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Originally published August 17, 2013 at 7:18 PM | Page modified August 18, 2013 at 5:11 PM

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Hempfest a mix of concern and optimism

Many of the 250,000 people expected to attend Hempfest over the weekend are celebrating the law voters passed to allow legal, recreational use of the drug. But defense attorneys who work on drug cases warn that new rules formed under the law may threaten pot’s safe and legal use.

Seattle Times staff reporter


The annual “protestival,” seeking liberalization of marijuana laws, continues Sunday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Seattle’s Myrtle Edwards Park. More information:

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If serial Hempfest-goer Rob Thomas of Everett had his way, marijuana would “be sold at farmers’ markets, just like tomatoes.”

That’s what Thomas, 25, hoped for when Washington voters last fall legalized the recreational use of marijuana.

But that’s not the picture painted by the panel of defense lawyers that Thomas and about 50 others listened to under a large tent during Saturday’s Hempfest session.

Instead, Seattle attorney Jeff Steinborn said the pot law, Initiative 502, “was drafted to pass, not to work.”

Steinborn said state officials, instead of allowing ready access to legal marijuana, seem determined to create a system under which marijuana is “regulated like plutonium and taxed at three different levels.”

“Our work here is not done,” said Steinborn. “Liberty is always unfinished business.”

About 250,000 people are expected to attend Hempfest, a “protestival” first held in 1991, and which continues from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday at Myrtle Edwards Park on the Seattle waterfront.

Another member of the attorney panel, Doug Hiatt, said, “Some people think cannabis is legal (now). It’s not.”

He warned that users who rely on the initiative’s passage to buy and use marijuana may be in for a shock, especially with marijuana still banned under federal law.

Steinborn and Hiatt said recreational and medical users of marijuana are likely to find that marijuana will actually become more expensive and harder to get — factors which, in turn, will likely continue to fuel an illegal market for the drug.

The lawyers’ pessimistic view — at the first Hempfest since voters approved the pot law in November — sounded a cautionary tone at what seemed a celebration for many at the festival, with the scent of marijuana smoke in the air.

Phillipe Lucas, of Victoria, B.C., the moderator who introduced the legal discussion, said he felt high just arriving in Seattle, which he called an “island of freedom” in the campaign for marijuana.

And Viv McPeak, longtime Hempfest director, said those who attend the three-day festival should celebrate the pot law, which he called “a game changer” in marijuana policy.

“(Initiative) 502 is not perfect, but what in government is?” he said, adding that the new law should be regarded as a step on a journey, not an end.

Crowds in the sunshine in front of the festival’s main stage gave a polite round of applause to an unusual speaker at the event, Seattle Police Department spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb.

Whitcomb, who later confessed he was a bit nervous to address the group, told the gathering, “We want to make sure we’re doing our jobs, sharing with you how the law works.”

Seattle police, he said, intend to use “leniency, education and patience,” in dealing with marijuana possession, “not a heavy hand.”

In a development picked up by national news media when it was announced last week, Seattle police at Hempfest handed out about a thousand packages of Doritos, which popular culture regards as a classic favorite of marijuana smokers who get the “munchies.”

On the chip packs was a list of dos and don’ts for Hempfest attendees.

Among the don’ts: “Don’t drive while high. Don’t give, sell ... weed to people under 21. Don’t use pot in public.”

And a do: “Do enjoy Hempfest.”

Information on the packs said under the law, people using marijuana at the event could be cited, “but we’d rather give you a warning.”

Labels on the bags invited people to learn more about new marijuana rules on a Police Department website,

McPeak said having Whitcomb speak was an attempt at building bridges.

“They (police) have been caught in the cross hairs of (marijuana) prohibition themselves.” he said. McPeak said drug laws have made police and marijuana users enemies for no good reason, “and people on both sides have died as a result.”

Booths at the festival gave out, among other things, information on products now available to medical-marijuana users, including varieties of marijuana such as “Time Warp,” “Jack Frost” and “Pandora’s Box.”

Some festivalgoers said the passage of the marijuana initiative, in the face of continued restrictive laws and policies, produced a mix of optimism and concern at Hempfest.

That was illustrated by one man, who had attended more than 10 Hempfests and said, “There’s less paranoia here. You can feel it.”

Even so, he asked to be identified by only his first name, Chris, because he doesn’t want to draw the attention of his bosses.

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or

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