Seattle Hempfest celebrates its 25-year anniversary this summer as “the world’s largest cannabis reform policy event, and America’s largest annual free-speech event,” according to co-founder Vivian McPeak.
The “protestival” — half culture festival and half protest of unjust cannabis laws — will run Aug. 19-21 at Centennial, Myrtle Edwards and Olympic Sculpture parks along the Seattle waterfront.
The anniversary extravaganza will feature six stages, 120 bands and dozens of expert speakers. Presenters range from policy reformers and activists to compelling figures like George Martorano, who was imprisoned for marijuana distribution and bears the tragic title of being the longest serving first-time non-violent offender to ever serve in federal prison. Martorano received an unprecedented sentence of life in prison on drug charges, but was eventually released in October 2015 following 31 years in prison.
Hempfest supports community artists, craftsmen and other cottage industries. It creates 234 jobs and generates $8 million in labor income every year in King County. The event itself costs the nonprofit organization nearly $1 million dollars to put on.
Although Hempfest has enjoyed hundreds of thousands of attendees in recent years, declining donations have led show organizers to question whether the event can continue.
McPeak says the show’s huge undertaking requires more than 1,000 staff members and hundreds of hours to put on the free event. Show organizers have started a “Keep Seattle Hempfest Alive” crowdfunding campaign seeking $150,000 through gofundme.com.
In a video promoting the fundraiser, McPeak says the organization is not considering admission fees to make up the difference.
“We wouldn’t do anything to keep the public from hearing our message of reform and responsibility,” McPeak says.
Hempfest general manager Sharon Whitson says concerts and vendors headline the event, but the speakers and panelists represent the most important part.
“That’s where the education comes from, and that is what this is all about,” she says.
While significant strides have been made toward legalization, McPeak, Whitson and other activists know that cannabis reform is not out of the weeds yet. One of the major themes for this year’s event is the federal government’s reconsideration of cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance. Many believe the Drug Enforcement Administration will reduce marijuana to Schedule II. At the time of publication, the agency had not announced its recommendation. On the surface, it would seem to be a major victory — removing cannabis from the “most dangerous” and “highest chance of addiction” classification — but it potentially could relegate marijuana to a government-controlled pharmaceutical, similar to Oxycodone. Activists fear this could threaten the legality of smokable marijuana.
“There is no such thing as a recreational pharmaceutical,” Whitson says.
The aim for Hempfest, and the leaders who support it, is having cannabis completely removed from federal scheduling to end prohibition.
The origin of Hempfest dates back to 1990, when Seattle peace activists held free concerts in the park, as a way to protest the first Iraq war and the invasion of Kuwait. Rather than leaving the park after the concert, McPeak and a number of other protestors remained until American troops withdrew from Iraq. Camped out in a massive rainbow-colored tent for six months, their peaceful protest drew notable guests like Timothy Leary, Alan Ginsberg and Mike Lowry, the future governor of Washington. During that time, local activist Gary Cook suggested the idea of the first Seattle Hempfest.
In 1991, the first official protestival drew 500 people to the aptly named Volunteer Park. It was a blatant middle finger to the injustice of cannabis prohibition. Organizers pushed the boundaries of protest by having live cannabis plants on stage and hosting a bong-a-thon, where contestants competed to see who could smoke an eighth-ounce of weed the fastest. McPeak recalls people walking by and pointing, scoffing at the “stoners.”
The event continued to develop a following. It remained at Volunteer Park for three years, before moving to Gasworks Park for a year. By 1995, Hempfest had grown a hundredfold, with 55,000 attendees at Myrtle Edwards Park. Now, more than 100,000 people attend the protestival each year. As the popularity of the event has grown, Hempfest has licensed and expanded to Las Vegas, Alaska, Idaho and Oregon.
The folks who once teased as they passed by are now attending the event, organizers joke.
Hempfest has evolved into a successful, non-violent social revolution. Organizers take pride in their surprisingly amicable relationship with the Seattle Police Department. Although McPeak and Whitson admit the relationship took years to cultivate, the department’s involvement has become an annual highlight, they say. In 2013, after state residents voted to legalize recreational marijuana, police officers distributed bags of Doritos with informational stickers. Many of the same cops who dreaded the event have become impressed with the professionalism and positive growth that it brings to the larger Seattle community, organizers say. McPeak says he has increasingly heard from police officers who say they believe marijuana should be legal.
Hempfest actively provides assistance to those currently imprisoned for cannabis-related charges. The nonprofit sends thousands of dollars a year to commissaries for marijuana prisoners across the country, and also produced the documentary “No Prison For Pot,” which delves into stories of those serving time, in the hope that more exposure will lead to their freedom.
With recreational marijuana now legal in four states, the progress is difficult to ignore. But what is Hempfest’s role now that its home state has adopted some of the most progressive cannabis laws in the country? Are protestivals still the crucial vehicles for change they once were, now that the simple act of smoking pot in public no longer carries the same level of civil disobedience? There’s no doubt that legalization in Washington — albeit with some glaring restrictions — has diminished some of the fervor of cannabis activism.
But Hempfest remains a quintessential celebration of the cannabis community, in much the same way as Germany’s Oktoberfest has been a celebration of beer and Bavarian culture since 1810. But entertainment aside, Hempfest remains dedicated to driving social change and supporting patients’ and consumers’ rights.
“Even as we’re talking, someone is getting arrested for pot,” McPeak says.
Until criminal prosecution is no longer a threat, protestivals throughout the country will unite activists in the common fight against injustice.