The spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood will awaken in blissful harmony this weekend at Hempfest, the world's largest celebration of the magickal cannabis plant, as activists unite behind a communal strategy to legalize marijuana.
These activists are at each other's fucking throats.
Specifically, two factions of the marijuana legalization movement will clash in Myrtle Edwards Park this weekend (August 19–21) with dueling initiatives. So if you sign a pot petition at Hempfest and somebody asks you to sign another petition a few minutes later, it may be a different one. Because even though Hempfest will likely be another breezy affair in a marijuana-friendly city, Seattle's pot movement is divided by money, policy, and (of course) cultural differences.
The front-running campaign filed an initiative in June—with a cast of straitlaced sponsors, including former US attorney John McKay and travel personality Rick Steves—and has already raised a quarter-million dollars. The pioneering initiative would raise hundreds of millions in tax dollars for the state by allowing adults to purchase marijuana in stores, but it would ban people from growing marijuana at home. Between 85 and 100 petitioners are signed up to canvass the crowd to place this measure on next year's fall ballot, says campaign director Alison Holcomb.
The group is called New Approach Washington—known for short as NAW.
So what's the problem?
"I think NAW is a piece of shit," says Douglas Hiatt, who ran the campaign for another initiative, Sensible Washington, which raised relatively little money and failed to gather enough signatures two years in a row. He believes federal drug laws would nullify most of the NAW measure, and a provision that establishes an automatic penalty for driving under the influence of pot would turn medical marijuana patients who drive into criminals.
"I think it's divided the community pretty severely," Hiatt says about the hundreds of volunteers he's worked with and Seattle's robust medical marijuana industry. He calls the NAW measure "an expensive publicity stunt."
So on July 27, a new group filed a petition to legalize marijuana, based on the text of Sensible Washington's twice-failed measure. This statewide initiative would simply remove all state penalties for marijuana. That approach, says spokesman Don Skakie, would let you "grow it for yourself" without paying taxes on the pot.
The name of that new group? Yes End Penalties—or YEP!
That's right: It's YEP versus NAW.
"It's positive versus negative, as far as I'm concerned," Skakie says. He acknowledges that the backers of his measure, which he estimates needs 300,000 signatures, "don't have funding." His group has only about 30 volunteers lined up for Hempfest. However, he hopes to make the ballot in 2012 and beat out NAW when people "vote their conscience."
This reflects a classic divide between mainstream political players and grassroots activists—in nearly every political movement. In this case, NAW is playing to polling that shows most voters want government to regulate the marijuana market and punish people who are high behind the wheel. It's a calculated compromise. On the other end, activists take a more fundamentalist approach (no penalties, grow at home, zero taxes, free the weed!). If history is a guide, the group with the money, the strategy, the notable sponsors—and a slightly less radical proposal—has the upper hand.
In the short term, the NAW campaign is attempting to take the high road. "I just really want to see a victory delivered in 2012," says Holcomb. "But the only way it's going to happen is if we pull together... to push the first domino that's going to topple marijuana prohibition in this nation."
But local division could prevent that kind of national victory.
"I just hope we don't have the sort of fight here that they had in California in 2010," says Washington Cannabis Association member Philip Dawdy. Last year in that state, factions of the marijuana movement split. Pot growers and some activists voted against Proposition 19 in droves, believing that the new rules it created would be more nettlesome than the status quo. Sound familiar? That contributed to an eight-point defeat.
Dawdy says the marijuana movement here has grown exponentially in the last few years. "But," he warns, "it is in danger of pulling itself apart."