Keith Negley

During seven months of meetings with the city's special-events committee, Hempfest organizers say they practically begged for a detailed plan for how the Seattle Art Museum would accommodate the festival—since the construction site for the museum's sculpture park includes a piece of public land Hempfest needs to access to get into Myrtle Edwards Park, where Hempfest has been held since 1995.

Hempfest, to be held August 19 and 20, filed the application for its event permit on January 3. After at least a dozen meetings and discussions with city personnel and museum staffers, the festival and the museum had not come to a written logistical agreement so that an event permit could be issued. On July 31, feeling crunched for time and citing fear that the city would rather back a high-profile museum development project than a marijuana festival, Hempfest organizers filed a lawsuit against the city to get their permit.

A week later, the museum had complied with Hempfest's requests and the permit was issued. The ruffle was over, but an odd precedent was set. Would other groups holding free assemblies have to file lawsuits to get the city to assert its authority over powerful parties on public land?

"What I learned is that the city was a heck of a lot more responsive and took a heck of a harder line with the Seattle Art Museum after it got sued," said Hempfest attorney Fred Diamondstone.

When the lawsuit was filed, diplomacy had fallen through, and a certain kind of overblown war commenced. Hempfest accused the museum of stomping around like it owned the place, and in the process jeopardizing the free-speech rights of advocates for marijuana-law reform. The museum accused Hempfest of being selfish, too, and unnecessarily litigious.

In writings back and forth even after the lawsuit was filed July 31, Hempfest said it needed access to the land during certain hours, and for a certain number of vehicles. The museum responded that of course it intended to provide access for the event—but that there were limits to what it could do and still meet its own deadline for opening October 28. And there was the impasse.

At least the law was clear: Basically, the museum had to do what Hempfest asked, to accommodate a passage route on city land for trucks and other vehicles so that 150,000 or so people could come to Myrtle Edwards for one of the nation's largest events for marijuana reform.

Given how cut and dried the issue turned out to be, how did things deteriorate to the point of litigation and animosity? Why didn't the city's special-events committee simply put its foot down, remind the museum of its obligations, reassure a plainly nervous Hempfest, and broker the deal?

Virginia Swanson, head of the special-events committee (which issues about 225 to 250 permits a year for parades, festivals, and sporting events), denies that anything went wrong.

"I don't think there was any breakdown," she says.

Should other event organizers expect to go to the courts to get permits?

"I'm not sure they needed to bring a lawsuit to get the permit," she says.

Then how did things get to this point?

"I don't think it would be beneficial to get into the details," she says.

City Council Member Peter Steinbrueck takes umbrage at Swanson's nonchalance. During the dispute, he spoke with both sides, and saw the same level of frustration from each. The city has received "numerous complaints" about the issuance of permits, he says, and he's tired of hearing about them. He intends to raise the prospect of a performance audit with other council members.

"You shouldn't have a festival of 100,000-plus people kept on hold until days before the event that has gone on for years," Steinbrueck says. "I understand the museum's interest in protecting their project and their construction site—they've invested a lot and they don't want it messed up—but that's where the city comes in. We have the final authority over this. This is our park, our right of way, and the museum has limited permissory use of the right of way, so I'm not accepting excuses here at this late stage when it took a lawsuit to get the issue out." recommended

jgraves@thestranger.com