The Marijuana Venture interview: Seattle Hempfest

Vivian McPeak and Sharon Whitson say true legalization has yet to happen in Washington state. That’s just one reason they’ve continued to fight for reform.

When Washington voters legalized marijuana through Initiative 502 in 2012, many breathed a sigh of relief. The War on Drugs — at least in one corner of the Pacific Northwest — was coming to an end, they thought.

But for activists like Seattle Hempfest president Vivian McPeak and general manager Sharon Whitson, who have been leading the reform movement for decades, that moment proved to be somewhat anticlimactic (McPeak has been involved with Hempfest since Day 1: “I’ve been doing this event half my life,” he says. “I’m 61. Never dreamed in a million years I’d grow gray doing the Hempfest when we started in ’91.”).

Instead of increased freedom, the landmark legislation put a tighter grip on the rules surrounding the cannabis industry at large. Instead of inspiring the masses, the push for reform lost some of its drive.

Specifically, events like Seattle Hempfest, the iconic, cannabis-themed “protestival” that is heading into its 29th year, now face more challenges than ever before — not the least of which is the “false sense of security” created by Washington’s commercial legalization, McPeak says.

“Hempfest today is equal parts victory celebration and call to action,” the event’s co-founder says. “It’s critical that we maintain this momentum we have and finish the job. You don’t retreat when you win a battle; you retreat when you win the war. If anything, when you win a battle, you advance and ramp up your offensive. That’s what really needs to happen.”

Though other states have followed in Washington’s footprints, McPeak says it’s important to remember that the entire “house of cards” could come crashing down with one stroke of U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s pen.

“I don’t even think this administration knows what it’s going to do next,” he says.

McPeak and Whitson spoke with Marijuana Venture about Washington’s quasi-legalization and the future of Seattle Hempfest.

Sharon Whitson.

Marijuana Venture: Do you feel the mission of Hempfest is any less important now that Washington has some form of legalization in place?

 

Sharon Whitson: It’s more important now that we’ve started down the path into legalization. In my opinion, we have a commercialized market, but legalization has not happened.

Either we the people will help drive legalization or we can just let the politicians and business lobbyists have it — and I certainly don’t want them having it. Just ask Jimmy Romans (who was sentenced to life without parole — and later reduced to 30 years — for conspiring to distribute marijuana) or one of the over 50 people serving life without parole for cannabis how great legal marijuana is right now.

 

Vivian McPeak: It would be hard to say our mission is not important. Cannabis has been commoditized, and in our opinion, that’s not necessarily legalized. There are still people going to jail; arrests have gone up for the last three years; there are 40,000 people in jails and prisons.

Not only that, but the advancements we’ve made so far are not even secure as long as cannabis is federally illegal. We’ve been fighting for three decades to get to a point that we’re clearly not at. There’s a backlash to the advancements we’ve made that doesn’t get a lot of media attention, but is still very much alive.

Vivian McPeak.

MV: What are some of the success stories or accomplishments from Hempfest’s history that you’re particularly proud of?

 

SW: In October 2015, one of the people we adopted who was serving life without parole, George Martorano, was released after serving almost 32 years in federal prison. He was at the 2016 Hempfest, and we also had Jeff Mizanskey, who was released from his life sentence in September 2015.

It was so cool to see George take a jog through the park one morning; he was a rock star because everyone knew who he was from all the publicity we had been doing and all the work our volunteers had been doing. That was something I was really proud of.

 

VM: I’d like to answer that from a little bit of a different angle. In 2006, former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper spoke at Hempfest from the main stage. He had been the police chief for several years of the early Hempfests. The fact that Hempfest was an event he felt comfortable speaking at — he was speaking on our message of reform — felt like a huge accomplishment.

And then also, in 2012 when the Seattle Police Department handed out bags of Doritos to our attendees, and that got media attention all over the world, we felt that was a watershed moment. That was a big local and regional accomplishment. We’ve got almost three decades of non-stop activity, so it’s kind of hard to pick, but those are some highlights from our perspective.

 

MV: Looking back on three decades of this festival, what are the major changes you’ve seen from the early days of Hempfest to what it’s like now?

 

VM: After nearly 30 years, the event remains a controversial, insurgent protest rally. Ironically, the resistance against Hempfest has become much greater after legalization. It’s actually been much harder to produce the event, more challenging on multiple levels. Part of it is that Seattle is just a more expensive place to live and do business in.

We seem to get a lot more pushback from the city and state than we had before.

 

SW: You have to look at it this way: Back in the beginning, there were no rules for marijuana. Now there are rules and they’re trying to fit us into a box that we just don’t fit into. We’re a free-speech event, so it’s constitutionally protected. So what they tend to do is make things harder on us all the time. They make the hoops smaller and they make the flames on the hoops bigger.

2019 was particularly challenging for us with our traffic plan. The city threw a massive change at us in the last minute, trying to get us to load in between 7 p.m. and 4 a.m. — all of our suppliers, vendors and staff. Just completely ridiculous, but my team really stood up and made it happen. The Seattle Police Department actually cited them as running exceptionally well, and that was something I was extremely proud of.

The traffic revisions we went through in 2019 are a really great example of the challenges, but no matter how high they make the flames and how tight they make the hoop, our amazing volunteer staff just stands up and makes it work.

 

VM: Another thing about being a First Amendment event is that it gives us some freedoms, but it also gives us quite a few restrictions. We cannot charge money to attend, and we cannot restrict attendance to 21 and over as a free-speech event. We do not feel confident that if we were a commercial event that we would get a permit to exist.

We’re the largest annual free-speech event in the world. We may be one of the largest volunteer-powered events in the world. And as far as we know, we’re the largest cannabis reform event in the world as well.

Before 2012, our attendance numbers were so high that they were actually a threat to public safety and a threat to our permit. We were hearing numbers of 200,000 at a certain point. After legalization, we kind of leveled out to around 100,000 attendees, which is actually beneficial for us in the venue we’re at.

At one point, prior to the start commercial cannabis sales in Washington, Hempfest was attracting nearly a quarter-million attendees every year. Hempfest is a 501(c)4 nonprofit, run almost entirely by an army of about 900 volunteers, with only two paid employees. Photo courtesy Seattle Hempfest.

MV: What are some of the other challenges that Hempfest faces moving forward?

 

SW: I think a lot of people have the perception that it’s “mission accomplished, we have legalized cannabis,” when we certainly do not.

 

VM: There’s kind of an apathy, a premature sense of victory within the cannabis community, while people are still going to jails and prison at a rate nationally that is speeding up.

Nationally, people are losing custody of their children, they’re being denied housing. Here in Washington, we don’t have home grow. Medical patients don’t have safe, affordable access to the cannabis they need. Another local issue worth talking about is public consumption. If you are houseless or a tourist or live in subsidized housing or have a certain rental agreement, you can purchase cannabis legally, but there is nowhere to smoke it. There are no clubs, no bars — even our membership program is being attacked. That doesn’t seem like legalization either.

There are so many issues that are worth fighting for, but there’s this perception that, “I can go get a gram of good pot at a retail store. What’s the problem? It’s all over.”

Impending Lawsuit

Seattle Hempfest is in the process of filing a lawsuit against the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board over advertising guidelines that have both hindered the event’s ability to generate revenue from exhibitors and sponsorships, as well as limiting licensed cannabis businesses’ avenues for marketing.

“We’re proud to be filing this lawsuit against the Liquor and Cannabis Board because we believe the interpretation of the 502 advertising guidelines are completely over-reaching and so restrictive that they are unconstitutional,” Hempfest general manager Sharon Whitson says.

The issue arose in April 2019, when the Liquor and Cannabis Board issued a restrictive guidelines bulletin on advertising and marketing that had a chilling effect on Hempfest, which is held every year in August. That bulletin was replaced on June 26, 2019, removing some limitations, but maintaining the generally restrictive mandate; the bulletin’s summary indicates that “educational, informational or advocacy literature and/or signs which incorporate a licensee’s business trade name at events held within 1000’ of restricted entities will not be considered advertising, so long as that signage, sponsorship, and literature is non-commercial in nature, e.g., does not involve the solicitation of business, descriptions of products sold at stores, lists of products sold, or refer to prices of products.”

Whitson says Hempfest’s lawyers expect the lawsuit to go to trial in May.

“Even though (the Liquor and Cannabis Board) did conclude that 502 businesses can come to Hempfest and hand out information with their names and logos, we’re still moving forward with our lawsuit for both commercial and free-speech rights for the cannabis industry because we’re getting hosed all over the place,” she says. “This is a blow Hempfest wants to strike for the industry. It’s not only for us.”

MV: Are the challenges Hempfest faces unique to Hempfest or are other festivals facing similar hurdles?

VM: We have some shared challenges and we have some unique challenges in that sense. Festivals in general are struggling in this region. Several festivals have gone defunct. The economics and the demographics are changing. I think that’s shared among event organizers.

And then, of course, because of the cannabis and political aspects of Hempfest, it faces really unique political issues. We’re in the middle of downtown by the waterfront with a highly controversial and impactful event. That creates issues with us dealing with the downtown business core and neighbors.

We’ve done very well over the years, generally, but we’ve had to meet with community groups and business groups in the area and do a lot of work. I’ve had to hand-deliver public notice of the event and get sign-offs from businesses within a couple block radius of the event every year.

MV: What can people do to help preserve Hempfest and continue to move its mission forward?

SW: The key things are to donate, volunteer, vend or sponsor — and shop at Hempfest Central (the organization’s retail outlet, located at 3220 NE 125th St. in Seattle).

All you have to do is a Google image search of Hempfest to see the size and diversity of our crowd. If you’re a business, there really is no better marketing event than Hempfest. Our booths start at $599, so that’s super reasonable for you to have access to 100,000 marijuana enthusiasts over a three-day weekend — and you can enjoy the ambiance of Hempfest on top of it.

Donations are another super-critical thing for us. We only get about 44 cents per attendee in donations, which is just absolutely crazy. You get three days of total freedom, three stages of performers and speakers and hundreds of vendors. Even if everybody gave a dollar when they came through the gates, that could be life-changing for us.

VM: Another thing that’s changed since legalization is our donations have gone down significantly as there’s this perception that the work is done.

SW: Hempfest really is a labor of love. And it is a whole lot of fun to be involved with. We’ve really become a family over the years of event production, but we’re always looking for new members and volunteers. There are so many ways to get involved.

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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