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STEVE ELLIOTT

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Despite donation bins at the gate, is this festival really going broke?
[D. Paul Stanford]

It’s an annual ritual in Washington state. No, I’m not talking about Hempfest. I’m talking about premature reports of Hempfest’s death.

Around this time, every year, Seattle Hempfest spokesman Vivian McPeak tells the press a woebegone story about how the “protestival” is on its last legs financially, and how “this year may be the last Hempfest.”

Last year, the festival even managed to hook in the solidly mainstream Seattle Times and KOMO for some sympathetic, donation-soliciting coverage.

Starry-Eyed Stranger

Since there is an ever-revolving cast of young, starry-eyed journalists in the Emerald City to whom McPeak can spin his tale of woe, once the guys who’ve been around a few years catch on — long enough to get cynical, in my case — Vivian needn’t worry too much about anyone perceiving the pattern.

And if they do see through the facade… well, then!

They’re “being negative,” according to McPeak’s particular brand of faux-hippie judgmental superiority, and they are never allowed to speak at the festival, nor take part in its discussion panels, again.

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Seattle Police Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, left, and Hempfest Executive Director Vivian McPeak, 2013
[Joshua Trujilloa/Seattle PI.com]

Annual Hempfest Drama: “It’s Dying!”

The yearly pattern has begun again, with an article in today’s Strangerthe fatter and more profitable of Seattle’s two alternative weeklies. (Full disclosure, I used to work for Seattle Weeklythe other one.)

Hempfest, Seattle’s pioneering pot protest festival, is fighting for its future. After 26 years of sticking up for weed-law reform, the festival is facing mounting costs and shrinking incomes. This year’s festival will still happen August 18 to 20, but it will feature fewer stages, and future fests could be even smaller. ~ The Stranger

This year’s drama comes courtesy of young Lester Black, seemingly the Stranger’s current weed writer. Sadly, Black seems almost entirely clueless about the context and history of the debate surrounding legalization in Washington, including the part that Hempfest and McPeak played — and didn’t play — when it comes to the divisive fight over I-502. That’s the flawed legalization measure approved by 54 percent of Washingtonians in 2012.

I-502 eventually, as myself and other medical marijuana advocates had predicted, resulted in the death of medical marijuana as we’d known it in Washington since voters approved a medical marijuana law at the ballot box back in 1998.

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“Donation bins waiting to be wheeled to the front chutes and filled with money for next year’s Hempfest”
[Nightmare Alabama / Pinterest]

Wheel Out the Donation Bins

“We’ve axed just about anything we can ax this year, and there’s not a whole lot of fat to trim,” said Vivian McPeak, president of the organization that puts on the festival. “What’s going to happen is we are going to shrink before we go away. It would just be a shame if Seattle lost this event.” ~ The Stranger

Since Seattle Hempfest claims to be, at least in theory (*not so much in practice!) a “free-speech event,” they aren’t allowed to officially charge admission. But a policy of shaking down visitors at the gate, and guilting them if they don’t throw some money into the big collection vats for that purpose, means that many or most who attend do end up paying something.

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Note the signs “suggesting” a $10 donation. These big donation bins are at the gate to Seattle Hempfest
[Hempfest]

The three-day waterfront rally at Myrtle Edwards Park costs $800,000 to run, and Hempfest is restricted in how it can raise money. Charging for admission is a no-go. Hempfest is, legally speaking, a free-speech event, and if it became a commercial event, the city could more easily refuse its event permits. ~ The Stranger

McPeak claims last year’s event averaged only 46 cents in donations per attendee. He said Hempfest “would have no problem surviving” if that average were closer to $1 or $5.

I can report that the last few times I’ve attended, Hempfest volunteers, and signs at the gate, “suggested” that $10 was a more appropriate donation.

Interestingly enough, there are only three paid positions in the Seattle Hempfest organization: Executive Director Vivian McPeak; Vice President John Davis; and Quartermonster Sharon Whitson. Everybody else is an unpaid volunteer. Many idealistic, hardworking Hempfest volunteers live on the economic margins. Quite a few are homeless, or very close to being so.

Shameless: McPeak Claims He Led Anti-502 Effort

Legalization made weed a lot cheaper (I save at least $5 almost every time I buy pot), so it seems like a no-brainer to kick a few of those dollars back to the OGs of pot reform. Except there’s a complication: How much credit does Hempfest deserve for legalization? Hempfest did not come out in favor of I-502, the 2012 initiative that legalized weed in Washington State. The festival officially took a neutral stance, and McPeak was actually one of the leaders of a group opposing the measure, citing the concerns of medical users about the DUI provision in the legalization law. ~ The Stranger

Read the above paragraph and weep. It seems the wily McPeak has told this impressionable kid that he was “one of the leaders” of the anti-502 forces back in 2012.

That is worthy of at least a rueful laugh from those of us who were actually part of that struggle. McPeak repeatedly displayed an unflattering lack of cojones, refusing to take a forceful or even remotely meaningful public stand either from the stage or, ultimately, in the press.

Making the entire debacle even more unappetizing, McPeak’s second in command at Hempfest, John Davis, was actively angling for a piece of the I-502/SB 5052 action, presenting a classic case of conflict of interest from an entrepreneur pretending to be an “activist.”

Vivian preferred, instead, to indulge his usual mealy-mouthed, non-commital politician-like persona which emptily mouths a lot of idealistic words but lacks the fortitude to back any of them up with any useful action.

Well, Mr. McPeak, I was there in 2012. I was part of the patient resistance to I-502. And you, sir, were not a leader of that effort, and did not display any qualities remotely reminiscent of “leadership.”

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Check out all those I-502 sponsors at Hempfest. Think maybe all that money impacts the choice of speakers and message?
[Hempfest]

‘Neutrality,” or is Hempfest For Sale to the Highest Bidder?

Anyone who remembers the 2012 Hempfest can recall that Vivian’s version of “neutrality” was the presence of “Yes On 502” banners on every stage.

There were no corresponding “No On 502” banners, since the “No” folks couldn’t afford to pay for the placement.

Nonetheless, one of Stranger reporter Lester Black’s friends told Black “he remembers the rampant anti-I-502 messaging being off-putting.” How dare folks advocate an alternative point of view at a “protestival”! Hey… wait a minute.

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Hempfest VP John Davis, left, and Executive Director Vivian McPeak, right. Davis has financial ties to I-502 businesses which successfully lobbied the Washington Legislature to shut down medical marijuana dispensaries in the state.
[Amy Radil/KUOW]

McPeak: I-502 ‘Very Beneficial’

I-502 has been “very beneficial,” McPeak told the Stranger. 

“A lot of us were very critical of I-502,” he said [he wasn’t], but today he acknowledges that “it has done tremendous good stuff.”

According to McPeak, Hempfest officially took a neutral position on the initiative because a poll of their membership showed a 50/50 split on whether to support the law. “We wanted both sides to be able to come and speak from our stages, and ultimately to let the public decide.” ~ The Stranger

That’s quite interesting, since neither myself (Steve Elliott) nor Steve Sarich, another caustic but articulate and informed critic of I-502 and its impact on medical marijuana, are currently allowed to speak from any stage or on any panel at Seattle Hempfest.

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I-502 author Alison Holcomb, left, and supporter Rectal Russ Belville at Hempfest

Last time I attended the festival, in 2015 (I was there to meet Tommy Chong), it just so happened that during the time I was there, Rectal Russ Belville, an obnoxiously vocal supporter of I-502, was braying like a jackass from Main Stage about how he was completely right about I-502, about critics of the measure being completely wrong, and about medical patients being a bunch of fakers and whiners anyway.

The stage manager laughed nervously, offering only “A lot of strong opinions here today.” A ridiculously cocky, self-important, absurdly rock-star-coutured Belville grandly exited the stage. (The man’s over-abundant self-regard is fascinating in a riveting but nauseating fashion, sharing that with most other deeply unflattering public displays of id.)

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Vivian McPeak, Seattle Hempfest:
Leggo my ego
[Pot.tv]

McPeak’s Insecurity: He’s Hyper-Sensitive To Criticism

There’s no doubt that with the entrance of big money into the cannabis business, Hempfest now caters to its deep-pocketed sponsors far more than to the stoners who attend the event.

I had already noticed this drift back in 2013, the first full year of recreational legalization, when I wrote “Festival or Trade Show: The Battle for the Soul of Seattle Hempfest.” I also wrote a column for the Seattle Weekly entitled I Bought Weed at Hempfest During the ‘No Weed Sales’ Speech.

Not coincidentally, 2013 was the last year I was ever allowed onstage at the event. Vivian seems not to have much of a sense of humor about himself — nor does he suffer any criticism gladly, no matter how mildly expressed.

I underlined my status as a Hempfest outsider after reporting what I saw at the 2015 event: People openly selling weed directly from one of the booths. While I personally have no problem with people selling weed at Hempfest or anywhere else, I found it more than a bit ironic that Hempfest, of all places, turned out to be a place where our shiny new legalization law was routinely violated.

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Vivian McPeak, left, and Toke Signals Editor Steve Elliott at the 2012 Dope Cup in Seattle
[Steve Elliott / Facebook]

A Bit of History: Live and Learn

I was the new guy in town back in 2008 when I first met Vivian McPeak. As the guy behind a then-new counterculture blog, Reality CatcherI was invited to a media strategy planning session at Viv’s home in Seattle, at which I was told that I could become part of the Hempfest Core Group.

I attended a couple meetings of the Core Group, despite living over in Kitsap County at the time and having no car. It didn’t take long for Vivian to perceive that I wasn’t as controllable as his anointed press liaison needed to be. And it didn’t take long for me to chafe under the prior restraints Viv would like to have imposed upon my own writing and point of view.

After I’d walked to the ferry, caught four city buses to White Center, and attended the Core Group meeting, I started walking back to my first bus stop. Vivian pulled up in his SUV (donated by a Hempfest supporter) which was full of friends; he asked me if I was doing OK. I thought for a moment that I’d lucked out and actually gotten a ride, but at that point McPeak told me he “had a party to get to” and left.

My feet were hurting. I never went back to another Core Group meeting.

Bummer About The Patients

 

 

 

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