“Politics In-Your-Face”By David Downs
More than 250,000 cannabis fans and their allies are expected to gather here in Seattle Aug. 17-19 for the 21st annual Hempfest.
Sprawled across three parks and 1.5 miles of Seattle waterfront with views of Mt. Rainier and the Space Needle, the free Hempfest draws hippies, hipsters, grannies, and alternative culture types, who come to enjoy six stages of free music, the wares of 400 vendors, plus panel speakers and, of course, public consumption of cannabis.
“This is a sex, drugs, rock and roll, and politics in-your-face event with a lot of components to it,” co-founder Vivian McPeak tells CULTURE. “But there’s a big sense of camaraderie. You can feel the power of the crowd. You can experience more freedom than you can anywhere else in America.”
The free Seattle Hempfest is all volunteer-produced and costs about half a million dollars to create each year. Donations are heartily encouraged. The average attendee donates just 10 to 12 cents.
This year, Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson as well as Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein are scheduled to speak while “shockingly,” Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama declined speaking invitations, McPeak says.
The 2012 election season is making Hempfest 2012 a historic occasion, with unprecedented divisions amongst cannabis activists, he says. Marijuana legalization Initiative 502 has divided the reform community like never before, McPeak says, and it’s led to rifts within Hempfest as well.
Co-sponsored by John McKay, former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington; Peter Holmes, Seattle city attorney; and travel writer Rick Steves, I-502 would legalize possession of marijuana for adults over 21 and regulate legal cultivation of the plant, similar to alcohol.
But McPeak says the average voter has a superficial understanding of the bill.
“They think, ‘Decriminalization? Legalization? Great, let’s change the law.’”
But the details of I-502 have caused some legalizers to line up with the police lobby to denounce the Initiative. I-502 contains a provision that criminalizes driving with any level of cannabinoids in the blood, if the driver is under 21—in other words, even if you’re stone-cold sober, you could be considered under the influence if you have enough cannabinoids in your system.
Critics of I-502 among the reform community also fret for the commercial future of legal pot, fearing corporate raiders.
The I-502 imbroglio has seeped into Hempfest, too. McPeak came out early against I-502, and it caused “a firestorm of controversy. We had some longstanding Hempfest people quit because of my position,” he says. “I was goaded into it and I regret it.”
Hempfest has had to take a “neutral” position on I-502, “which is painful because that’s a statement in and of itself,” he says.
McPeak said he doesn’t know how he’s going to vote on the Initiative now. Meanwhile, expect both sides of the I-502 debate to air their positions and man booths at Hempfest this year. McPeak wishes for more constructive disagreement. In fact, Hempfest was born in 1991 with just 500 people as the “Washington Hemp Expo”—out of a desire to have less confrontational, more effective cannabis gatherings.
“We wanted to break off from the angry, disruptive, adversarial activism that we saw that wasn’t being very effective,” he said. “I would like to see the activist groups that are fighting each other and sparring take a more positive, constructive, productive approach as well.”
The Other Side of the Coin
I-502 organizers submitted at least 254,000 valid signatures to get the proposed law on the ballot, and garnered the endorsements of NORML, the ACLU and the Drug Policy Alliance. On July 22, Progressive car insurance founder Peter Lewis added $1.5 million to I-502’s war chest. Washingtonians favor the bill 55 to 32 percent, according to a July poll by SurveyUSA. But some bristle at the proposals details which state that motorists over 21 may have less than five nanograms per milliliter of THC in the blood. Therefore, Initiative 502, the argument goes, will likely imprison some sober drivers, both under 21 and over, who fail the zero tolerance limit or the five-nanogram limit.