NORML Advisory Board Member and travel author Rick Steves addresses 100,000 @ 2008 Seattle Hempfest
By George Rohrbacher, NORML Board Member
The largest marijuana legalization rally in the world, Hempfest, is held annually on the third weekend of August at Myrtle Edwards Park on the Seattle waterfront. This free marquee event usually attracts well over 200,000 people in attendance and Hempfest ’08, Aug. 16-17, was no exception, if not the record—because the weather on the Seattle waterfront was perfect for a mass gathering! The total number of attendees might well have topped 300,000.
Saturday was blazing hot, or as blazing hot as it can get along the shoreline of Puget Sound. The sky was clear blue and the sun was very intense. As the afternoon progressed, it increasingly reflected off the water onto the crowd, near record amounts of fund-raising “Legalize It!” water were consumed by the crowd. This day was Seattle at its very best—and at its most tattooed—and at its most skimpily dressed.
Thankfully Sunday started off slightly overcast and a notch cooler, because by 4:00pm on the second day of the event, crowds in the 2-mile-long park were so thick that the density of the people on the pathways and the open spaces was virtually the same. The music and the message of marijuana legalization rocked continually all weekend long from the four stages set-up about a ¼- mile apart along the linear waterfront park. At each stage after each band finished playing, and as the next band was setting up, activists, such as myself, Rick Steves, Allen St. Pierre, Keith Stroup, and several other NORML board members, along with a boatload of other fine folks regaled the public about the 71 years of negative societal consequences from the prohibition of marijuana. This was the fifth Hempfest I was privileged to attend as a speaker. My speech topic this year was “America’s 20-millionth marijuana arrest is coming on 10/10/08”. I got to wail away at the bustling crowds on this topic from the three music stages over two days and I spoke at the Hemposium stage on “Abraham Lincoln, Hempster.” Hemp can now rightfully claim 3 out of 4 at Mt. Rushmore!
So, how does all this happen, how does this huge fun and glorious “protestival”, this FREE Hempfest come into being? Dozens of bands playing on 4 stages, dozens of speakers, seminars and demonstrations, put in front of hundreds of thousands people along the gorgeous Seattle waterfront, and ALL FOR FREE? How is this possible? The answer: Hempfest is one of America’s largest All-Volunteer Events! The bands play for free. The speakers speak for free. There are 54 crews, totaling about 1500 volunteers, some working year-round, that make this modern marvel called “Hempfest” happen, from permitting and planning months in advance to picking up the very last piece of paper when all the shouting’s over, it’s the Hempfest volunteers that make this incredible thing happen, and it’s been that way for all 17 years of Hempfest’s existence. The $200,000 for direct expenses, electricity, port-a-potties, etc, come from booth rentals, contributions, and water sales. But the real backbone of the enterprise, is the hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours, that is what brings this marvelous creation, Hempfest, to life each year. Virtually every volunteer I’ve ever talked to, tells me that their involvement, their participation in Hempfest, their contribution to making Hempfest happen is one of the most important things that they did that year. It’s pride. It shows. It shows everywhere at every level at Hempfest.
Three years ago while walking Hempfest, I came upon the command detail of the Seattle Police Department, four sergeants, a patrolman or two, and some important guy with scrambled eggs on his hat. As a grey beard, a former member of the state legislature, a board member of NORML, I stopped to thank them for serving and then quizzed this group on how this detail differed from patrolling the professional football or baseball stadiums with crowds of near the same size. The oldest sergeant laughed and said, “Patrolling Hempfest—a two day event—is like patrolling a Girl Scout picnic compared to dealing with the drunks at Safeco Field, 80 games plus a year.” The whole bunch nodded their heads in agreement. And the sergeant was right, because leaving the encounter only a few minutes later, in a particularly tight clutch of people, someone bumped up against me from the side, and we, immediately, almost instinctively, both apologized, and then moved on, both our good buzz and good nature still intact. Stoners get along, go figure. In the three years since then, I’ve talked to dozens of cops at Hempfest and they have all told me pretty much the same thing—the 200,000 plus stoners are so peaceful, that patrolling Hempfest, as a police detail, is seen by most police as almost a vacation day.
Saturday evening, after I’d gotten done speaking on the mainstage, my son, a family friend, and I were leaving the backstage enclosure. As we walked along the fence near the stage, there in our path was a blue-jeaned butt facing us, and as we passed, the owner straightened up slightly, it was Vivian McPeak, the Hempfest Director. He was picking up trash. Vivian, who had coordinated this huge army of 1,500 volunteers, working non-stop for weeks, was also in charge of the mainstage and had just introduced the band that was playing, had run outside with a trashbag on his free moment. As we walked by, I grabbed my son’s arm, pointed to Vivian, and said, “See, that’s the biggest boss of Hempfest there, picking up trash in the middle of his main stage shift. There’s true Leadership. He leads by example. Hempfest is not only one of America’s largest but one of its finest all-volunteer events.”
So, how many great bands and speakers can you take in the cause of cannabis legalization? How many semi-naked sun worshipers could one watch in two beautiful sun-drenched days? Hempfest is the best place I know of to come find the answer to these kinds of questions. So set your calendar, third weekend in August and I’ll see you at Hempfest ’09, and help us end marijuana prohibition. Come to Hempfest next year and volunteer, or just pick up a sack of trash on our way out, either way, the very act of volunteering warms that spot in your body just above your stomach and just below your heart, the seat of contentment, the seat of real happiness.
Thank you Hempfest for showing the way.