Vivian McPeak, Executive Director and one of the festivals founders, reflects on what made free speech for the cannabis cause the biggest party of the summer in the Northwest
Hempfest turns 21 this year and it’s become an international event before its legal drinking age. It happens during the height of local tourism fervor, and acts as a magnet for the entire region. All that hoopla lands right in downtown and the revenue it spills on our shores is enough to make local government play nice. Vivian McPeak has been one of the activists doing that two-step with the political establishment since the first Hempfest at Volunteer Park in 1991.
“In the city’s budget, they are relying on Hempfest to happen. They’ve written it in,” McPeak explains from his Lake City office space. “They expect the hotels to be sold, and the gasoline to sell. I see both sides of it. It’s a drain on city resources and traffic downtown, but it’s good for commerce. Why shouldn’t this be one of the greener cities in America?”
Seattle has always been the Emerald tucked away in the corner, and support of cannabis culture seems to cross party lines in this area code. That political clout has seen Hempfest rally from a neighborhood gathering to a mega-fest.
“It’s hard to deny the support for marijuana when you can see 100,000 people at one spot,” McPeak says expanding on that idea. “It’s like ‘okay, there is the voter block right there.’ It’s tomorrow’s voters, if they’re not registered to vote today they will be in a couple years. It speaks really loudly, and that’s the kind of language politicians understand.”
Although the relationship seems adversarial, McPeak and the Hempfest board are pleased to work with our civic leaders and acknowledge the difficult position they often find themselves in.
“A big city is a complicated thing to manage. There are competing interests all over the map, pushing and shoving to get their way,” McPeak reasons. “And everyone can’t get their way. So it becomes about power, influence, skill, negotiating and other aspects.When things happen with Hempfest and there is some big obstacle for us, we don’t take it personally. We don’t say ‘They’re out to get us.’ So we’ve got to schmooze. But when it comes down to it, we have to lay our position down and fight like everyone else.”
“I remember looking out at one point and saying ‘There’s hundreds of people — it’s huge!’” McPeak recalls of the humble start on the Hill. “The first three years were there at Volunteer Park, then we maxed it out.”
It was 1993. For one year the growing free speech event called Gas Works Park home and a rock concert broke out. The audience was so huge it strained the quiet neighborhood of Wallingford and took the liveliness to a new level.
“That was the first big Hempfest really,” McPeak remembered. “We maxed Gasworks out in one year. We got reports that people couldn’t get home in Wallingford, couldn’t drive to their houses because traffic
Emerging as a grassroots force after that display on the banks of Lake Union, Hempfest became an anti-establishment superstar. The Hempfest Board put some thought into what a perfect site would have, somewhere that could grow with them annually.
“Those were: minimal business and residential impact, adequate parking and adequate bus access,” McPeak shares recalling the thought process, “some kind of existing perimeter so we didn’t have to fence a gigantic area, and of course capacity to hold the audience. It also had to be on public property because of the nature of the event. Public parks are set aside for free speech and the right to gather, so they can’t really deny you a permit when you are doing a political event.”
They also were quite fond of the postcard setting and urban location where everyone had to take notice.
“It’s right in the face of downtown Seattle. It’s not tucked away somewhere where someone doesn’t even know if it happened,” McPeak states emphatically. “We’ve been at Myrtle Edwards since ‘95. Every time we think we have that place wired it changes on us. “
There used to be a huge vending space before the entrance to the grounds by the Old Trolley Barn, Hempfest even had dedicated parking in those days. Support swelled as staff members from England started volunteering every year. A band from New Jersey that stayed and helped tear down the stage started coming back every year (and does to this day). There were international visitors coming from Japan, Turkey, France, Germany, and as McPeak put it “we slowly were becoming an international go-to event.”
“There’s a real respect here for free speech going all the way back to the ‘Wobblies,’ (International Workers of the World Union). Progressive activism has had a home in the Northwest. We’ve got a great State Constitution,” McPeak states in a lecturer’s even tone.
In what has become a gift from Puget Sound’s blue-collar beginnings, local authorities have always made the extra effort to allow for demonstrations of this kind. A majority of us, from 4E to most of the cannabis industry, choose this part of the country because we think alike, and through our elected officials our positions are adopted.
“There are not many cities that can say their Mayor and City Attorney are pro-legalization,” McPeak points out. “It was gigantic to have them on stage last year, especially since we just sued the city. We had just tangled and they were still there supporting the issue.”
Last year construction on the “Thomas Street Pedestrian Overpass” was scheduled to take place during Hempfest, however, through legal maneuvering it got postponed and settled out of court. The same overpass is putting stress on this blossoming relationship between Hempfest and the city in 2012.
This time it was supposed to be ready for the festival and Hempfest arranged for new vending based on a third entry point. Now they are toe-to-toe again over a footbridge.
“We are the last priority every time,” McPeak laments. “We’re two months out and should be totally focused on production, yet here we are again fighting the city.”
Hempfest 21 will embrace some new programming in 2012. Given the explosion of electronic dance music scenes in mid-level markets across America, Hempfest will be giving Seattle, and the youth that drives this bottom-up music movement a voice this year. It’s not about aging hippie hospitality, it’s about igniting action and just by looking at the entertainment you’ll have all proof you need.
Hempfest received 612 pro-active requests to play Hempfest this year. There are 117 spots for acts over the course of three-days. This is a forum more than a stage, everyone wants a chance to woo the audience.
“It’s brutal eliminating acts, often acts we are personally most connected to don’t make it on,” McPeak informs us. “As soon as we book the last spot, because it needs to be in the program and be promoted in advance, the exact thing we want comes knocking at our door. Never fails. But we don’t bump somebody, if we made a deal saying they are gonna play, they play. We also have a microscopic entertainment budget compared to any event our size, so the vast majority of acts play for meals and a backstage pass.”
Always comfortable doing things differently, Hempfest knows the backdrop of 2012 with an election year and the polarizing effects of I-502 legislation, yet they have no position. Only a purpose.
“I’m looking forward to bringing both sides of the (I-502) issue to our stage,” McPeak says revealing the purpose of Hempfest as a platform for the ideas, not another opinion machine. “I can honestly say, personally, I don’t know how I’m gonna vote (on I-502).”
He’s not the only one, which is precisely why Hempfest serves a purpose greater than just a party.