‘Do you need any bud? I have some sour chocolate. It’s, like, an African strain. It’s black.”
It’s Saturday, August 17, Day Two of Hempfest, which bills itself as the world’s largest event advocating cannabis-law reform. I’ve just come out of the Westlake Bus Station in Seattle, and I’m heading out past Nordstrom’s gleaming corporate headquarters, and a tall, slightly gangly white guy sporting a Rastafarian-colored knit hat has pegged me as a Hempfester.
He’d spotted me in the bus station and asked if I was headed to the three-day festival celebrating all things cannabinoid. On the escalator up from the station, I told him I was a reporter from D.C., and I guess that made him think I’d want to smoke, like, African dope in front of the throbbing heart of one of the world’s top luxury department stores. It was about five minutes after I ditched him to go to McDonald’s that I realized how he’d figured out I was one of the upwards of 80,000 people going to the event billed as “The World’s Largest Protestival” that day: I was carrying the “CannabisNow magazine THE FUTURE OF CANNABIS IS HAPPENING NOW” canvas tote bag that I’d gotten the day before. Not very subtle.
Past Nordstrom, I walked down Pine Street to the tourist-luring Pike Place Market, where zaftig Midwesterners clog the sidewalk to get their pictures taken in front of the world’s first Starbucks before shopping for honey-lavender ice cream and artisanal kimchi. Ten minutes later: Hempfest.
Hempfest manages to embody a plethora of conflicts within the “cannabis freedom” movement and simultaneously provides it with some, uh, questionable PR. Since Washington State legalized recreational marijuana use for adults 21 and older, Hempfest has become an odd confab of the civilly disobedient in search of something to disobey. It’s like the Hillsdale (Mich.) County Fair meets Woodstock meets Salvador Dalí. And it doesn’t smell so good.
It took about five minutes of Saturday morning for internecine tension to pop up. At the gate, the Seattle Police Department passed out bags of Nacho Cheese–flavored Doritos with stickers on them reading the following:
THIS STICKER IS NOT A LAWYER AND CANNOT PROVIDE YOU WITH LEGAL ADVICE
HEMPFESTERS! We thought you might be hungry. We also thought now might be a good time for a refresher on the do’s and don’ts of I-502 [the ballot initiative passed in November that legalized recreational marijuana use in the state].
DON’TS Don’t drive while high. Don’t give, sell, or shotgun weed to people under 21. Don’t use pot in public. You could be cited but we’d rather give you a warning. DO’S Do listen to Dark Side of the Moon at a reasonable volume. Do enjoy Hempfest.
Remember: respect your fellow voters and familiarize yourself with the rules of I-502 at seattle.gov/police/marijwhatnow [heart], SPD
WARNING: THE CONTENTS OF THIS PACKAGE ARE AS DELICIOUS AS THEY APPEAR
These Dorito bags were far and away the hottest item at Hempfest. I had to beg a cop to give me one (“I’m media! Please!!”) because they were going so fast. I noticed more than a few covetous glares at the bright-red package poking out of my “CannabisNow magazine” bag. And no way did I eat them. I’m going to sell the bag on eBay. Or to the Smithsonian.
Anyway, not everyone was happy about the Seattle PD’s outreach efforts. One of the first booths in the festival (which covered a narrow, 1.5-mile-long park) was for Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, a company that sells organic, eco-friendly, fair-trade, multi-purpose soap, as well as hemp T-shirts and some other stuff. A banner inside the booth had a picture of an old man (Dr. Bronner, I presumed) and the phrase, “‘We are all brothers and sisters and we should take care of each other and spaceship earth!’ ALL-ONE! Constructive capitalism is where you share the profit with workers and the earth from which you made it!”
Dr. Bronner’s vision of the rightful sharing of Spaceship Earth does not seem to involve Doritos. I feel comfortable reporting that because in the tent Adam Eidinger, a representative of the Magic Soaps, was making a public-service announcement via microphone into the crowd of attendees flowing past his booth about the danger of said police Doritos. “It’s really sad this isn’t a hemp chip!” he proclaimed. “This is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Beware of the Doritos! They’ll make you obese! They’ll give you health problems!”
“Stoners are much smarter than the police give us credit for, alright?” he added. “We know a wolf in sheep’s clothing. This is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, right here.”
But Doritos aren’t the only source of conflict for Evergreen State cannabis advocates. Not all the festival’s participants were thrilled about the passage of Initiative 502, which legalized recreational marijuana. There was widespread opposition to the initiative among the state’s medical-marijuana industry, especially the co-ops. Medical-marijuana purveyors worried, for one, that the law’s provisions intended to prevent DUIs would make non-intoxicated patients of theirs vulnerable to arrest. Opponents also worried that taxes on recreational marijuana would make it too expensive for legal purveyors to compete with black-market prices. I-502 supporters called these concerns overblown and unserious. It was a messy, divisive fight and caused some ugliness at Hempfest last year (see Dominic Holden’s account in Seattle’s alt-weekly The Stranger). Though this year’s weekend had a celebratory tone, the Hempfest organization didn’t take a side in the debate.
Navigating that conflict isn’t the only challenge Hempfest’s organizers have faced; they’re also aware of its incumbent PR challenges. For example, one young fellow went around the event passing out fliers encouraging attendees to help him make and smoke the “WORLD’S LARGEST JOINT.” “We need at least 1,000 volunteers to add 1 gram so we can make a 2.2 lb joint!!!!!!!!” the fliers read. “Taking part means your name will be written in history as a member of the world record. You get a picture with the joint, your name in the world record books, and of course, you get to hit the Worlds Largest Joint!!!!” [sic omnis].
The executive director of Hempfest, Vivian McPeak, is a wiry silver-haired fellow with a droopy mustache and a long braid that turns into a dreadlock at the end. McPeak, who posed nude behind a strategically positioned cannabis plant for the cover of Harvest Quarterly (attendees could pay $4 to get their pictures taken with a life-size cardboard cutout of the image), did not approve of efforts to make the WORLD’S LARGEST JOINT.
“We don’t support that, and if we see that guy with his two-pound joint, we’ll escort him out,” McPeak told me and a reporter from Reuters. “We have to walk a tightrope here. It’s a fine line. We’ve been conscious of that from the very beginning, to try to stay reasonable.” (The would-be roller of the world’s largest joint was later booted from the park.)
That wasn’t their only substance-control difficulty. This year, for instance, you couldn’t take a blowtorch into Hempfest. That’s because dabbing, consuming butane hash oil, is an increasingly popular way of getting high. You have to have a special oil rig and a butane torch to do it, and it’s very powerful and fast-acting (Vice has a decent explanation of how it works, of course, if you’re interested). But the killjoys at Seattle’s fire department apparently don’t think it’s a great idea for a bunch of intoxicated people to be running around with blowtorches, so they were banned. At least a few people still managed to sneak them in, though.
Overall, McPeak says the group’s efforts to make good with the city authorities have paid off. He said the police are so lenient with the festival in part because the organizers have “aggressively not allowed sales.”
I mean, yeah, okay. I didn’t see booths hawking buds or anything. But getting pot at Hempfest isn’t exactly the quest for the holy grail. You could just walk up to one of the guys saying, “Cookies, cookies!” for instance. And apparently that’s how it’s always been. I talked to a number of Hempfest veterans who said this year’s event didn’t seem any different from last year’s.
“They’re still smoking pot, it’s the same,” said an elderly gentleman with a very large beard selling tie-dye “Harry Pothead” T-shirts. “Everybody’s smoking pot everywhere.”
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.