Seattle's Hempfest celebrates new law, mellows pot activists

In contrast to last year's Hempfest rally in Seattle, which pitted activists in favor of legalizing marijuana against activists concerned about potential harm to the medical marijuana industry, this year's event focuses on public education.

Matt Mills McKnight/Reuters
Dave Stewart of Seattle, Washington, smokes a marijuana cigarette during the Hempfest rally in downtown Seattle, August 16. Thousands gathered for the annual rally since Washington state and Colorado passed initiatives to legalize marijuana for recreational use in November 2012.

Pot smoke wafted over thousands of revelers gathered at Seattle's downtown waterfront to kick off the first Hempfest rally since Washington state and Colorado passed initiatives to legalize marijuana for recreational use last November.

The mellow mood among the revelers swaying to reggae music on Friday was in stark contrast to the harsh vibe at last year's event, which pitted pot activist against pot activist in a fight over the state ballot measure that some saw as a threat to medical marijuana producers and users.

"Last year, every five steps it was like, 'Vote yes!' Vote no!' Vote yes!'" said Katelyn Cherry, 18, who ate shaved ice from a cone while sitting on a patch of grass next to a glass bong. "There's none of that going on anymore, so that's nice."

This year's Hempfest — expected to draw as many as 85,000 visitors in each of its three days — is meant to celebrate the new law and help heal the rifts of last year's campaign. It also aims to oppose marijuana's continued federal status as a dangerous narcotic with no legitimate medical applications, said Vivian McPeak, the event's longtime executive director.

"I would hope that people realize this is not the time to stop," he said. "When you're winning is the time to ramp it up and take it to the next level."


In the mid-1990s, McPeak recalled, police at Hempfest conducted undercover buy-and-bust operations, periodically slapping handcuffs on vendors of pot brownies and removing them from the premises.

But this year, instead of writing tickets for public pot smoking — which remains forbidden in the state — police were handing out about 1,000 bags of Doritos tortilla chips bearing information on the state's pot laws.

"It feels great that instead of issuing citations for public smoking, the police are issuing Dorito bags," McPeak said. "That seems like a big deal."

Many medical users and producers of marijuana feared that passage of the last year's ballot initiative, I-502, would lead to a crackdown on drivers who used pot and pressure lawmakers to create stricter rules and higher taxes for a medical industry that currently has little state oversight.

Among those opposing last year's legalization campaign was Don Skakie, who on Friday stood at a booth gathering signatures for a legislative initiative that would among other things exempt medical pot users from marijuana blood limits for driving that became effective under I-502.

Despite the bruised feelings from last year's initiative battle, Skakie said, most in the pot community have moved on.

"If people are still at each other it's over personal issues, not political issues," he said. "People have realized that we fought that fight."

Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Vicki Allen

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