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Seattle's Hempfest Enters New Era

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Amy Radil

Seattle’s 22nd annual Hempfest takes place in Myrtle Edwards park near Belltown this Friday afternoon through Sunday. And times have certainly changed. Initiative 502 has legalized recreational marijuana in Washington. But Hempfest founders say as long as marijuana is illegal under federal law, their festival will still focus on changing drug laws.Vivian McPeak is the founder of Seattle Hempfest, a three-day celebration of cannabis culture on the waterfront. For decades he ran it from home. It’s become a $700,000 festival with six stages and its own offices. McPeak says in recent years about 250,000 people have shown up. This year there could be more.

“If the rain stops, I think there’s a chance that we’ll have some more people," he said. "I’m not sure how many people have been staying away because marijuana’s been illegal. It doesn’t look like it’s been a big deterrent at Hempfest. That said, I think it’s safe to assume some folks might come out for the victory celebration.”

McPeak calls marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington a game-changer, and a validation for his movement. But even under Initiative 502, the signature activity at Hempfest – smoking pot in public – is still not permitted. “As a protest action we see public smoking as both an act of civil disobedience and a free-speech statement," McPeak said. "But that said, sales are heavily regulated, we don’t allow sales of any kind and we’ll be strictly enforcing that this year.” The Hempfest website asks people to please not sell drugs on-site.

Festival Vice President John Davis said Hempfest provides a good venue for the burgeoning marijuana business community to network. Then there’s cannabis paraphernalia and typical fair food. Davis said marijuana-infused “edibles” are NOT on the menu, but they make their way in. “This isn’t an open-air drug festival. And especially edibles, edibles are a scourge here.”

Every year he said some inexperienced festival-goers end up in the first-aid tent after too many brownies. And there could be more newcomers. Davis said he’s heard from various cannabis tourism groups, even a tour from North Korea. "So they’re coming to see. And Hempfest is a little piece of freedom," he said. "I don’t think they’ll be disappointed.”

This year that means freedom even from getting citations for smoking marijuana in public. The City Council hasn’t yet made that a ticketable offense. So police officers may issue warnings along with free snacks. They're handing out free Doritos bearing a link to more information on what's allowed, and what's not, under I-502.

Davis said he remembers a lot of arrests at Hempfest in the 1990's. He said Seattle Police Department's Operation Orange Fingers, as the Dorito initiative is called, is signaling a warmer relationship with police. “It’s an outreach to the attendees of Hempfest to say, ‘Look, we as law enforcement want to have better relations with you, but that doesn’t mean rules don’t exist.’”

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