Seattle Hempfest began, in the words of sponsors, as a “humble gathering of stoners”, but has blossomed into the largest marijuana-centered gathering in North America: At least 300,000 people are expected to crowd Myrtle Edwards Park on Friday through Sunday as Hempfest celebrates its 21st birthday. Its 2012 theme, “Safer than Alcohol,” underscores a political coming of age as well as counter-cultural ritual. Washington, which in 1997 became one of the first states to approve medical marijuana, will vote this November on Initiative 502. The measure would legalize, tax and regulate the growing and sale of cannabis to adults in the Evergreen State and put us at odds with federal law. Hempfest faces a challenge. It is being asked, depending on what words you use, to go mainstream, or become a “big tent”, toning down its public face of tie-dyed shirts and super-sized joints. For reform to pass in November, I-502 must be seen not as an up-or-down vote on marijuana as a lifestyle choice, but a decision to move beyond a miserably failed War on Drugs, send police to more useful pursuits, and recognize the many flavors of freedom in America. “For years, people were attracted to the pot movement as a bastion for outcasts: The arrival of mainstream leaders can create a feeling that the movement is being coopted,” said Dominic Holden, co-director of Hempfest from 1999 to 2004. He is now news editor of The Stranger.Flipping the argument, however, Holden added: “If Hempfest presents itself as a gathering for the counterculture, a lot of people will feel they are not invited.”
The festival on Seattle’s waterfront has gained a reputation for being mellow and musical. Its rules are clear: No pets. No booze. No narcotics. No weapons. Its garbage gets collected, sorted and recycled. The recycling even includes politicians. Mayor Mike McGinn hobnobbed last year with TV travel host and author Rick Steves, omnipresent at the Hempfest podium. (“Responsible, adult, recreational use of marijuana is a civil liberty,” argues Steves.) Ohio Rep. Dennis “The Menace” Kucinich brought his political ambitions to 2011 Hempfest. In drawing state legislators, ex-Seattle Police Chief Norman Stamper and City Attorney Pete Holmes, Hempfest stands in stark contrast to, say, the annual April 20th marijuana “festivals” that attract thousands of pot-smoking students in such cities as Vancouver, B.C., and Boulder, Colo. “4/20” is the object of stern official, and especially parental, disapproval. “Hempfest is an extraordinarily peaceful, large festival in a major American city where people can talk of marijuana, and allow its use and enjoyment . . . and see that the sky does not fall in,” said Alison Holcomb of New Approach Washington, the group campaigning for I-502. A “Hemposium” on Saturday afternoon will debate I-502: Supporters will face opponents in the medical marijuana community who fear the DUI provisions of the legalization law. Both the Obama campaign and New Approach Washington will deploy volunteers to register voters over the weekend. Holcomb’s group has put together a $3.017 million warchest for the campaign, and has $2.66 million in the bank. Opponents are chaotic and disorganized, witness one anti-502 group crashing a newss conference called by another. A group called Sensible Washington announced its own initiative this week, with a denunciation of I-502. Its previous initiative failed to make the ballot. State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, a past Hempfest speaker and reform voice in Olympia, is disturbed at the specter of marijuana legalization supporters taking pot shots at each other.
“A concern I’ve had for quite a few years has been the personal verbal attacks made by some advocates on other advocates who do not share the means to get to a common goal,” Kohn-Wells said. Hempfest has not been without controversy. In its early years, Seattle police did buy busts and enforced park exclusion ordinances. A total of 60 people were cited in 1997. But that was before Seattle residents voted in 2003 to make enforcement of marijuana possession the city’s lowest law enforcement priority. Seattle Times reporter Jonathan Martin, last year, was able to receive medical cannabis authorizations from two naturopath physicians — totally inappropriately and not within parameters of the state statute. Such episodes, and TV coverage, have in Kohl-Welles’ view strengthened some pot opponents’ perceptions “relating to stereotypes of dopers, hippies being the ones who use medical cannabis.” As Seattle celebrates over the weekend, however, the state and country have to decide whether — finally — to break loose from enforcement-centered “War on Drugs” launched 41 years ago by President Richard Nixon. An estimated 100 million Americans have smoked marijuana. A future president, Bill Clinton, made us laugh when he insisted: “I didn’t inhale.” Conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr., wrote of sailing into international waters so he could legally inhale.
Ex-Secretary of State George Schultz raised eyebrows by making an argument for legalization at a rich donors’ luncheon in Palo Alto before the Stanford-Notre Dame football game. “Pot had helped, and booze: Maybe a little blow when you could afford it,” future president Barack Obama would write in “Dreams From My Father,” discussing his teenage identity quest while a student at Honolulu’s elite Punahoe Academy. Since states began legalizing medical marijuana, testaments from individuals have changes attitudes — and helped change laws. Vivian McPeak, a musician and longtime Hempfest organizer, wrote a recent seattlepi.com column about a family experience. McPeak’s hard-living father showed up at his door in the last stages of lung cancer, weighing 100 pounds, suffering chronic nausea and pain, unable to hold down food. McPeak cooked up a batch of strong marijuana brownies, explained to his father that they were medicine and should not be wolfed down. The pot brownies put his father in good spirits, allowed him to eat, and enjoy small pleasures and have a quality of life at the end of life. “I broke the law by giving my father marijuana when he was dying in my home,” McPeak wrote. “When you may not see your parent again, for eternity — we have no guarantees, I believe — another couple of months can be a long time,” McPeak wrote. Initiative 502 is hovering at about 50 percent support in the polls. Hempfest will be fun, even — as happened a few years back — a hot sun gives way to a sudden thunderstorm. The festival can, as well, send a message best expressed by Holcomb: The sky won’t fall in if Washington votes for marijuana reform.
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