BY KEITH STROUP
I just returned a few days ago from the annual Seattle Hempfest, the 24th version of this extravaganza, and I thought I might share some of my reflections on this extraordinary and unique event.
First and foremost, Hempfest is truly an enormous undertaking that requires several days of long hours to assemble the stages and hundreds of individual exhibitor and vendor booths; three days of long hours to manage, including a security team to guard the park overnight and provisions to feed the hundreds of volunteers each day; and then several days of equally long hours to disassemble everything, clean the grounds and replace any damaged turf.
And keep in mind this is an all-volunteer event sponsored by Seattle Events, a not-for-profit corporation, and is also free to the public. The event costs the Hempfest organization nearly $900,000 to put on, and that money is raised largely from vendors, exhibitors and sponsors. The volunteer effort is headed by Hempfest co-founder and Executive Director Vivian McPeak. McPeak leads a core group of volunteers who meet year around to plan for the next Hempfest, and who run a downtown store called Hempfest Central selling all sorts of hemp-based products.
There are three primary stages (the Share Parker Memorial Main Stage; the Peter McWilliams Memorial Stage; and the Ralph Seeley Memorial Stage, all named for beloved legalization activists who are no longer with us) spread along a narrow piece of parkland called the Myrtle Edwards Park. The park extends more than a mile along the downtown Seattle waterfront, from which an array of bands perform each day, with several speakers scheduled for brief 5-minute speeches between music sets (while the next band is setting-up). Some of the prominent speakers this year included Congressman Dana Rohrabacher from CA, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes and public television travel guru and author (and NORML board member) Rick Steves.
There is also a separate tent called the Hemposium, where panels are scheduled each day focusing on the politics of legalization along with cultivation techniques, and edibles and concentrates. Most Hempfest attendees, however, seem to enjoy strolling the grounds lined with literally hundreds of organizational booths and food vendors (no alcohol is permitted), enjoying the colorful crowd and the live music. Attracting a crowd to the more serious panels is a challenge each year, as most of the estimated 90,000 people attending each day are there to relax and have fun, not to attend seminars.
The first thing one becomes aware of when entering the Hempfest is the rather long, narrow walkway from the entrance just to get to the event itself; and just when you think you have reached the center of things, you realize the park continues for more than a mile, with every inch lined with booths and vendors on both sides. If one is speaking at one of the distant stages, you have to allow as much as an hour or more to wade through the crowds on the narrow, crowded pathways to arrive at your destination. Most attendees seem to come for the day, making one big loop through the park to catch a glimpse of everything, before picking a comfortable place to spend time listening to music and speeches at one of the stages, before starting the trek out of the park and back to reality.
Also, anyone attending for the first time would be amazed at the colorful and creative look of many who attend. Although the majority are ordinary-looking folks who have come to enjoy a day in the park with other marijuana affectionados, a fair number clearly see the Hempfest as an opportunity to fly their freak-flags. People with bazar clothing and costumes, and sometimes face and body paint; a few were topless with marijuana leaves painted strategically on their bodies. It is, after all, a counter-cultural celebration of personal freedom.
After my first Hempfest, I told a friend that I had discovered the answer to the question of where all the hippies from Woodstock had gone: I saw them at the Hempfest!
And everyone is in a celebratory mood, enjoying the scene and soaking-in the good vibes. Since alcohol is not allowed anywhere in the park, there are no drunks, no fights and none of the problems one might find in a crowded beer garden. Instead those who want are high on some form of marijuana, and all are feeling mellow and celebrating the reality that marijuana has now been legalized in Washington state.
NORML, along with WA NORML, always has a booth near the main stage (the NORML Women of Washington have another booth nearby), next to the High Times booth, which allows us to hang out with our friends from the magazine, and back each other up if someone needs to leave to deliver a talk at some distant stage. With the two biggest brands in the legalization field being next to each other, that is always a popular area with lots of foot traffic. But by mid-afternoon on all three days, the park is jam-packed with people and it is a challenge to keep the crowd moving, regardless of where one is located in the park.
On the first evening, Hempfest throws a special party at the Hemposium tent for all speakers (and there are more than 100) along with their adult guests and those who have purchased VIP tickets. On the second evening there are no official events, but generally there are a couple of private, invitation-only parties. This year one party was sponsored by WA NORML,the Marijuana Business Association of Washington (MJBA) and O.penvape, a company that sells small pen vaporizers; and the second by DOPE Magazine and Dutch Master, a cultivation nutrient company. For most of us who have a booth at the event, we are exhausted by the end of the day, and can barely drag our ass to an evening party. But as you would imagine, these are terrific parties. Good food; great marijuana in all sorts of varieties, and an open bar. What’s not to like?
And because there are thousands of people in Seattle from the newly legal marijuana industry all across the country, there are generally a couple of late night private parties that one only learns about through word-of-mouth. Just the type of parties I would have enjoyed when I was a little younger, but generally pass-up today. I am an old guy, and my internal clock just does not accommodate a lot of late parties!
The Hempfest theme this year was “Time, Place and Manner,” focusing on the need under the new WA legalization law to limit one’s smoking to private situations. As their website states, the “Seattle Hempfest seeks to advance the cause of Cannabis policy reform through education, while advancing the public image of the Cannabis advocate or enthusiast through example.” They want to encourage responsible use, while celebrating all things marijuana-related.
This was further reflected in a new feature this year; 21 and older smoking tents (called Adult Lounges) at two locations within the park. Of course lots of attendees also smoked as they strolled the grounds, and there were no arrests, but it was nonetheless a thoughtful gesture by Hempfest (something they were urged to do by the Seattle police department) to include these fully-legal smoking areas this year, intended to avoid anyone having to worry about receiving a citation for public smoking and at reducing youth exposure to pot smoking during Hempfest.
By the end of the three-day event, I was exhausted and happy to head home to Washington, DC. But the make-believe world that is the Seattle Hempfest is an annual spectacle I look forward to attending each year. There really is nothing quite like it anywhere.