A WALKING CLICHE A Hempfest "don't." Alice Wheeler
Before heading down to my first Hempfest (historically, my cannabis consumption has been tied to the comforts of home--sofas, pajama bottoms, cable TV), I spent some time exploring Hempfest's website. The site represents the full spectrum of pot-and-law concerns, from agricultural hemp facts and drug-reform updates to inspirational testimonies from productive pot smokers, gathering the disparate strands of the various hemp-related movements into what feels like a social whole. "We know the truth behind the war against us," reads the website's State of the Union address. "We see through the veil of lies and disinformation, the racism and cultural war that the right wing is waging against our peaceful culture. And we are fighting back, legally and responsibly, to make this country more free for those who threaten no one."

Fired up by the website's intelligent advocacy, I head to Myrtle Edwards Park, home to Hempfest for the past three years. Passing through the gates, I hear an amplified voice from a nearby stage reiterate one of Hempfest's major battle cries: "It's time to come out of the cannabis closet!" The appropriation of gay-rights lingo is fitting, as the rights sought by pot smokers and homosexuals are essentially the same: the freedom to conduct our private, adult business behind closed doors. As with the gay movement 20 years ago, the next wave of progress for pot acceptance is contingent on "regular" folk joining the fight--non-dreadlocked doctors and lawyers and writers admitting their pot use without shame and demanding the right to indulge without fear of arrest. Just as the gay movement strived to show the world that homosexuals are more than drunken drag queens and predatory swishes with poodles, Hempfest is hoping to replace the image of the lazy, deep-fried bonghead with that of sane, productive citizens who just happen to smoke pot. It's a smart move.

Unfortunately, as with the gay movement, the flagship event designed to unite the scattered masses seems inherently insufficient. Just as the annual gay parade traffics in the most hackneyed elements of gay life ("pride," sexual liberation), Hempfest offers a funhouse of pothead clichés, from hemp dream catchers and smoke-friendly "glass art" to marijuana-leaf leis and headline acts with pot puns in their names.

Fittingly, the overwhelming majority of the Hempfest hordes fit the Mad magazine profile of a pothead to a T. Sure, there are some aberrations from the barefoot-and-tie-dyed norm--sweet septuagenarians, adventurous urbanites, an impressive-for-Seattle racial mingling, and enough strollers to notice. But for the most part, the crowd seems drawn from the great, unwashed mass to be found wherever acid is dropped and hacky sacks kicked until the next Phish steps up to the plate.

As it is, Hempfest isn't without charm or fun or purpose--but it effectively neglects the audience its strategy demands it to court. To draw casual pot smokers "out of the cannabis closet," Hempfest needs to isolate its two goals, which for the past 13 years have been awkwardly compressed into a single event--an outdoor festival that strives to be both a political rally and a communal party for Washington potheads. Unfortunately, as it is, neither goal is accomplished. Hempfest's political aims--such as last year's highly successful I-75, which made possession of marijuana for personal use the lowest priority for Seattle law enforcement--deserve a sharper audience than a throng of blissfully stoned citizens, and the last thing a bunch of pleasure-seeking potheads want to hear is someone screeching through a microphone about freedom, or anything.

The division, essentially, is between goals best accomplished while sober (political strategizing, community outreach) and those contingent on being super high (the humongous stoner blowout Seattle potheads deserve). This final goal in particular needs fresh conception: As the stoner testimonials on Hempfest's website make clear, the majority of casual pot users smoke to enhance their enjoyment of life--so why restrict Hempfest's entertainment to groove bands, sensitive folkies, and hiphop crews? Why not find a gallery to book a stoner-friendly art show, or a cinema to run a Hempfest film fest? Only by reaching beyond the obvious will the pro-pot movement reach the closet cases it needs to succeed.

daves@thestranger.com