For the majority of folks—non–pot smokers and non-hippies—Hempfest may not seem to matter. It's like, "I'm not a buttrocker, so I'm not going to Ozzfest. Likewise, I'm not a stoner, so I'm not going to Hempfest."
Fair enough. But are you a civil libertarian? The drug war is one of America's most onerous campaigns, encroaching on personal freedom and filling prisons. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, over 80 percent of the increase in the federal prison population from 1985 to 1995 was due to drug convictions, and in 2001, 56.7 percent of the state prisoners for drug offenses were African American.
Despite these startling stats, our region has made significant headway in opposing the drug war. In 1998, with the overwhelming support of Seattle voters, Washington State passed Initiative 692, which protects patients who need medical marijuana (still in effect, despite the feds' best efforts). The ACLU of Washington and the King County Bar Association started their own drug-policy offices. Local elected officials made drug-policy reform tenets part of their platforms.
And in 2003 Seattle voters overwhelmingly passed Initiative 75, which made marijuana possession the city's lowest law-enforcement priority.
In short, Seattle has become the gold standard by which drug-reform efforts are measured around the country, and Hempfest is the local movement's signature event. Hempfest has evolved from a balls-to-the wall civil disobedience event to one of the largest political actions in the city. In 1992, it started with a couple thousand supporters attending to witness the embryonic rally with budding pot plants onstage and a relentless assault of grunge. This year, over 150,000 people are expected to show up to a six-stage extravaganza.
In the last 14 years, the event has done a lot to normalize marijuana use and foster an environment where talk about pot is becoming a safe discussion for politicians and mainstream folks. To this day, Hempfest continues to be the one place you can find all the organizations and leaders of our local reform movement together in one place.
Despite our successes, organizing, defending, and building the movement is as important as ever. The Bush administration is cracking down. The president's Drug Czar, John Walters, is campaigning against citizens' initiatives that would protect the everyday pot smoker. Meanwhile, busts for pot possession, not sales or growing, compose about 90 percent of the roughly 750,000 marijuana arrests nationwide each year. Now more than ever, marijuana is on the front lines of the drug war.
Just last month Canadian pot advocate and entrepreneur Marc Emery was arrested for operating a mail-order seed-sales company. Even though the business was aboveboard and de-facto legal for the last 10 years in our neighboring country, the U.S. waited until now to make a bust. In a recent press release from the DEA, Administrator Karen Tandy revealed the federal agency's primary motivation, stating that Emery's capture "...is a significant blow not only to the marijuana trafficking... but also to the marijuana legalization movement." Even though Emery's seed sales have been apparent for years, it may have taken drug warriors some time to figure out where Emery's money was going—to fund activism. The bust provides a chilling example of the current tactics of the Bush administration: use their power to quash not just pot sales, but pot advocacy. So if there was ever a time to show your allegiance to the marijuana movement that you believe in, it's now.
After dedicating myself to the "protestival" from 1994 to 2004, I've chosen to take a breather this year. The event now rests in the capable hands of dedicated volunteers, and they are poised to keep Seattle's opposition to the drug war ringing from Washington State all the way to Washington D.C. But they can't do it without the continued support of Seattle's progressive community. So, this weekend, I'll be there.
Hopefully, you can too.
Dominic Holden volunteered for Hempfest beginning in 1994, and was a director of the event from 1999 to 2004. He sits on Seattle's Marijuana Policy Review Panel, created by Initiative 75, and is a board member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.