Last Saturday and Sunday, Seattle's Myrtle Edwards Park, a mile-long strip of land fronting Puget Sound just north of downtown, once again played host to the Seattle Hempfest. And once again, the Hempfest lived up to its reputation as the world's largest marijuana "protestival."
With a core staff of around a hundred, led by the indefatigable Vivian McPeak, and about a thousand volunteers who worked to set up the event, keep it running smoothly, and tear it all down at the end of the weekend, Hempfest is not only a celebration of cannabis culture but also the living embodiment of the grassroots cooperative activism that has flourished for years in Seattle.
From its beginnings as a small pro-hemp event 17 years ago, Hempfest has become the coming out party for America's cannabis nation, which in Seattle includes not only youthful stoners, wizened hippies, and Mr. Bong Head (a guy wearing a working bong contraption on his head), but punks, Goths, ravers, uncostumed twenty- and thirty-somethings, families with children in strollers, and -- the biggest cannabis celebrity in town -- travel writer Rick Steves. Steves once again called for the US to follow the lead of Europe in relaxing marijuana laws.
Over the event's two-day span, an estimated 150,000+ people showed up to see and be seen, listen to four stages worth of live music, peruse the hundreds of vendors' stands for the newest technologies and best buys on glass pipes, t-shirts, hemp items, and other pot-related accoutrements and accessories.
And to get high in public with their comrades. Seattle police have for years now had an accommodation with Hempfest, even more so since the city's voters told law enforcement very clearly in 2003 that marijuana should be the city's lowest law enforcement priority. Police were on the scene, patrolling the park's sidewalks in pairs, but appeared oblivious to the open pot-smoking going on all over the place.
In effect, Hempfest is not only the largest marijuana protestival in the world, it is also a massive act of civil disobedience. Even though Seattle has its lowest priority policy and Washington state has decriminalized pot possession, marijuana use and possession is still against the law. As one speaker addressed the crowd, pointing out this fact and telling listeners that despite all the progress they had made, they were still criminals, the crowd responded with an enormous cheer.
The only real tension at Hempfest occurred when a small group of sign-holding fundamentalist preachers berated the passing crowds, telling them they were going to hell for their sins. That sparked occasional heated discussions. At one point Saturday, Hempfest organizers were heard threatening to send a squad of transgender people to scare off the fanatics.
Some Hempfest attendees took a break from browsing, shopping, and listening to music to actually listen to between-band speeches by activists calling for further marijuana law reform. While decriminalization and legalization were predictably common themes, this year's Hempfest emphasized two other issues: The promotion of hemp and the battle over Washington state's medical marijuana law, especially the ongoing fight over what are appropriate quantities of marijuana allowable for patients. The state is currently tangling with patients and advocates over what constitutes a minimum 60-day supply of their medicine. An earlier proposal called for 35 ounces of marijuana, but Gov. Christine Gregoire sought a review of that, and the state is now recommending a 24-ounce limit.
Besides between-band speeches, political activism also took place throughout Hempfest at the Hemposium tent, although in an indication of the role politics played in the larger festival, crowds in the tent numbered in the dozens, as opposed to the tens of thousands listening to music.
"Every single patient I know will not be in compliance with the 60-day rule. It's not going to work. It's driven by law enforcement, not science," said Douglas Hiatt, a lawyer who represents medical-marijuana users, as he spoke at one of the Hemposium sessions. Hiatt was among the activists calling on patients and supporters to come out for an August 25 action in support of higher limits.
But for most Hempfest attendees, the event was a party, a celebration, not a political seminar. While that may be a disappointment to activists, it is also a demonstration of the breadth and scope of Pacific Northwest cannabis culture. It has gone mainstream, with all the apolitical apathy abundant in the broader culture.
And if Hempfest was a little too mellow for your taste, you could always check out Methfest, not a celebration of amphetamine culture but a scary rock music show put on in nearby Belltown.