Seattle's Hempfest ushered in an era of legal weed. Will that be its downfall?

The annual "protestival" challenged the culture to think differently about cannabis. Now that it does, the future of the prominent weed festival looks hazy.

American flag and pot plant

An American flag flies atop the stage at the first day of Hempfest, Friday, Aug. 16, 2013, in Seattle. Thousands packed the Seattle waterfront park for the opening of a three-day marijuana festival. (Photo by Elaine Thompson/AP)

I had been trying to track down Vivian McPeak all week, and I finally reached him Wednesday afternoon. He was steering an E-Z-GO golf cart through Seattle’s Myrtle Edwards Park, radio at his hip, greeting volunteers and solving a thousand little problems. McPeak is a co-founder of Hempfest, the free-speech-and-cannabis “protestival” that rolls out its 28th annual edition on the waterfront this weekend. Upwards of 100,000 guests are expected.

I wanted to talk with McPeak because Hempfest has always intrigued and confused me. He and some friends started the event in 1991, when cannabis was extremely illegal. Since then it’s grown into the granddaddy of all cannabis festivals, known and revered in weed culture around the world. And yet it’s still full of contradictions.

First of all, it’s technically not a cannabis festival. “It’s a protest festival,” McPeak explained. “The Constitution of the United States says we have the right to peacefully assemble and air disagreements with the government.” That’s how the fest started, back in the summer of 1991 — as an offshoot of the 1990-91 Gulf War protests and peace actions McPeak helped organize. The purpose wasn’t to light up a joint, but to express public outrage over the fact that lighting up a joint could lead to prison.

It’s still that way today. Hempfest is set up like a three-day marathon of Hyde Park soapboxers or a never-ending series of five-minute TED Talks. Cannabis farmer Crystal Oliver will talk about reforming Washington’s Initiative-502 laws. Comedian Ngaio Bealum will riff on edibles. Rolling Stone writer Amanda Chicago Lewis will discuss cannabis media. Grow guru Kyle Kushman will go off about cannabis seeds. Or they may talk about something completely different. Who knows? Each speaker gets four minutes and change to say their piece. Then it’s on to the next. The schedule, parsed in five minute increments, is insane. “We don’t have a minute of dead time,” McPeak told me. “People will come up and ask, ‘Hey man, let me play a song,’ and I’ve got to tell them, sorry man, we don’t have a minute to spare.”

Another point of confusion: Hempfest actually did start out with a focus on hemp, not smokable sativas. “Jack Herer’s book had come out a couple years earlier and revolutionized our thinking,” McPeak recalled. Herer, a legend in the cannabis world, published The Emperor Wears No Clothes in 1985. It’s a kind of book-length zine about reefer madness, cannabis prohibition and the scuttling of the American hemp industry. (Hemp is the same cannabis sativa plant that produces the flower you can buy in legal cannabis stores today. To be considered hemp it must contain, by law, less than 0.3% THC, the plant’s intoxicating cannabinoid.) Emperor went on to become one of the best-selling underground books in publishing history.

Here’s irony for you: THC-rich cannabis became legal in Washington state in 2012. But this year’s event is the first Hempfest where hemp itself is federally legal. The farm bill Congress passed last December contained a provision removing hemp from the Controlled Substances Act.

A further twist: Hemp reform was led by Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, an ardent cannabis prohibitionist who set hemp free because the farmers in his home state of Kentucky see it as a promising cash crop. Demand for hemp is skyrocketing because hemp doesn’t contain much THC but it does produce CBD, the medically active cannabinoid that’s flying off the shelves. So you can thank Sen. Mitch the next time you pop that CBD gummy.

All of these twists, turns and unforeseen consequences came out of Hempfest — and they’re kind of its point. Viv McPeak’s genius was to create a cannabis celebration that’s really a festival of ideas and unconventional thinking. Back in 1991 nobody — and I mean nobody — thought we’d see cannabis legalization in our lifetimes. Along came Hempfest to say, Why not?

At first it was kind of funny. Go ahead and dream, you crazy hippies. Then Hempfest stuck around, year after year. Cannabis and free speech enthusiasts arrived in Seattle from all over the country every August. And here’s the thing: They caused no trouble. We all knew there was plenty of not-legal consumption going on. We put two and two together. By “we” I mean the voters of Seattle and eventually Washington state.

The big idea Hempfest launched into global culture was this: Regarding cannabis, things are not as you have been told. We invite you to consider an alternative perspective.

Twenty-one years after the first Hempfest, voters in Washington and Colorado passed the world’s first adult-use cannabis legalization initiatives. Viv McPeak’s idea for a little festival in a Seattle park helped spark a global movement.

Here’s the final irony: The legalization that Hempfest created has imperiled the festival. “It’s been a lot harder to raise money since legalization, believe it or not,” McPeak told me. The scrappy companies that once paid for the vendor booths that paid Hempfest’s bills often spend their dollars at legal cannabis industry trade shows instead. “A couple years ago the state Legislature passed a law banning [state-licensed cannabis companies] from advertising on public property or in parks,” he said. “That cost us about $175,000 a year.”

It costs about $750,000 to put on the three-day show. Hempfest spends $12,000 to $15,000 every year just on park upkeep and event cleanup. Nine hundred volunteers work in 118 shifts over 10 days of setup, event and load-out. There is no event-fee option. Hempfest has always been free and will always be free — because it’s a free speech event, remember? To stay within that legal category, the festival can’t charge for admission. So they ask for donations, hold fundraisers throughout the year and somehow make it happen. “It’s a struggle, man, it’s a struggle,” McPeak told me.

This year I’m digging into my wallet and ponying up some bigger bills to help McPeak and his army of volunteers pay the rent. It’s the least I can do. I owe my job to the man, after all. Ten years ago I was one of those who scoffed at Hempfest. It wasn’t my scene. Now I’m an editor at Leafly, the world’s largest cannabis information resource. The company exists in part because of the cultural change Hempfest made happen. We’re growing so fast that the company just moved into a new headquarters building directly across the railroad tracks from Myrtle Edwards Park. From my desk, I’ve watched out the window as volunteers spent all week building the Hempfest main stage. And it got me thinking about what I owe to the people who got it all started. Thanks, at the very least. So thank you, Viv. Thanks for improving the world.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Bruce Barcott

Bruce Barcott

Bruce Barcott is a senior editor at Leafly and the author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.