking at the issue and frankly, my thoughts have been evolving on it. They’ve been all over the map. … I’m really am a fence-straddler on this. I have big issues personally with I-502, but I don’t know what the proper strategy is for legalizing pot down the road. Nobody really knows how 502 is going to play out, but I’m one of the few people I know willing to admit that.”

People have a right to their own opinion, McPeak said, and opinions can change at any time.

“I still have people like Dominic Holden [of The Stranger]and others parroting words I said months ago, as if they know where my head is at. I reserve the right to change my opinion up till the moment before voting day.”

Agreeing isn’t everything, the activist said, while expressing his distaste for bloggers who use personal attacks instead of sticking to the issues.

“Jodie Emery is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I have a tremendous amount of respect for her and Marc, but we don’t have to agree on everything. Give me a break. We agree that prohibition is archaic and unjust and that’s all we have to agree on. Grown men making threats against Jodie Emery, I mean, have they no shame? … Because let’s face it … our community has been around a lot longer than this one initiative, and it will be around a lot longer after it’s over.”

Unity Under Fire

Though there were a few hecklers in the crowd during speeches by activists from both the “No and “Yes” sides, and some heated conversations backstage between fellow freedom-fighters, it felt like one of the friendliest and fun trips Jodie, Carina, and I had ever made to Seattle.

Despite any skirmishes online, we were treated like royalty by Hempfest staff, fans, and all of our friends, whether they were wearing a “No” or “Yes” button. Individuals from both camps filled the ranks of the volunteer force, working together, unified.

And they put on an amazing show!

Hempfest 2012 was a true testament to the solidarity and organization of the cannabis movement, even when we don’t agree on everything. It gave the three of us hope that the cannabis community will mend its wounds quickly once the I-502 dust settles.

Watch over 20 Hempfest 2012 videos of speeches and musical performances on Pot TV or see Jeremiah and Carina’s Hempfest 2012 photo galleries on Flickr.

Find out more about the YES and NO sides of the I-502 debate.

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