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STEVE ELLIOTT

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Another Seattle Hempfest has now become a fond (and perhaps, for some, hazy) memory. Twenty-two of the annual “protestivals” are now in the record books, but this one was different. This year was the first post- “legalization” Hempfest, the first since Washington state voters decided to approve I-502, the ballot initiative which legalizes possession of up to an ounce of pot by adults 21 and older, and also institutes strict DUI limits on THC blood levels.

Some mainstream media reports would have us believe that Hempfest is now more a celebration than a protest; for those who are easily satisfied with surface appearances, that may well be the case. But for those who have been watching and paying attention, Hempfest has been a celebration all along — a celebration of cannabis culture and the freedom we deserve.

And as for “celebrations,” while one could get the idea from some of the shallower thinkers among those speaking at Hempfest that the battle is won, most of those capable of deeper mentation brought up the point that the approval of I-502 was only the first step down a very long road. We won’t reach the end of this road until marijuana is really legal, until you can grow it at home — until it has roughly the same level of regulation as tomatoes or cabbage.

(A bit of rich irony about I-502 before we get on with it: On Sunday, I was at Seeley Stage, where, for years, joints have been traditionally thrown out at 4:20. As 4:20 approached on Sunday, the emcee announced that no joints could be distributed from the stage, due to the passage of 502. Ah, the joys of “legalization”!)

The current severe over-regulation of cannabis is where the “protestival” part of Hempfest comes in: this festival has always defined itself as a free-speech event, a place where injustices can be decried, where the government and corporations can be held to a higher standard.

That is the soul of Hempfest: to provide a venue where cannabis truths may be told, a level playing field where we can meet together and plan our path forward.

Field of Dreams

I love Seattle Hempfest. Back in 2004, I first achieved my long-held dream of actually attending the event, and I’ve been to every one since, except 2009, when abdominal surgery simply made it impossible. (I’ll always remember the wistful feeling of looking across Puget Sound from my apartment, where I was convalescing, to the smoky waterfront of Myrtle Edwards Park.)

After spending Friday, the first day of Hempfest, in the park on the beautiful Puget Sound waterfront this year — it really is a wonderful place for a pot rally — I couldn’t get rid of some disquieting feelings. The hundreds of merchandise booths lining the park and dominating the attendees’ attention at times gave the event a vibe more like a trade show than a festival; even some of the vendors were complaining to me about the sharply increased number of booths this year as compared to last.

One vendor, citing high booth prices, said, “How do they expect us to break even on the booth fee when they divide the pie into much smaller slices by selling hundreds more booth spaces every year?” This particular vendor told me she and her husband had paid extra for a “corner” booth, to get the additional foot traffic and exposure, only to find that the space next to them — which was to have remained empty — had been promised to another vendor. Only vociferous protests by the husband had kept that from happening.

Vendors definitely deserve to get what they pay for when it comes to placement and exposure, but that’s not the most worrisome problem when it comes to Hempfest commercialization. The most worrisome problem, by far, is the possibility of co-option by big marijuana money now that implementation of I-502’s retail marijuana stores is coming down the pike.

Big Money

I noticed banners advertising Diego Pellicer, Seattle-based would-be purveyors of “premium marijuana,” on a couple of the major stages. Jamen Shively, the recently departed CEO of Diego Pellicer, told the press a couple months ago that he planned to bring “connoisseur-grade” cannabis to the Washington state market, and that his company planned to charge up to $50 a gram for it.

Diego Pellicer banner at Seeley Stage, Seattle Hempfest 2013
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Diego Pellicer banner at Seeley Stage, Seattle Hempfest 2013

Now, that’s fine, as far as it goes — if he can find sucker stoners willing to pay $50 a gram, more power to everyone involved. BUT. Also part of Diego Pellicer — and still with the company in a “strategic alliance,” which says it aims to control up to 50 percent of the legal marijuana market — is Seattle Hempfest Vice President John Davis.

Yes, Davis — the second-in-command at Hempfest, below only Executive Director Vivian McPeak — is very invested in the success of I-502’s soon-to-come retail marijuana outlets, because he’s involved up to the ears in a company that will lose its ass if that doesn’t happen.

Seattle Hempfest Vice President John Davis of Diego Pellicer [West Seattle Herald]
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Seattle Hempfest Vice President John Davis of Diego Pellicer
[West Seattle Herald]

Now, let’s think a minute about possible conflicts of interest between a festival which has as its raison d’être bringing all the educational voices in the cannabis community to the table, and a corporation which has as its reason for existence gleaning as much profit as possible for stockholders by selling cannabis for as much as the market will bear.

It seems pretty obvious that if Diego Pellicer is a major financial contributor to Seattle Hempfest, that it might, shall we say, “influence” the selection of speakers and panelists for the stages and Hemposium panels that are the true lifeblood of the festival every year.

It seems equally obvious that those who happen to be gadflies or outliers on the scene might be quickly and permanently frozen out, merely for pointing out the worms in this rapidly ripening apple we call “legalization” in Washington state. Those who haven’t been particularly friendly to Pellicer, or have been “bad for profits” — no matter how much they love Hempfest — might not be welcome. (I wasn’t even sure I’d be writing this commentary until, on Saturday night at closing time, a Hempfest staff member in his official t-shirt told the departing crowd, “Thank you for coming! It’s time to go home! Bring more money tomorrow!”)

Frozen Out

It’s not too hard to get frozen out of the Hempfest speaker schedule; just ask local gadfly/cannabis activist Steve Sarich of the Cannabis Action Coalition. Despite being one of the most prominent (and uncompromising) voices on the medical cannabis scene in Washington, he hasn’t been invited to speak for years.

That is unfortunate, and not just for Sarich. That is unfortunate because Hempfest attendees never get to hear his point of view. They never even get the opportunity to consider what Sarich has to say.

They never get a chance to process, analyze and digest his information and make it part of their own perspective on this rapidly changing world of cannabis legalization. Why? Apparently because Steve’s brash manner and outspoken nature have ruffled a few feathers.

Hell, if brash manners and outspokenness — all the way past the point of rudeness — were grounds for disqualification to speak at Hempfest, John Davis himself wouldn’t be allowed to speak there, after some of the statements he made to anti-502 folks in the community last fall.

But banning people from the discussion doesn’t serve anyone, except those who want to dominate the conversation at the expense of the facts.

Don’t Blame the Messenger

Now, I love and enjoy speaking at Hempfest. I love bringing the message of the cannabis plant and its productive, mutually beneficial 12,000-year relationship with the human species to people who want to know more about it — in fact, I believe that’s why I’m on this planet. There’s nothing I’d rather do than talk about marijuana, to share what I know about this wonderful plant with as many people as possible.

Steve Elliott speaks from the McWilliams Stage, Seattle Hempfest, August 18, 2013 [Kate Waters]
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Steve Elliott speaks from the McWilliams Stage,
Seattle Hempfest, August 18, 2013
[Kate Waters]

So why on Earth would I possibly endanger my ability to do that at Seattle Hempfest again next year (after having a whale of a time speaking at Hempfest in 2011, 2012, and 2013) by pointing out the possible influence of big corporate money on the festival?

Because the battle for the very soul of something that has been as beautiful, as important, as Seattle Hempfest shouldn’t occur in the dark, behind the closed doors of corporate board rooms and Core Staff meetings. The deals which decide who, exactly, will get to sponsor — or speak at — next year’s rally shouldn’t be influenced by what might be “good for business” or “bad for business” from the point of view of a company selling $50 grams to over-monied hipsters.

No, Hempfest has been far too special to let it go out like that. The sweat equity, the back-breaking labor and total dedication of thousands of Hempfest volunteers is worth more than that. I’d like to think that the unpaid volunteers — to whom Hempfest owes its ability to function, its ability to come back and do another miracle every year — would influence festival policy as much as corporate bigwigs or in-groups.

ATMs at Seattle Hempfest 2013 [Kate Waters]
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ATMs at Seattle Hempfest 2013
[Kate Waters]

As I said, Hempfest volunteers are completely unpaid. They do what they do for “the cause,” that is, making marijuana legal for everyone and accessible to everyone who wants or needs it.

They don’t do all that back-breaking labor just so that John Davis’s company can charge $50 a gram for over-priced yuppie buds. And damn few of these unpaid volunteers will ever be able to afford $50 a gram weed, anyway — I know I won’t.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a free market economy. There’s nothing wrong with making an honest profit on a good product. There are, however, great perils in becoming dependent upon big corporations for your existence, Hempfest. Please beware. That kind of corporate money does not come without ceding some control.

What’s it gonna be, Hempfest? Is the money gonna talk more loudly than the volunteers? Will a once proud and vital movement be co-opted by the glittering prizes and endless compromises of cannabis capitalism?

Will free speech at Hempfest be one of the first casualties of “legal” marijuana in Washington?

 

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