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Originally published August 16, 2012 at 8:55 PM | Page modified August 16, 2012 at 8:58 PM

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Even at Hempfest, no consensus on legalizing pot in Washington

Hempfest organizers have taken a neutral position on the November ballot measure, I-502, which would legalize marijuana.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Hempfest

When: noon-8 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Where: Myrtle Edwards Park on the Seattle waterfront.

Admission: Free; donations accepted

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A historic vote this November on legalizing marijuana may seem like the perfect backdrop for Seattle's Hempfest at Myrtle Edwards Park, but activists will unfurl their pot-leaf flags Friday amid unprecedented political infighting.

The pro-marijuana movement in Washington state is so splintered that Hempfest organizers are staying neutral on the legalization measure, Initiative 502.

For months, a faction of pot activists has been campaigning against the initiative. And on Saturday at Hempfest, activists for and against the initiative will square off in a panel discussion.

Things are so fractured that Hempfest director Vivian McPeak, a critic of I-502, said several staff members would have left the organization if it had taken sides on the measure.

"It's painful and it's frustrating," McPeak said. "For Hempfest it's been sort of like navigating shark-infested waters."

Hempfest, which began in Volunteer Park in 1991, draws tens of thousands each year to Myrtle Edwards Park for music and entertainment, vendors, forums and speakers.

It's a political rally above all else, and organizers used the event to campaign heavily for marijuana-related ballot measures in the past. But McPeak said it was easy to support legalization when it seemed like a far-off dream. Now that it's here, with dozens of pages attached, disagreements have surfaced.

Those opposed to I-502 say it doesn't go far enough.

It wouldn't legalize home growing except by medical-marijuana patients and would allow sales for recreation use only at state-licensed marijuana stores.

Another concern is the measure's driving under the influence, or DUI, provision, which would allow convictions based on the amount of active THC in a driver's bloodstream, which medical-marijuana patients say would effectively criminalize their driving. No amount of THC is allowed for drivers under 21.

"I believe that Hempfest should have taken a position against 502, and I think some of these national organizations who have come out in support of it have done so on a really knee-jerk basis," said Doug Hiatt of Sensible Washington, which opposes the initiative.

He calls the initiative "a ridiculous waste of time and money" because it doesn't actually repeal laws barring marijuana. Instead, the initiative makes an exception to existing law to allow people over 21 to possess up to one ounce.

"Changing 100 years of prohibition is going to be complicated," said McPeak.

Hempfest organizers campaigned hard for the legalization of medical marijuana and in 2003 for Initiative 75, which made pot possession the lowest priority of Seattle law enforcement. McPeak said the festival can't endorse I-502 with the same enthusiasm.

Proponents and opponents of I-502 will each have a booth at Hempfest.

"I'm actually sad that Hempfest isn't embracing this as sort of a pinnacle of the work that they've been doing for so long," said Alison Holcomb, campaign director for the I-502 campaign. "There have been so many people who have worked literally for decades to have a chance to begin to roll back marijuana prohibition ... and this is the year that we can finally break through that wall."

Many people at Hempfest are there to celebrate marijuana, but the I-502 campaign is taking a different tack, said Holcomb. She compares the movement to the end of Prohibition. Alcohol wasn't legalized "because people thought gin was really good for you," she said. In the same way, the I-502 campaign doesn't promote smoking marijuana.

"Is it awkward to have to deliver that message under a giant pot-leaf flag? Sure. There's a risk that there is confusion about what the point is."

But Holcomb said Hempfest is a chance to clear up confusion. She's scheduled to speak from the mainstage, along with local politicians who support the initiative, like Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and City Attorney Pete Holmes, as well as travel guru Rick Steves.

Keith Stroup, who founded the national marijuana-advocacy organization NORML, said disputes about the details of the initiative are detrimental to the movement.

"We are at a tipping point in the marijuana-legalization effort," he said, noting there are similar measures on ballots in Colorado and Oregon this fall. Concerns about the details of the law should not overshadow the importance of the measures to the movement, he said.

"I'm sorry that Hempfest is having such a difficult time dealing with this. I wish there were a greater recognition in the marijuana-smoking community that this is a major step forward."

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @EmilyHeffter.

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