Photo by Mark Taylor-Canfield
Glass marijuana pipes on display at Seattle Hempfest
Seattle's Hempfest event claims to be the largest pro cannabis festival in the world. This year, event organizers are even more excited than usual. For the first time, it is now actually legal to possess marijuana in Washington State. After decades of political activity , the dream of Hempfest activists has finally come true.
Included in the 2014 festivities are "pot gardens " modeled after the traditional German style beer gardens where adults can imbibe and enjoy the effects of cannabis in regulated areas away from children. In Washington State, an individual must be over 21 years of age to legally possess marijuana. Although alcohol is mostly unavailable at Seattle's Hempfest, festival participants are safe to indulge in the effects of THC and cannabis with no interference from law enforcement agencies .
Contrary to popular belief, technically, it is still illegal in Seattle to smoke pot in public.
Most of the nation is ill-informed about marijuana policies in Washington State. The Seattle City Council passed an ordinance which includes a $20 fine. So, although it's legal to possess up to one ounce, pot is still regulated like an intoxicating alcoholic beverage. You can't drink a beer while walking down a busy city street in Seattle without risking a fine from police . It is also illegal to smoke marijuana in public bars, so the Hempfest folks decided to provide a community service by allowing people to smoke in their pot gardens.
In 2012 Washington voters approved state-wide Initiative 502, which legalized the plant and gave the Washington State Liquor Control Board the authorization to regulate the growing, distribution and sale of cannabis. The only problem here is that the WSLCB has always been known as a relatively puritanical state agency. Even after prohibition was lifted, it was still illegal to sell liquor by the glass in the city of Seattle. The result was that a preponderance of illegal speakeasys were established all over town.
In modern times, rock promoters and club owners have often complained about the tight regulation on alcohol which prohibits night clubs, and makes it hard for the music industry to hold all ages events. The point here is that the regulation of marijuana by this same state agency has led to the same kind of stiff restrictions on the growing and distribution of legal cannabis products. It has been an uneasy marriage between the WSLCB and the marijuana industry.
Because of restrictive liquor laws, music clubs and industry representatives in Seattle played a major role role in the elections of the last two mayors. Mayor Mike McGinn promised to allow clubs to stay open until 4 AM but that campaign promise was never achieved. Current mayor Ed Murray has also received a lot of support from this sector of the community. It remains to be seen whether the city can loosen up some of the liquor board's restrictions on live music and the selling of alcohol.
The usual complaint has been that Seattle could be the next Austin, Texas with its healthy music and bar scene, but local city officials and the WSLCB have made that dream impossible in the Emerald City. The teen dance ordinance was a major thorn in the side of local music promoters, inspiring the foundation of JAMPAC, a political action committee sponsored by the music industry .
So, the fact that the Washington State Liquor Control board has been given the task of regulating the pot industry seems like a disaster waiting to happen. So far, major urban areas like Seattle have fallen short in their attempts to meet the huge public demand for legal marijuana. Since July 8 when the first retail pot stores were opened, consumers have been forced to cope with long dry spells. The increasing demand for legal pot has far out stripped the market's capability to produce the quantity that would be required. Some cannabis activists blame tight regulatory standards set by the state for their inability to supply this large consumer market.
Out of a total of 334 licenses approved, only a couple of dozen retail marijuana stores have actually opened in Washington. Despite this lack of access to legal pot, the industry has already sold over $4.3 million worth of the product, exceeding the market in Colorado where ganja is also legal. Some estimates project a profit of over $2 billion in the first five years of production in Washington state. To limit the industry to local producers, the state has created strict rules on how much pot can be grown by any one supplier.
Seattle Hempfest 2014 promises to be the most attended festival in its long history. Many folks who did not attend past events will be there this year to enjoy their legal right to possess cannabis. Glass pipe blowers, medicinal cannabis experts and marijuana advocates of all kinds are gathering in Seattle Aug. 15 - 17 to celebrate a tradition that has outlasted all previous city political administrations. It is quite obvious that legal cannabis is here to stay in Washington State.
Longtime Hempfest organizer Vivian McPeak says he never imagined that 80,000 people would be attending these events when he and his friends first came up with the idea. McPeak is not happy with the way most of the corporate media has covered the issue of legal marijuana and the war on drugs. He complains about his recent treatment by CNN. At the last minute, the news agency cancelled his live interview from Seattle.
Given this lack of serious media coverage, it was surprising to hear Republican US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher speak at the VIP party on the first day of the marijuana festival in Seattle.
Other keynote speakers include Washington State Senator Jeanne Kohl-Wells, TV personality and travel writer Rick Steves, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson.
It's clear that this movement "has legs", so to speak. The topic of legalization is an ongoing news story in the United States. Journalists and politicians will be forced to address this growing national campaign.