by Hannah Levin

"One of the greatest things anyone with a political agenda can have is to be exactly not what people are expecting you to be," Hempfest organizer Dominic Holden tells me while sipping a Bloody Mary and holding my gaze intently. "I think a lot of people anticipate that marijuana-policy reformists are all in their 40s and 50s, have long gray hair, say 'far out' all the time, and are so aligned with the counterculture that everything from the way they act and the clothes they wear reflects that."

With a boyish face, a mischievous lilt in his articulate voice, and a shock of spiky black hair, 26-year-old Holden certainly isn't what you would expect a Hempfest organizer to look like. While it's relatively common knowledge that there's no such thing as a typical stoner anymore, the idea of a pot activist almost immediately triggers visions of a peace-loving guy toting a Guatemalan-print backpack, wielding exceptionally well-developed Hacky Sack skills, and exuding the olfactory assault of patchouli oil. (To be fair, Hempfest wouldn't have grown from a small, informal 1991 rally into its contemporary incarnation as a vivid, cohesive picture of the drug-law reform movement without the hard work of folks like the aforementioned Hacky Sack player--but you see what I'm getting at.)

Holden may not look like a stereotypical hemp activist, but he is clearly a passionate young activist on the rise. As one of the pivotal members of Hempfest's planning committee since 1997, Holden has helped expand the grassroots event from its early manifestation as a loosely organized one-day event in Gas Works Park to this week's carefully orchestrated two-day production in Myrtle Edwards Park, complete with an avalanche of political and celebrity speakers, dozens of bands, and tens of thousands of pot smokers. Last year's Hempfest crowd swelled to 175,000. While the increasing success of the event is undoubtedly due in part to the wise, diplomatic skills of veteran organizers, much of the assertive, youthful energy of this year's festival is shining brightly out of Holden. His demeanor is equal parts suave, professional spin doctor and attentive, gregarious conversationalist; chatting with him about drug-law reform could compel even the most complacent slacker or rigidly opinionated baby boomer to take a second look at just how deeply the drug war has wounded our country.

Oh, and Dominic Holden isn't your average Hempfest organizer in one other respect. He doesn't smoke pot. Not anymore, anyway.

Shortly after his birth in Domme, France, Holden moved to Seattle with his parents, settling on the edge of the Central District, a location that contributed early on to his liberal leanings. "Growing up [in the Central District] was interesting--rich white people on one side of the hill, and poor African Americans on the other." The schools he attended throughout his childhood also laid the groundwork for his eventual interest in the civil rights movement. "I went to St. Therese elementary school, which was a predominantly black, Catholic school, and I also went to Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary," explains Holden. "So from a very, very early age, the civil rights movement and the value of overcoming prejudice was something that was always present."

His first exposure to local activism came at the impressionable age of 16, when a WashPIRG canvasser showed up at his door, soliciting money to help fund environmental conservation efforts. "Ultimately their goal was to hit people up for cash, but I didn't have any money because I was only 16. Still, I was really into [the cause], and I realized they were making money trying to support it."

Holden was so taken with the idea of landing a paying job that aligned with his political beliefs that he promptly dropped out of high school and started going door-to-door for WashPIRG. "I found that I really loved it. Seattle is a pretty positive place, and people are aware of the issues. The very first door I went to, I finished my little rap and she immediately said, 'Oh, let me go get my checkbook,' so I thought, 'Hey, this is so cool, it's so easy!'--but of course, it wasn't that easy after I kept on going."

It wasn't particularly well-paying, either, so Holden took a job waiting tables at the Palomino and began exploring other ways to continue his activism while still surviving financially. "I knew going in that waiting tables was more or less a dead-end job," he says pragmatically. "But I also knew it was a decent way to make money, pay the bills, and still have the flexibility to be an activist."

As he approached 18, his interest in drug-law reform began to take shape, thanks in part to witnessing what was happening to many of his childhood friends. "By the time I reached adulthood, it seemed like nearly all the black kids I had grown up with had gone to jail for pot, and all of the white kids I hung out with hadn't had any problems or run-ins with the police. It was a huge disparity, and it was one of the biggest motivating factors in getting me more interested in changing drug laws than continuing along with environmentalism."

At the urging of his older brother, Holden attended his first Hempfest in 1994, working as a volunteer. He admits that at that juncture, like a typical teen of his age, he was still much more interested in "chemical studies" than political activism. While liberal causes were becoming more important in his world, he was still just a teenage stoner following the lead of his brother and his peers. (When I myself attended the same festival that year, my friends and I were much more intrigued by the possibilities of bared breasts and a public smoke-a-thon than by the prospect of advancing any long-term political agenda.)

At his first Hempfest, Holden was put to work in the overcrowded Gas Works Park parking lot. "We had this little tiny parking lot with only a few spaces in it, and everyone was just driving down to the park," he remembers. "So it was a total clusterfuck. I had a giant oversized event-staff shirt hanging down to my knees, and basically everyone wanted to park in this lot, so it was my job to say 'no,' like 9,000 times. Although I do remember this van full of Rasta guys with dreads down to their feet, and I let them park. They seemed really sweet!" He laughs.

Watching the crowds grow that day from a few hundred to several thousand was all the affirmation Holden needed to know he was on the right path. "By midafternoon there were 20,000 people there, and I was looking out over this sea of every different type of person imaginable. Just to see what a wide range of people were supportive of the issue was really inspiring--that there was a single cause that could unite so many people, from every walk of life. I knew at that point that I would keep working on that, but I didn't realize the level of involvement I would eventually have."

After continuing to work with his brother on the '95 festival, Holden took on a new role as staff coordinator in 1997. (Chief organizers Jim Goettler and Vivian McPeak put Hempfest on hold in 1996 in order to write a hemp voter's guide.) "It was at that point that we started getting more organized and structured," he says. "We had seen that it was successful enough that it was time to get the different departments to work smoothly with each other."

With a more cohesive infrastructure forming and an evolving mission taking hold--issues such as medical marijuana began entering the picture in the late '90s--Holden became more involved with a core group of Hempfest planners, pushing to expand the audience of festival attendees. In 2000, he invited Ecstasy-testing activist group DanceSafe (known primarily for its harm-reduction presence in rave culture) to host Hempfest's newly christened electronica stage. He was keenly aware that black and Latino communities were disproportionately prosecuted under current drug laws, and it became a goal to reach out to those communities, as well as to a younger generation of pro-pot activists.

"Without Dominic Holden, Seattle Hempfest would still be a backwater hippie smoke-out," says Hempfest staff director Katie Morse. "I've known Dom since 1997, and I am still impressed by his abilities every day--he's like a Harvard professor in a 26-year-old's body, with the ability to communicate with anyone from the youngest street urchin to the toughest city council member, making them laugh and leaving them with a profound respect for him and for Hempfest."

Holden's networking and promotional skills started to produce dramatic results. "We saw a big change in 2000, when more African Americans started to come," explains Holden. "And we started to promote more aggressively to their communities. And still, Hempfest could do a lot more to reach out to those communities. But we find ourselves in an odd situation. We don't want to seem naive and go to some black community group and say, 'Hey, we're here to invite you to our thing!' because then you show how out of the loop and stupid you really are. I think as a group we need to continue to send the message that this is an event that should interest everyone, but that poor communities and African American and Latino communities have been disproportionately affected by the drug war."

Ironically, just as Holden's leadership role was growing, his personal interest in smoking pot was waning.

"I used to smoke pot all the time--I was a heavier smoker than most of the heavy smokers I know, smoking multiple times a day," he says frankly. "And I honestly feel that I was able to do it as part of a healthy and productive lifestyle. Now, I'm not delusional; pot is a sedative. It can make you tired, make your reaction time slower, make you less interesting and deaden conversation. But I would smoke pot before I had to do big projects and not let it hold me back--I really enjoyed it, especially when things got really stressful. But I eventually found that it started to make me tired and bored, as opposed to feeling interested and engaged with the world. So I thought, 'Well, every drug is different for every different person, and now it's not doing for me what it used to do.' I certainly wasn't just going to keep doing it for the sake of doing it, so I stopped."

The factors behind Holden's choice to quit illuminate one of his strongest qualities as an activist: He doesn't overly romanticize the drug's useful qualities, nor does he downplay its less-than-lustrous side effects. There are few things more maddening than conversing with an activist who views pot as some sort of universally applicable elixir of the gods. It may alleviate nausea for chemo patients and inspire David Schmader to write brilliant headlines for this paper each week, but it can also leave you slack-jawed and inordinately enamored with movies on the Lifetime network for women.

Putting down the bong didn't quell Holden's interest in drug-law reform in the slightest--if anything, he felt reinvigorated by knowing that his political passion still synched up with his earliest interests as an activist. "I've had a lot of people ask me why I'm an activist if I don't smoke it. And the answer is the same thing it's always been: The drug war has caused so much more harm than good. I feel it has institutionalized racism and allowed our prison population to swell and misdirected our law-enforcement resources, period."

After founding the Washington chapter of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) in 2000, Holden turned his energies to Initiative 75, a citywide proposal that would make marijuana possession by adults law enforcement's lowest priority. It would also create an 11-member panel that reports back to the city council on the long-term effects of the ordinance. "The Seattle Police Department and the prosecutors have to report to this panel all the marijuana-related arrests that are made and how they were prosecuted," explains Holden. "Rather than spending resources arresting those people, we can spend it fighting violent and dangerous crime, which is a far greater threat to our community than someone sitting at home smoking a joint." Like any good activist, Holden exudes eternal optimism when I ask him whether he thinks such a liberal initiative will pass. "I absolutely feel like it's going to happen. We've been polling extensively, and if you just look at the numbers it's clear voters are supportive of it." Still, he's realistic about what he's up against. "Of course, representatives of the federal government could come in and start giving people misinformation about how the initiative would actually work, and that would hurt us--and we can't compete with their budget dollars."

Any discussion about the future of drug laws and the legalization of marijuana invariably turns to the issue of decriminalization versus legalization. Recent decriminalization reforms in Canada have sparked a great deal of debate among activists about where the factors of taxation and regulation weigh in the benefit-and-risk analysis of legalizing a drug that currently carries a street value equivalent to gold. Holden sees governmental involvement as an inevitable part of reform.

"Legalization is an open-ended term," he says. "However, decriminalization is very specific. Before we can get to whatever the final model is, we'll have to go through a decriminalization stage where it's still not legal, but you won't go to jail for it. Decriminalizing will show people that this model doesn't automatically result in the erosion of society--then we can go to the next step, which I see as a tax-and-regulation model. Any time you have a commodity-backed value--marijuana is as valuable ounce-for-ounce as gold now--there's going to be some sort of regulation of it. Ultimately, I'd like to see it treated just like alcohol so that you could get it in establishments that had a license to serve it, or purchase it in stores, pay the appropriate taxes on it that would go to fund programs--and maybe some of that money going to giving people accurate information about marijuana and how to use it responsibly."

At this point, Holden and the Hempfest organizers can proudly claim that their event is the single largest drug-policy reform event in the world--and Holden's tenacity and drive clearly illustrate the potential for a bright future as a policymaker or politician. It's a career change that he can already envision.

"I'm not sure if I'll be working on marijuana-policy reform for the rest of my life--hopefully because we will have achieved our agenda and I can move on to other things," he says. "Hempfest is nonpartisan, but I'm a staunch Democrat--I loathe the Republican Party. I would love to go work as a strategist with the national party and middle-of-the-road voters, to get this country back on a road that's more sustainable. I've learned a lot from Hempfest as far as event organizing, so I think it would be great to work on the Democratic National Convention. Maybe that's what I'll be doing in 12 years."