Hempfest may be coming down from its high
Hempfest turns 22 this year. Now that pot is legal, some ask if the region has outgrown the three-day Seattle “protestival” or whether it has outgrown its venue.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The first Hempfest since the legalization of pot is just days away, and Viv McPeak, longtime director of the “protestival,” says he isn’t sleeping well, isn’t eating well and isn’t even smoking pot.
Hempfest turns 22 this year. “The heat is on,” McPeak said of the Aug. 16-18 event expected to draw 250,000 people.
Business groups lobbied the city to move Hempfest from the waterfront, saying it’s too big and messy.
City Hall is imposing more rules and safeguards, partly because of the Boston marathon bombings.
Event expenses are increasing, for everything from street-crossing monitors to graffiti scrubbing.
Media scrutiny is coming from faraway continents.
And entrepreneurs are inviting problems by proposing to make a world-record two-pound joint at Hempfest, and in another case, implying in a magazine ad that they’ll give away 10,000 grams, or 22 pounds, of pot.
“It isn’t ‘Felony Fest,’ ” McPeak said. The new law allows adults to possess as much as one ounce, and only state-regulated stores can sell weed.
On top of that, questions loom in City Hall and in Hempfest’s Lake City office.
Has the region outgrown the three-day event just north of the Olympic Sculpture Park? Has Hempfest outgrown Myrtle Edwards Park? Is a “protestival” necessary now that recreational pot is legal in Washington state?
McPeak responds that the federal war on drugs is very much alive and is the theme of this year’s fest. “That’s why Hempfest considers itself as relevant as ever,” he said.
Still, he’s anxious about final preparations for the 105 speakers, 110 bands, 400 vendors and a quarter-million folks descending on the world’s biggest pot rally.
“I honestly do not know how many of these reefer-rodeos this old psychoactive saddle-tramp has left in him,” McPeak, 55, wrote on Facebook last month.
Becoming more expensive
The biggest problem right now for McPeak is rising expenses, which he expects to top $750,000 this year.
Hempfest can’t charge admission, he said, because it’s permitted as a public free-speech event. People need to donate “or take a good look at Hempfest because the question is whether it can come back next year,” he said.
Hempfest is funded by revenue from vendors, donations, merchandise sales, benefit events, program ad sales, sponsorship and membership sales.
Attendees gave about 28 cents on average last year to Hempfest. McPeak is asking them to dig deeper this year. If 100,000 folks each gave $10, Hempfest would be sitting pretty for next year, he said.
With more donations and sponsorships, Hempfest could slash the number of vendors, creating more open space and a better event, said Sharon Whitson, Hempfest’s operations director.
“We are requiring a lot more of Hempfest than any other year,” acknowledged James Keblas, head of the city’s Office of Film + Music, which oversees the festival.
Pressure from business groups has something to do with that.
In a letter to Keblas earlier this year, the Downtown Seattle Association and others said they appreciated the intentions of Hempfest organizers. But the groups said Hempfest’s benefits don’t outweigh their concerns.
It’s too big for the 4.8-acre park, they said. It interferes with the tourist business. It produces too much noise, trash and traffic. The groups want Hempfest to move to a bigger venue, such as Seattle Center.
Keblas said he tried to foster collaboration between the parties.
That’s led to another entrance, repositioned waiting lines and trash pickup by Hempfest volunteers along the central waterfront, all the way to Colman Dock. More detailed security and evacuation plans were also required by the fire department after the Boston bombings and gunfire at an April pot rally in Denver.
The upshot is thousands in added costs, McPeak said.
Hempfest has sold $40,000 in memberships to defray expenses, but that hasn’t been enough. He and Whitson are the only employees who receive stipends, McPeak said. Though he didn’t want to divulge specifics for privacy reasons, he said, they are “very modest.”
Adjusting to new conditions
Myrtle Edwards is the best location, McPeak maintains, because nearby railroad tracks and the bay provide existing perimeters. It has nearby parking and public transit.
Seattle Center would cost too much, McPeak said. Magnuson Park is too remote and likely to draw neighborhood opposition. And he doesn’t think Redmond would want Hempfest in Marymoor Park, he said.
“We’ve got a dream to increase contributions and sponsorships, have 100 juried vendors, more room and less impact. That’s how we stay” in Myrtle Edwards, McPeak said.
But first McPeak has to wrestle with new twists like legal weed and the popularity of “dabbing,” or smoking super-potent hash oil in bongs called “oil rigs” that require blow torches.
“We’ve had to restrict handheld torches,” he said, because of fire department concerns. This year Hempfest won’t allow lighters bigger than the palm of a hand.
Meanwhile, Ryan Kunkel, a medical-marijuana business owner, has explained to the police and others that he never intended to give away 10,000 grams at Hempfest, despite an ad suggesting that.
Kunkel explained that he’s giving away coupons entitling valid patients to receive a free gram at his Seattle dispensaries.
Keblas wonders what the future will hold for Hempfest in light of legalization.
“With all of these changes,” Keblas asked, “does it become more of a craft conference, with people getting into art or business? Do sponsors start surfacing now that it’s legal? I think we’re right in the middle of a transition.”
Randy Hurlow, vice president of communications at the Downtown Seattle Association, said “Hempfest is moving in the right direction” with this year’s improvements.
But it’s too early to say if his group still wants the event to move away, Hurlow said. He’d like to see the city come up with an attendance limit for outdoor events. And he wants to see how this year’s Hempfest plays out.
Next year will depend on what happens this year, McPeak said. “The only thing that matters at the end of the day is our performance.”
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