Legalization Debate Divides Hempfest

By Chrisanne Grise 08/17/12

Even those at Seattle's famous pro-pot festival are divided over a state proposal for legalization.

Can't we all just get a bong? Photo via

Tens of thousands of marijuana advocates have been attending Seattle’s Hempfest since 1991, and this year’s celebration—which kicks off today—should have even more to celebrate with the upcoming state vote on legalizing marijuana. If passed this fall, the legislation would allow people over 21 to possess up to one ounce of weed. Surprisingly though, a large number of participants are actively campaigning against the measure. In fact, the debate has gotten so heated that the festival organizers are refusing to take an official side, for risk of alienating passionate employees and attendees. "It's painful and it's frustrating," says Vivian McPeak, director of the festival. "It's been sort of like navigating shark-infested waters." The organizers plan to ensure that both sides of the issue are represented at a panel discussion on the topic of legalization held during the festival this weekend.

Hempfest hasn't always been so controversial; in past years, attendees have united to campaign for marijuana ballot measures. But now that a substantial bill—called I-502—exists, the community is divided. Those opposed say the bill doesn’t do enough, since it won’t permit home growing except for medical marijuana patients, and recreational sales will only be allowed at state-licensed stores. In addition, the measure contains a DUI provision that could allow convictions based on THC in a driver’s bloodstream. "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," says Doug Hiatt of Sensible Washington. He believes the measure is a “ridiculous waste of time and money” because it only makes an exception to the existing laws, rather than repealing any current laws that ban marijuana. But advocates see the bill as a major breakthrough, and the result of years of hard work. "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," says 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."

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Chrisanne Grise is a multimedia journalist specializing in health/fitness, lifestyle, travel, bridal, and music. Her work has appeared in print and online for publications such as Martha Stewart Weddings, Parents, FitnessMagazine, Fisher Price, Bridal Guide, Scholastic's Choices,,, and more. She is the Senior Editor at The New York Times Upfront. Follow her on Linkedin and Twitter.