Two rallies on opposite coasts last weekend provided a demonstration of both the strength of the marijuana reform movement and the obstacles it still faces. In Seattle, the city's 10th annual Hempfest drew 100,000 people to Myrtle Edwards Park on the waterfront in a virtual civic celebration. Across the country, in Starks, Maine, the 11th annual Hempstock festival managed to draw 2,500 people despite a campaign of harassment by local political figures and law enforcement agencies. In both locations, organizers vow to return next year.
In Seattle, the two-day Hempfest, the nation's largest marijuana rally, went off peacefully with police doing little more than monitoring the swelling throngs of hempsters, potheads, and curious onlookers. Vendors sold hemp products -- from clothes to cat food -- in stands alongside booths selling pipes and bongs and others selling tie-dye t-shirts and silver jewelry. The odor of burning marijuana wafted incessantly through the air, and much of the talk was of changing the marijuana laws.
"Most marijuana smokers, like the rest of America, work hard, pay taxes, raise families, and don't deserve to be treated like criminals," Hempfest director Dominic Holden told an enthusiastic crowd. "The vast majority of marijuana smokers are adults who do so responsibly, without harm to others. It is not our goal to advocate that anyone use marijuana, but to eliminate treating normal Americans like criminals," said Holden.
To that end, Holden is also heading a petition drive to put a local initiative on the Seattle ballot. Initiative 73 would direct the Seattle Police Department and the City Attorney's Office to make arresting and prosecuting adults possessing less than 40 grams of marijuana the city's lowest law enforcement priority. The initiative needs 19,000 signatures to get on the ballot.
The political messages emanating from Hempfest were mixed, if complementary. Activists organizing around drug war POWs, asset forfeiture and shelter for the homeless all took advantage of the crowds to forward their causes, as did environmentally-conscious hemp advocates.
"I believe in the industrial use of hemp," one attendee told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "I believe in deep ecology and treading lightly on the earth, wearing hemp," she said.
While Seattle officials generally cooperated with festival organizers to ensure a smooth, peaceful event, that was not the case with local officials in Maine, where the Maine Vocals (http://www.mainevocals.org), "the state of Maine's vocal cannabis action educators and network," fended off repeated attempts to shut down the 11th Annual Hempstock festival and harass party-goers.
Maine Vocal founder and Hempstock organizer Don Christen came through the weekend unbowed, however. "The event went just fine," he told DRCNet. "The police harassed the hell out of us, but 2,500 or 3,000 people still attended. They arrived coming through police roadblocks, and they left going through police roadblocks."
Incoming traffic was stopped and warned with the following flyer from the state police: "WARNING, ROADBLOCKS. Do not drive under the influence. AVOID ARREST. When you leave, you will be required to pass through roadblocks. Your condition to drive will be checked."
The police presence had an impact, said Christen. "They tried to intimidate people, they had dogs, they looked in cars, and maybe a third of the people just turned around and left," he said. "This is bordering on a conspiracy," he added. "The district attorney's office, the town of Starks, the state police, they are all trying to stop us from being able to operate."
Police statistics from after the event would appear to back Christen's contention. Festival-goers leaving the event had to run a gauntlet of police who were disposed to arrest, cite or ticket anyone they could for anything they could. Police arrested 25 people leaving the festival for drug possession, drug paraphernalia, and possession of alcohol by a minor, according to the Portland Press Herald. Police said they stopped 1,012 cars at their roadblocks, ticketed 12 speeders, and issued 507 traffic warnings, 60 car defect citations, 19 expired inspection sticker citations, and 21 minor traffic violation citations.
Police also obtained search warrants allowing them to monitor the festival to see the crowd's size and "to use a thermal imaging device from the air to ensure that drug laws are obeyed," the Press Herald reported. The newspaper did not ask and police did not explain how many indoor marijuana grows they expected to bust during the three-day outdoor festival.
The harassment of festival-goers was only the latest round in a long-running feud between Christen and local officials. Starks town fathers unhappy with the event attempted to thwart it by passing a new mass gathering ordinance last year, which Christen has ignored, arguing that his event is "grandfathered" in.
That didn't stop Somerset County David Crook, Christen's nemesis, from calling in the Maine State Police, the Somerset County Sheriff's Office, the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Bureau of Liquor Enforcement to plot strategy against Hempstock. Christen has "thumbed his nose" at the town, Crook complained to the Bangor Daily News. "This is no longer a political festival," said Crook, "and it's not a medical marijuana issue. Starks has attempted to regulate this festival but they have been outgunned and out-financed," Crook added.
Or maybe just outsmarted. Christen obtained a state permit to allow temporary camping for 2,000 people on the property, owned by local farmer Harry Brown. And he challenged the town of Starks to initiate proceedings against Hempstock.
"The town doesn't agree with me on our being grandfathered in, but if they want to fight about it they can take me to court and a judge can decide," said Christen. "It certainly isn't up to David Crook to decide. This is a civil matter. David Crook has sworn to protect my rights and if he doesn't, we'll take him to court, too."
County prosecutors in Maine do not normally attempt to enforce city ordinances, but Crook told the Morning Sentinel he will do so if they "significantly parallel a state law" and "if there is a request from town selectmen."
Christen has a different and less politic view of Crook's motives. "He's doing it because he's an asshole," Christen told DRCNet. "He's involved himself in something he has no right to involve himself in. It isn't up to the district attorney. The town has an obligation to hire its own attorney to enforce town codes."
Christen also rejected Crook's characterization of the festival as "not a political festival." "What is he talking about?" the Hempstock organizer asked. "We had numerous speakers, we talked about legalization, we talked about hemp, about forfeiture laws, and, of course, the police presence. This festival is a good time, but it's not just a good time," Christen said.
As for his legal battle with Crook and the town of Starks, Christen is not going away. "We wish they would just leave us alone and let us operate unimpeded," he said. "The ball is in their court. We are a legal entity and have been around for eleven years. If they think we're going to lie down and give up, they're crazy. They have a problem."
In the wake of Hempstock, the town of Starks has now hired an attorney to pursue its options against the festival, the Press Herald reported this week. Board of Selectmen Chair Cathy Cole told the newspaper the lawyer would review police documentation of crowd and noise violations to see what action could be taken.
In the meantime, Maine Vocals is planning its eighth annual harvest festival at Norridgewock for Labor Day weekend. A festival earlier this summer in Pownal was cancelled after police there told the landowner where the event was to be held that his property could be seized if certain law violations occurred.
And it has two petition drives underway. One would repair the state's medical marijuana law, which has so far been ineffective. A second would put industrial hemp on the ballot. "Now that we've paid the bills, the next festival will be for operating funds for the petition drive. We figure that with $40,000 we could get enough paid petitioners to get the signatures we need," Christen explained.
The required signatures must be turned in by January 2002.