Where There's Smoke, There's Hempfest

Where There's Smoke, There's Hempfest
Posted by CN Staff on August 18, 2007 at 07:04:38 PT
By Casey McNerthney
Source: MSNBC
Seattle, WA -- The festival Vivian McPeak and Gary Cooke visualized from day one was something like Woodstock, but their event had hundreds of thousands of people packed in a Seattle park celebrating a green leafy substance. Even some of their friends thought the idea of a big party pushing for reform of anti-marijuana laws was half-baked."When we told people 15 years ago there would be 150,000 people coming to a protest festival with 60 bands from around the country all playing for free and the cops would smile, they didn't think it could happen," McPeak said. "It defied conventional wisdom."
But McPeak and friends have built the Seattle Hempfest -- an annual event started in 1991 -- into one of the largest drug-policy reform rallies in the country, if not the world.To do so, McPeak has invested thousands of unpaid hours, living on disability paychecks for ailments he said he remedies with medicinal marijuana. Many on the roughly 700 all-volunteer staff are similarly dedicated to producing the free event Saturday and Sunday at Myrtle Edwards Park."Hempfest is about promoting the freedom to choose and human rights," said McPeak, the event director, unmistakable for his shoulder-length dreadlocks and array of pro-hemp attire. "There are elderly women and parents in jail for smoking marijuana. ... We don't want responsible, otherwise law-abiding adults to be incarcerated for a marijuana offense."Not all of the 150,000 people organizers expect at Myrtle Edwards Park over two days have the stereotypical stoner look. Cooke has short, brown hair; and though he's credited with helping found the event, people still ask if he's a cop.Even one of Seattle's former top cops has thrown his support behind Hempfest."Hempfest consistently draws a wide diversity of people united around the idea that the prohibition of marijuana is ridiculous," said former Seattle police Chief Norm Stamper, who spoke at last year's rally. Stamper was scheduled to speak this year, too, but backed out this month because of a book project. "My take from a distance is that Vivian has mixed his passion with a lot of skills to make it work," he said.In 1987, McPeak formed the Seattle Peace Heathens Community Action Group, which ultimately grew to form the Hempfest organizing crew.The group organized a Gas Works Park peace vigil in 1990, protesting the Gulf War. McPeak said drug advocate Timothy Leary came to visit, as did beat poet Allen Ginsberg during the six months it lasted. The protesters sang, meditated and one day invited a speaker from a marijuana law reform group.But the speaker never showed. Cooke, who for months had passed out marijuana handouts on University Way, turned to McPeak."Let's put a pot rally together," McPeak recalls him saying.As a result, Hempfest started in the spring of 1991 as the Washington Hemp Expo, drawing about 500 people to Volunteer Park. Attendance quadrupled the following year when it took the current name, and jumped to 5,000 people in 1993 -- a year that featured blatant marijuana smoking in the "Bong-a-Thon," but didn't come with major repercussions from police.Police said about 60 people were cited for illegal marijuana use at the 1997 Hempfest, and about a third of that number were arrested at the event the following year. In 2001 -- the year Hempfest became a two-day event -- a West Precinct police commander told the Seattle P-I that there was only one arrest.Police in the past have taken low-key approach to policing pot use at Hempfest.A Seattle police spokesman said the department will have an "enhanced presence" this weekend for crowd control. But police aren't expecting anything worse than previous years.Hempfest organizers estimated that close to 200,000 people came to the 2003 Hempfest in Myrtle Edwards Park, and they expect about 150,000 this weekend.McPeak and a core group of about 100 volunteers plan the event year-round and pay more than half the estimated $180,000 production bill with vending revenue.Last year's event was marred by access problems and restrictions forced by the construction of the neighboring Olympic Sculpture Park. As a result, space for Hempfest vendors in 2006 was reduced, and event organizers lost an estimated $27,000 in revenue, volunteer coordinator Katie Morse said.The tiff between the Seattle Art Museum and Hempfest was fueled when a crowd overran a construction fence at the sculpture park, causing about $16,500 in damage that SAM officials demanded that the pot advocates pay for. They did -- after their lawyers went back and forth with city officials.This year, Morse said SAM is "being very cooperative," and museum spokeswoman Cara Egan said employees there are "really looking forward to the event."If anything, Seattle's marijuana laws have been reformed somewhat since Hempfest's inception.A month after the 2003 Hempfest, Seattle voters passed an initiative making the investigation, arrest and prosecution of marijuana offenses, when the drug was intended for adult personal use, the lowest law enforcement priority. Medical marijuana has been legal in Washington since 1998, and four years ago McPeak received a doctor's authorization for the drug. He uses it to remedy a colon disease and a condition that causes burning pain.A former cocaine and heroin addict, McPeak doesn't advocate children smoking pot and says Hempfest isn't an excuse to get stoned in the park. Looking back at how things have changed since the first Hempfest, McPeak has hope for marijuana reform on the horizon, and it's no longer just a pipe dream."No political or human rights movement in America has made it this far without eventually winning," McPeak said. "It's just a matter of time."Source: MSNBC (US Web)Author: Casey McNerthneyPublished: August 18, 2007Copyright: 2007 MSNBCContact: letters msnbc.comWebsite: Hempfest CannabisNews -- Cannabis Archives
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