Saturday, September 6, 2008

I Was There and You Weren't

Now in its 17th year, the annual Seattle Hempfest has become the world's most popular protest against the drug war.

By Michael Dare

You can ruin some things by writing about them. When the editor of the LA Weekly asked me to contribute to an article about the best driving shortcuts in the city, I said fuck no, as soon as people start using my shortcuts, they wouldn't be shortcuts anymore. The only thing that makes them shortcuts is there's less traffic. Why would I want to deliberately ruin a good thing by telling every putz who picks up a Weekly where my personal shortcuts were? I suggested an article called "Best places in LA to be alone" so we could ruin the solitude for everybody. It was then I realized that shit, man, journalism's confusing, and what's good for the reading public ain't always good for the writer or the subject of the story.

Which brings us to the 17th annual Seattle Hempfest, an event so unique in the world it outshines anything Denmark or Canada or any other liberated places have to offer, a cross between Woodstock in the 60s, Renaissance Faires in the 70s, and Amsterdam in the 80s,with nose-rings, bare midriffs, lower back tattoos, and dreadlocks galore, a celebration of a plant in every possible manifestation and, get this, the authorities let it happen, which makes Seattle the most tolerant city on earth in its attitude towards the insane global war against good medicine, pesticide-free clothing, fossil-free fuel, formaldehyde-free building materials, and Bronner's soap.

August 16 & 17, 2008, Seattle was ground zero of the anti-anti-drug war, a TH symphony where rational thought prevailed and science trumped politics, where we learned the war on drugs is run by moron thugs powered by phony evidence gathered from the same lying street hustlers who gave us the war against Iraq. Attend any of the panel discussions in the Hemposium and you'll discover that none of the government propaganda against marijuana is accurate, and if you're still on the fence concerning its medical value, take a look at a man who put hemp oil on a melanoma only to see it come off three days later. Ignore the phony propaganda used to justify the existence of the DEA and you find marijuana not only doesn't cause cancer, it prevents it and cures it. You find a medicine so beneficial that everyone should have their own little garden in case of emergencies. You find the DEA doesn't need to exist.

"Do not adjust your mind, it is reality that is malfunctioning."
- Robert Anton Wilson -

Let's say you were the lead character in a Twilight Zone given the choice of destroying every plant on earth but one. What plant would you choose to survive? A tree? Mankind is dead, construction materials but not enough sustenance or medical use. Tomatoes? Dead, pasta sauce but no pasta. Cotton? Nice clothes, starving dead bodies. I'm afraid only one plant would provide sustainable energy, food, clothing, and medicine to keep mankind alive, giving our species not only a chance at survival but a nice little buzz to keep the day rolling. You can guess what it is. Any other choice would be specicide, which is what we've got now, an entire species deliberately killing itself.

Like it or not, the scientific results are in. Hemp is the most useful plant on the planet earth, providing clothing, shelter, food, soap, and medicine of unparalleled quality and safety. The argument isn't that it should be treated like any other addiction. The argument isn't that it's harmless. The argument is that it's good for you in absolutely every possible way. You should be wearing it, building things out of it, washing in it, using it for fuel, eating it and smoking it - exploiting its every potential - and anyone who says otherwise is either totally deluded, a gullible idiot, or corrupt and on the take from the billion dollar a year drug war industry.
You don't hear all the good news because generally speaking, here's how it goes. Scientists at the University of Washington in Seattle discovered a way to use hemp for lumber. The lumber they created was as strong as steel beams. After that discovery, the Feds threatened to pull all funding from the university if they did not end their studies.

The Feds don't want you to know there does not exist a rational argument against this plant. If it were any better for you, you'd have to hire someone to help you enjoy it.

The Hempfest is a magnificent blending of music and politics and artisanship, "a pause for the cause because there's flaws in the laws," says Hempfest director Vivian McPeak, the man who actually signs the papers with the city that allows Hempfest to happen, and a stark raving dreadnaughted bearded unapologetic hippie whose passion for this cause has made him the most successful anti-drug war activist in America. He's both ringmaster and tightrope walker in an annual sub-culture circus, bringing together a spectacular array of diverse elements necessary to make it happen. For more than a decade he's kept them all happy: police, sheriffs, firemen, the various city departments, politicians, the Seattle Art Museum with the sculpture garden at the entrance to the park, not to mention hundreds of merchants and artisans who count on the fest to be their largest sales weekend of the year, and the care providers and performers and political speakers, plus all manner of other volunteers from around the world, or the thousands of locals who attend every year expecting to get entertained and educated and high. All happy. A miracle of diplomacy.

The Hempfest is not designed to be experienced from one vantage point. Myrtle Edwards park is long and thin, occupying a prime piece of waterfront north of the piers and downtown, blocks from the Seattle Center, with spectacular views of the Puget Sound, the Space Needle, Mount Rainier, Bainbridge Island, West Seattle, and the glorious Olympic Mountain Range. Anyone bored with the fest can easily find entertainment just sitting on a rock by the water and listening to the music while watching international cargo ships pass by with the yachts and paragliders. Turn the other way and the fest becomes something different, a vast parade of humanity.

Freak out as you discover the other people at the Hempfest aren't just rejects from the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers but normal citizens out for a stroll through the park who just happen to need a new bong. If these are the zombies pot is supposed to turn us into, they're remarkable lively, a vast array of characters from every walk of life, many of whom know each other, who've been doing this for years, the core committee, a family reunion of free thinkers and smokers. Since DNA proves we're all related, we're all invited to the annual reunion.

Nobody knows how many people attend, and here's one of those journalistic moments where you have to weigh your core beliefs against one another, where it's possible to hurt the very cause you believe in by giving away too much. Next year's permits could be withheld for any number of reasons, including the blathering of an idiot journalist who puts things in just the wrong light to the wrong people.

I saw a beautiful woman with her baby in a special stirrup, leaning over a table inspecting glass pipes with a lot of other people, and considered taking her picture, but then I thought, shit, taken out of context that picture could be used in a custody battle, she could lose her kid because I took what I thought was a cute picture, so I took this one instead.

Then let's say I saw fistfuls of joints thrown out over a crowd who all lit up simultaneously creating a powerful blast of smoke that could have freaked out the fire department. If such a thing were true, and I'm certainly not saying it is, all I could do is ruin it by telling the world. Damned if I'm ever going to have anything to do with stopping the free distribution of pot, imaginary or not. As Vivian says, "anyone who blows it makes it harder for all of us." This is a festival that walks that tightrope, the largest anti-drug war rally on earth is certainly not under the radar of the DEA, yet it happens every year as a certified testimony to the power of numbers. They can't possibly arrest everyone in Myrtle Edwards Park; the Feds would have to declare war against thousands of people peacefully assembled in a public park obeying every local law.

Saturday, the first day of this year's Hempfest, was so sunny a day for Seattle you could have made a killing selling shade. You experience Hempfest from one end to the other, enter either end, head for the opposite, and you'll pass five stages and hundreds of booths and carpet venders selling food and displaying their wares. You stop here and there to further examine a performance, but never get stuck, moving it along, easing into the flow, ingesting the floating fractions of music and public speaking.

"Should you have to get sick to legally use marijuana?" asked horticultural guru Ed Rosenthal from Seeley Stage, who knew just what to say to get a rousing cheer from the crowd. "I use marijuana to enhance my life. Don't you? The medical marijuana cause isn't enough to protect us from the criminality of police departments. Free marijuana for ALL people!"

Recently, a medical marijuana dispensary in Seattle was invaded illegally. In response, both conservative daily papers, the Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, published editorials demanding the authorities return the marijuana to the legitimate patients. One cannot imagine another city in America where this would happen. Since the local police are legally obligated to give marijuana consumption a low priority, they turn a blind eye towards many potential Hempfest shenanigans. The DEA would have to swoop in en masse to arrest somewhere between, 50 and 100 thousand people, each and every one a Rosa Parks in an act of civil disobedience, standing up for their right to use a plant. And the top constitutional lawyers in the country would be right in there with them, ready to defend everybody. Now imagine them trying to arrest the 30 million people across the county who smoke marijuana and you see the core of their problem.

The truth about marijuana is so opposite to common knowledge that many refuse to take it seriously, like we're all a bunch of stoners who just want to lie under a clear blue sky and celebrate every second and not merely out to save the planet from destruction.

How many people were there? I ain't saying and I sure wasn't counting. Estimates are from 100 to 150 thousand but nobody wants to know. It's literally impossible to be sure since so many people are constantly coming in and out from both ends. There are times when certain sections become pretty tight, but the crowd keeps moving and it's never uncomfortable, there's always a bench or a hill or a rock or a patch of grass to sit down and listen to the live music and the speakers. It's probably reached the capacity to fill the Convention Center, but Myrtle Edwards Park is just right, incredibly beautiful surroundings, the Elliott Bay in summer, the only place for a freedom fighter to be. There's plenty of room for the fest to grow north, but the best way for it to grow is to spawn further hempfests leading to an unlikely new world of enlightenment and wonder.

"They say the terrorists hate us for our freedom, so give us more freedom and REALLY piss them off."
- Viv -

It took a very specific set of organic circumstances for something as large as the Seattle Hempfest to manifest itself. It started in 1991 as a wee little hempfest of a few hundred people in Volunteer Park, getting larger, thousands of people moving to the Gasworks at the north end of Lake Union, and finally settling in as a world-class event at Myrtle Edwards.

The focus this year was on industrial uses of hemp, where there is encouraging news in the worlds of textiles and building materials. A fashion show proved hemp material has grown way beyond the rough burlap it's associated with. Now it can be indistinguishable from silk, and new hemp T-shirts feel just as soft as cotton and rayon. There were bathrobes, teenage sweaters, a toque, bright earth colors, a waitress outfit, thin flimsy skirts, from hip-hop to Wall Street, normal Izod leisure wear, even a prom dress and suit that didn't betray their illegal origins in any way.

Chemical free hemp particle board and plywood proved itself more durable and aesthetically pleasing than the real thing, making it just a little bit more irrational to ever cut down a tree for construction.

One speaker said the laws against hemp represented a "break in the natural order," and wondered why the tent of the Hemposium itself wasn't made out of hemp. "There's no long term planning. Until recently, industrial hemp was stuck in the last century."

"The DEA is rotting on the inside," said George Rohrbacher, "like the USSR before the fall of the Berlin Wall. They looked unbeatable too."

"We are the first responders," said David Frankel of at the Hemposium.

"When we find something is harmful to the planet, we stop using it. When we find something is beneficial, we use it. Hempsters deserve respect. Farmers have had enough. There's a car with hemp fiber in the door panels that's as strong as steel. And Americans can't grow it?"

Apparently Sen. Leahy can change one single line in a current bill that will let the DEA give permission to farmers to grow it, even though there's nothing in any existing bill that specifically forbids them from doing so immediately. One might ask why the Drug Enforcement Agency is involved in any way in the struggle of farmers to grow material for car door panels.

"In Europe, the focus is on harm reduction. They know you don't judge the effectiveness of a policy by the number of people you imprison," said Rick Steves. "Marijuana is classified as a soft drug, like alcohol. In Amsterdam, police have bulletin boards in coffee shops where they warn people about potentially dangerous drugs on the street. I went into a bathroom in a Starbucks and there were no junkies because they had a blue light. Junkies can't see their veins in a blue light so they're directed to go to a cigarette machine across the street that now sells clean syringes. No jail or even the threat. Harm reduction. The choice is tolerate eccentric behavior or build more prisons. We smoke double what the Dutch do. Pot smokers are decent, with nothing to be ashamed of.

"I'm a travel writer," he continued. "High is a place and I want to go there. Don't hide it. Be proud of it. Politicians have got to know it's not political suicide to oppose the drug war. They're blowing billions of dollars to put 80,000 Americans in jail. Real people. The laws are causing more problems than the drug itself. One person in jail for marijuana is one too many."

At 4:20 at the Share Parker Memorial Main Stage I helped pass out free water bottles to the crowd without bothering to be smug about it while the band Flowmotion blasted out a magnificent version of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a brilliant choice, just what I wanted to hear, excellent lead guitar, we'd love to take you home tonight, we'd love to take you home, right into a little help from my friends of all persuasion.

Using my trusty official media badge and my bogus "Local Crew - All Access" pass with the picture of planet earth, I managed to pass the volunteer security guard into backstage at Seeley, the northernmost stage with its own special ambiance, surrounded by signs saying "You are totally good" and "No prison for pot."

All backstage areas were cordoned off by fences covered in black plastic inside and out, but the inside of the Seeley fence was turned into an art gallery covered in the best tie dye I'd ever seen, great place to hang out, breathe deeply, eat a banana and listen to Los Marijuanos, a perfect example of cross-pollination in music, cholo rap, Mexican hip-hop, extolling us not to be bendejos and "Fire it up," making me get up from my cozy chair, leave backstage to see them from the front, bald, big, Chicano, black hempfest T-shirts, giving away a bong to whoever came to the stage with the biggest joint. Someone showed up with an enormous blunt, enough to last me a year. The lead Marijuano said "Can anyone beat this?" No one could so the guy walked away with the deal of the day.

Then Los Marijuanos pulled off the most extreme cross-pollination of all, turning into Allan Sherman, singing "Mr. Weedman, bring me some weed" to the tune of "Mr. Sandman" while a woman dressed as a butterfly flitted across the stage. They continued doing unlikely pot satires of songs across the decades, cracking me up, distracting me from my one opportunity to talk to Keith Stroup, the head of NORML, who was no longer backstage when I went back, and thank God I did. Deborah from the kitchen served chili that was an 11 on Nigel's scale of 1 to 10, which is one certain reason behind the success of the Hempfest. Guests are never lacking in the creature comforts, good food, plenty of drink, bathrooms, free massages, and wholesale congeniality.

Everyone's a volunteer, including the bands, which is a pretty lame excuse for why major national acts aren't on the bill. Many have been asked, and many have made promises to show, but none have made it, and perhaps it's just as well. Hempfest works best as a venue for local talent. If you're from out of town, you'll hear nothing but incredible music from bands you've never heard of.

Though the atmosphere was definitely pro-Obama, the only actual politician in sight was Paul Richmond, running for Congress in the 6th congressional district. His open stance against the Patriot Act, the war in Iraq, and the war on drugs would make him a major leader in the movement if he gets elected.

Just as the NAACP helped rid America of the stereotypes of Amos and Andy, so Hempfest resolves to rid us of the stereotypes of Cheech and Chong, neither of whom have ever appeared at the festival despite invitations.

Blame it on the stigma of pot they themselves created, the cartoon vision of Cheech and Chong, two cliche characters invented by Cheech and Chong forty years ago, with the emphasis on invented. Cheech and Chong are as accurate a portrayal of stoners as Laurel and Hardy are of piano movers. Assuming that smoking the herb turns you into Cheech and Chong is as ridiculous as assuming listening to rap turns you into Amos and Andy. When real people get high, the only resemblance between them and Cheech and Chong is a sense of humor that allows them to laugh at Cheech and Chong, who can be pretty funny. Anything that increases the individual's sense of humor should not be illegal, or so said Ms. Euro Kane Mybook, a speaker at this year's Hempfest.

Not that Hempfest lacked in comic relief, which was provided by the cast of "Reefer Madness," a musical based upon the ludicrous anti-marijuana film of the same name. If this was Woodstock, they were Sha-Na-Na, providing old fashioned show biz glitz and theatricality, not to mention scantily clothed women, clever songwriting, and Broadway singing.

Local reggae heroes, the Herbivores, have played every Hempfest and are worth the trip themselves. Vains of Jenna, thin guys with their shirts off, did a brain searing Jumpin' Jack Flash, loud enough to be heard by passing cruise ships on their way from Elliot Bay to Alaska, massive and elaborate, floating skyscrapers with great views of the Hempfest.

And then I met Violet Victoria the Clown who wants the US to "End the predator/prey model," and her two cohorts, Angela and Ginger, one of whom was topless, in purple and black, breasts painted like mushrooms, explaining that the cops should have something better to do, and that the parties need to get bigger.

Actual overheard conversation next to a pile of horse droppings?

"Wow, the cops won't even clean up their own shit."

"That was me. Sorry, dude."

Sorry to say I didn't have the journalistic integrity to stand around and find out who finally cleaned it up. In any case, Segways for Hempfest cops instead of horses is my new motto.
"I'm not going to paint my balls black for no chick? ever again," explained Roland A. Dooby of "I smoked pot in the 80s and I thought to myself, you know, this would be good at any temperature." Roland went on to tell us a surefire way of getting pot past the authorities. Just go out and buy a dildo, take out the batteries, put your pot inside, close it, smear chocolate sauce on it, put it in a plastic Ziplock bag and seal it. No security person on the planet earth is going to open that Ziplock bag.

If you were there when I was, you caught Tony B's Hip-Hop Review from Tacoma, featuring Lae-Z Boi and lots of others, a parade of new talent, the sudden wind blowing the batik flags of all religious symbols, a peace sign, a star of David, an ankh, yin and yang. Even stranger than the rapping Indians and hip-hop Mexicans was the constant deaf translator downstage left, full of attitude while trying to translate lyrics impenetrable to the fully hearing. How do you translate na na na na for the deaf?

My favorite bands were Impenetrable Scribble and Total Devastation, though I'm not sure if that last was a band or a bong.

There's a spot, a secret unofficial spot, a room, hidden from view, and you'd have to torture me to tell you where it is, and then I'd still have to kill you, where a certain genre of people aggregate and everyone's got a piece and a nug jug and they all get passed around to everybody, in a circle, in both directions, and when you leave you will never be the same. I would NEVER enter such a room, but if I did I'd have excellent conversations with total strangers.

In preparation for Hempfest going national, there's no doubt Wal-Mart and China have already got a 99 cent bong somewhere in the development pipeline, but till then Hempfest remains the premiere display of handcrafted masterpieces of the paraphernalia art, glass sculptures of complexity and originality masquerading as pipes longer than your body.

Among the more fabulous inventions on display at Hempfest is alwaysLit, a contraption that "keeps your lighter attached to your cigarette pack or pipe at all times," with a retractable chord that guarantees you'll never go flameless again during a smoke emergency. It means no one will ever steal your lighter without also stealing your cigarettes or pipe and your alwayslit.

I had a serious theological question for the inevitable Jesus freak telling us we were all going to hell. "According to Genesis 38:6-10 and Deuteronomy 25:5-10, if a married man dies without children, his brother is obligated to marry the widow. If he refuses to marry his brother's widow or deliberately does not give her children, he must pay a fine of one shoe. Now really, do you think one shoe is enough? I mean ever since Wal-Mart made buddies with China, the price of shoes has gone WAY down. Don't you think maybe the fine should go up to at least a blender or a couple of Rangers season tickets?"

And he looked at me like I was the crazy one.

As soon as the Brothers of the Baladi started playing, I dropped what I was doing and ran up front to find out who was making that insanely good world music, part George Harrison, part Peter Gabriel, part Juluka, Arabic, Indian, Turkish with a touch of Eurythmics, spooky and sinuous rhythms, spiritual chants floating in and out of different languages, with cosmic lyrics involving peace of mind and other unattainable goals. Their version of Buffalo Springfield's "For What it's Worth," there's something happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear, was my most transcendent musical moment.

Backstage at the main stage was party headquarters, though I didn't know what to make of the silver bust of a boy with what I must conclude was a unicorn horn sticking through his forehead, unless the boy was me and the unicorn horn was that last bong hit, in which case it's brilliant, illuminating the momentary collapse of all synaptic barriers, sweeping me into the eddy of illusion, lashed to the creative unknown like a ghostbuster on steroids.

Salvation was on the way. You heard it here first. Pay attention Famous Amos, Mrs. Fields, and the Keebler Elves. From my taste buds to your ears, I was sitting backstage minding my own business when I was offered a "bacon chocolate chip cookie" (with a cinnamon glaze) made by Eileen that was out of this world.

If the Hempfest had never happened and they were to apply today for a permit for this brand new event in which thousands of hippies would play loud rock music in the park and openly get high and sell paraphernalia and dance and celebrate and give political speeches against the government, the city would probably laugh in your face. Hempfest could only have happened this way, in increments. It's the 17 year history of peaceful co-existence, slow and steady growth, each year pushing the limits a little further, plus Vivian McPeak's remarkable negotiating power, that keeps it alive. It could only happen here, the greatest political event of the year, the world's largest protestival and celebration of freedom masquerading as a mere hempfest.

And Viv's there every second, the MC of main stage, in T-shirt, utility belt and jeans, Rasputin the Plumber, reminding us why we're there and to clean up and donate and volunteer in between those tasty, sticky, gooey, pungent nugs of bright green enlightenment.

Vivian McPeak

I learned from Vivian and all the other speakers at hempfest that pot smokers never, ever, had anything to be ashamed about, no reason to hide in the shadows while indulging secret smoke, what a crock, forced to behave like a criminal for doing something that makes you feel better, that makes pain go away, pain in every sense of the word. The anti-drug war movement parallels the gay rights movement in that step one is coming out and admitting your behavior, always difficult when your behavior could bring social ostracizing, jail, a beating, or any combination of the above.

The Stephen Colbert Report got it right, the movement has shifted from solidarity to solitarity, millions of individual pods who'd rather link together than march together. The political climate in the United States simply makes it too damn scary to stand up and declare yourself an enemy combatant in the war against insanity. Everywhere but Seattle.

"The first rule of being subversive is not letting anyone know you're being subversive."
- Bob Dylan: Theme Time Radio Hour #47 -


Show up on Thursday or Friday and volunteer to help set it up. Come on, it's just a day or two. What else do you have to do? It's not all heavy lifting. You can be a traffic ogre and just stand there waving people by, and you get a cool free T-shirt too.

Please oh please enter from the north and avoid the mammoth crush of flesh at the south end. Park in any supermarket parking lot in Ballard and take the 15 bus. Dress as freaky as possible and the bus driver will surely know where you're going and ache to get rid of you.

Don't miss stonedhenge or the rose garden, great places for people watching, just plant yourself somewhere and watch the parade while someone shouts from the stage in totally justified anger over the continued exploitation of the proletariat by the fuckin' bourgeoisie.
Stick around Monday and Tuesday to help clean up. It's not all heavy lifting and you get an entirely different cool free T-shirt.

Be observant and absorbent. Just because the atmosphere is relaxed doesn't mean it's okay to be stupid. No blowing pot smoke in the faces of cops, and if the guy riding the horse that just plopped a Republican in front of your booth is wearing a uniform, the proper response is "thank you, sir, may I have another?" The national authorities might not be interfering, but two guys were definitely watching with binoculars from a crane across the tracks from the park.

"The only people who've ever died from marijuana were shot by a cop."
- Jack Herer -