Stoned in Seattle: Hempfest Highlights

Looking north, view of the main stage at Seattle Hempfest, right on the Puget Sound. (

The 23rd Seattle Hempfest, the first one held since Washington opened legal recreational pot shops, was ironically unable to send its estimated 250,000 participants to a marijuana retail store in Seattle, since none was open that had a supply to sell. The situation didn't seem to hamper the party atmosphere at the event, despite the new law's proscription against public smoking and the 21-and-over "Liberty Lounges" that were new to the festival this year.

With five music stags plus the Hemp Symposium tent, there was plenty to do besides get high during the Aug. 15-17 weekend in Myrtle Edwards Park that hugs the Puget Sound.

Gathering press attention was California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican who co-sponsored a recent bill (HR 1523) that passed the House to defund federal raids in medical marijuana states. On the "Has the Legalization Train Left the Station?" panel, Rohrbacher suggested activists work on the 50 to 100 Republicans in Congress he thinks could be brought over to supporting reform. He encouraged all to discover who voted for and against his bill, and to praise as freedom-lovers those who voted for and shame the others as big-government lovers who betray the founding fathers' vision for the U.S. "Find three people in everyone's district whose children or parents need medical marijuana, or whose veteran son has PTSD, and visit their offices," he said. (Californians can see who voted for Rohrabacher's bill here.)

California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrbacher: "Putting somebody in jail for smoking a weed is stupid." (Doug McVay)

Earlier in the day, from the main stage, Rohrbacher riled up the crowd, calling marijuana prohibition stupid. "Putting somebody in jail for smoking a weed is stupid," he reiterated. "Arresting someone for smoking a weed at a time when basically a lot of people gravitating to this, putting them in a cage and giving them a criminal record that will follow them for the rest of their life - that is really, really stupid!… We don't need policeman to come and arrest people for they private behavior."

Back at the Hemposium tent, Alison Holcomb, the chief architect of I-502, the initiative that legalized marijuana in Washington State in 2012, stated: "Maybe legalization has left the station but we have a lot to do to keep it on the rails." Legalization is seen as anti-business and people are still scared of the effect on children, she explained. Her organization, Washington ACLU, is suing over local jurisdictions banning marijuana retail outlets despite the state licensing system.

"We're still boarding the legalization train in California and people are welcome on board," chimed in California NORML's Dale Gieringer, who spoke about a coalition effort to put a legalization measure on the ballot in California in  2016. Gieringer also noted that Aug. 16 was the 50th anniversary of the first known civil disobedience pot protest, staged in San Francisco by Lowell Eggemeier.

California pot comic Ngaio Bealum tokes on stage at Seattle Hempfest. (Doug McVay)

On the "Medical Marijuana in Washington State: How Do We Save It?" panel, Washington State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles called for quality control, access and availability for medical marijuana, except to minors. Her bill last year would have given patients the right to grow their own and full arrest protection if they voluntarily registered with the state. Another bill would've forced medical patients into the I-502 recreational system. Right now, patients can grow 15 plants for their own use, plus 30 as caregivers for others, according to Washington NORML.

Registration is controversial, despite Holcomb's assurances that her group worked with the University of Washington to craft language assuring total privacy for patients who register. Like California's breakthrough law, Prop. 215, Washington's medical law offers only an "affirmative defense" to marijuana charges, and arrest protection only comes with registration.

ASA's Kari Boiter pointed out that the clientele is different between medical and recreational marijuana, regarding strains and patterns of use. While the recreational system is built to discourage use, medical objectives are different, she said. Activist Brian Stone, who manages 420leaks, observed that retail stores don't offer the varieties patients require, and said that since the Liquor Control Board has approved over 200 pesticides, he worried that patients' health could be compromised if they were forced into the recreational system. "Joe Six Pack with be satisfied with cheaper, more commercial brands, but patients need better," Stone added.

NORML founder Keith Stroup reminds people to be responsible marijuana users. (Doug McVay)

Many spoke about the one-ounce limit at recreational outlets being unworkable for patients. Longtime activist Allison Bigelow said she couldn't afford a license through I-502, even though she's helped many patients, including children who need CBD. Others objected to the recreational law's 25/25/25/10 tax structure (taxed 25% at the grower, processor and distributor levels, plus 10% sales tax). Don Wirtshafter lamented that, though the retailers were chosen by lottery, the 1,700 would-be suppliers who applied for a Washington license weren’t chosen by so fair a system.

When the Washington legislature isn back in session in January, Kohl-Welles expects to see various bills from all sides of the issue. She called for an end to animosity and fragmentation, in language and action. "As long as we have regulated recreational marijuana and unregulated medical marijuana, there will never be peace in our state," she said, adding that medical-only stores as part of the 502 system would be one possible approach.

Present as a reminder that medical marijuana remains federally illegal were Rolland and Michelle Gregg, two members of the Kettle Falls 5, who are facing up to 20 years each on federal charges over a 68-plant garden. The case has been covered by Time and the New York Times, and ASA is running TV ads in Washington to draw attention to the case. Famed San Francisco-based attorney Tony Serra has joined their legal team.

Lil Eazy E, son of NWA rapper Eazy E, entertained the crowd at Hempfest. (

Federal charges have also been brought in the alleged hash-oil explosion and fire in November 2012 that resulted in the death of 87-year-old Nan Campbell, Bellevue, Washington’s first female mayor. The DEA’s Operation Shattered is targeting butane hash manufacturers in the state. “Solventless in Seattle” t-shirts were being sold by a group that advocated for old-fashioned water hash. Eden Labs’ CO2 extractor was displayed in the Liberty Garden Cannabis Lounge, offering an alternative for a price tag of $75,000.

Inside the Lounge, those who were carded outside could roll and smoke their own, and take dab hits courtesy of Have a Heart Compassion Care. It felt like freedom not to have to show a doctor’s note to gain entry to the lounge, only a driver’s license, as in a bar. The lounges will hopefully serve as a model for similar set-ups at upcoming public events like the Bumbershoot in Washington.

Winning the national activism award presented at the Friday night VIP party were California-based activists Chris Conrad and Mikki Norris. Also present at the event was Rick Steves, the Seattle-based PBS travel host and NORML supporter who stumped for I-502. Steves said he was on his way to Oregon to work on their legalization initiative.

The party will continue in three weeks, when High Times brings a recreational Cannabis Cup to Washington on September 6- 7 at the Comcast Arena in Everett, a half-hour ride north of Seattle.

Ellen Komp

Ellen Komp

Hemp/marijuana activist and writer based in Berkeley, California. She blogs at