Seattle Hempfest History
Seattle Hempfest started out as a humble little gathering of stoners and has grown into one of the most sophisticated cannabis policy reform events in the world. Originally billed in 1991 as the “Washington Hemp Expo”, the first Hempfest started in Volunteer Park where it would stay for three years. With a meager attendance of only 500 people, and a staff that consisted of 20 members of the Seattle Peace Heathens Community Action Group, there was no way to know that we were sowing the seeds that would someday make Pacific Northwest history.
The fallout from Jack Herer’s groundbreaking publication, “The Emperor Wears No Clothes”, was just beginning to build and the time was right for a new wave of marijuana activists to emerge on the political scene.
In 1992 organizers placed two large budding sinsemilla plants on the small amphitheater in Volunteer Park. Hempfest’s reputation as a politically flamboyant but professionally astute public assembly had begun to develop. We were amazed that 2,000 hempsters showed up for the second annual event. Seattle’s grunge scene was starting to zenith and there was no shortage of bands chomping at the bit to support the cause. We were honored to have Jack Herer as our keynote speaker that special year.
Hempfest 1993 brought 5,000 supporters, featured a “Bong-A-Thon”, and an even stickier and more beautiful example of nature’s magical foliage. As the event got better, so did the music. ‘The early Hempfests featured Seattle bands such as Stickerbush, Ganja Farmers, Dandylion Soup (pictured to the right, under the bus) and Bam Bam. By 1994 the hard drivin’, hard rockin’ reggae act, the Herbivores, established themselves as Seattle Hempfest’s House Band, which still stands today.
Hempfest was growing at the same rate as the increasing public awareness of the half-truths, lies, and misinformation generated by the war on pot for over 60 years, and it became apparent that we would have to find a larger site, because Volunteer Park had already been maxed out.
By 1994 a strong tribe of dedicated volunteers had been established, and it became clear that a very special and unique spirit of community had developed around this group. The move to beautiful Gasworks Park had been made. Gasworks is a former petroleum production site with huge towers and stacks still standing – ironic for an event promoting alternative sources of energy.
Featuring the legendary Seattle band 7 Year Bitch and the sensational El Steiner, ’94 brought out 15,000 people and blew the lid off of Seattle while creating a snarled traffic cluster for miles around. This was the last year that Hempfest was able to exist without charging fees for vending and forming a formal, city-approved security force. The mosh pit that ensued for 7 Year Bitch’s performance put a serious scare on the organizers, as bodies surfed the crowd and the brave and daring dove from the stage like doobies being thrown to the crowd.
As the event grew exponentially in size and notoriety, the cost of production and promotion grew as well. The need for sound equipment, staging, scaffolding, radios, and advertising required the introduction of musical benefits and merchandising to offset the monetary demands of our growing phenomenon. Famed Seattle clubs such as The Ditto, Crocodile Cafe, Rckndy, The Off Ramp, and The OK Hotel all opened their doors to help raise green energy for the cause. Hundreds of Northwest bands have contributed to date by playing gigs for free, and without any promise of playing the “big kahuna”.
’94 was also the year we picked up the most kick-ass graphics design team that any Hempfest has ever had. Jamie Sheehan, Hempfest’s art director, and world-renowned music art poster luminary Art Chantry, collaborated on our famous cigarette pack poster, produced both on hemp paper as well as 100% hemp burlap. This poster was the first of many designed by this team to win national awards for art design and creativity.
The sheer girth and magnitude of Hempfest ’94 brought the scrutiny of city officials and alarmed residents (traffic was clogged for miles) who saw a sleeping giant just starting to wake from a haze of political apathy and indifference. Up to that point not a single uniformed officer had ever stepped foot into Hempfest. That would change.
A growing concern from police, parks department, and neighborhood groups would be reflected in a series of negotiations that would span many months and involve as many subcommittee meetings to determine our ability to meet the new demands of the Special Events Permit that was now required of us. The negotiations culminated with assistance from the ACLU, and required a $1,000,000 insurance policy, the addition of hired licensed, bonded and insured security, emergency evacuation plans, an on-site ambulance and paid EMTs. Meetings with concerned community groups soon followed, helping to establish Hempfest as a legitimate political rally, not merely a “pot party in the park”, as had been previously claimed by our critics.
Despite the criticism, none of us were ready for the success of Seattle Hempfest ’95. The event was now located at Myrtle Edwards Park, downtown on Seattle’s beautiful waterfront. The massive crowd was greeted by speakers like Jack Herer, Chris Conrad, Dennis Peron, Bill Conde, and Elvy Musika.
Hempfest gained international acclaim and proved that hemp/marijuana reform supporters could gather by the tens of thousands peacefully and responsibly. Elated from a successful event, but exhausted from the high-stress diet of marijuana activism, organizers took 1996 off to produce the first-ever statewide Hemp Voters Guide.
Blessed with searing hot weather for years, ’97 produced a staggering contrast by delivering a torrential downpour of epic proportion, closing down the Mainstage several times, but creating an atmosphere of solidarity reminiscent of the tribal consciousness and determination of Woodstock.
The defiant and courageous spirit of ’97 was symbolized by the presence that year of the late medical marijuana movement hero, Ralph Seeley. Despite the agonizing pain of terminal bone cancer Ralph made an articulate address to the rain-drenched hempsters looking on. Ralph won his lawsuit against Washington state for not supplying safe access to medical marijuana, only to lose on appeal shortly before he died.
We started planning earlier in ’98, and later expanded the inner core group to around 30 people. The size and complexity of the event, as well as the cost of production, continued to build. The most powerful thing that had happened the previous year was the introduction to Hempfest of the amazing Nora Callahan and her inmate advocacy organization, The November Coalition. By putting names, faces, and stories behind the prisoners of the War On Drugs, the November Coalition proved to be one of the fastest-growing organizations of its kind. THe November Coalition has since become the most formidable foe of America’s criminal war on its own people.
In 1998 we realized that to fight for medical, industrial, or recreational marijuana use for adults meant to fight the greater War On Drugs, as it is this policy that is preventing all aspects of the cannabis plant from being utilized in this country. It was Nora Callahan who helped us broaden our speaker range to include not only the hidden victims of the Drug War, the families of the prisoners of war, but to introduce of an audio CD featuring the actual voices and words of the prisoners themselves, as well as the suit-and-tie national-level drug policy warriors.
With the passing of our hero Ralph Seeley in January of 1998, we dedicated our second stage as the Ralph Seeley Memorial Stage. We were honored to have Ralph’s wife Judith speak from that stage (Judith passed away shortly after Hempfest ’98). The second stage is now known as the “Seeley Stage” in honor of both Ralph and Judith.
Hempfest ’99 was the last of the century, and tens of thousands of supporters came out to show the world that the Pacific Northwest is a bastion of political awareness and activism. The same year that WTO paralyzed Seattle with property damage and violence, Hempfest kept its reputation as a civil, orderly demonstration against the Drug War as thousands poured into the long park for music, speakers, and a dose of freedom.
The year 2000 brought more attendees than ever to listen to speakers, tunes and catch some Seattle sunshine. The year also saw the introduction of our terrific compilation CD, “Hemplennium”. Featuring cuts from various Northwest musicians, Hemplenniun includes Merl Saunders with Jerry Garcia, John Trudell, Herbivores, High Times Cannabis Cup Band, and Phat Sidy Smokehouse among others.
2001 saw the introduction of another day to the Hempfest formula. The first-ever two-day Hempfest went off with nary a hitch, breaking records over the course of the two days. The theme was No Prison for Pot, and an amazing array of bands and speakers all answered the call for an end to the Drug War and its injustices. The highlight of the event was Woody Harrelson taking the stage at 4:20 to address the screaming crowd. We also had several digital cameras and a hydraulic boom on-site to record the event for our upcoming documentary.
In 2002 we threw out all the stops and declared Pot Pride! Seattle City Council member Nick Licata received a Green Ribbon Award for excellence in cannabis activism, and we paid lasting respects to our beloved brother Robert Lunday. Robert passed away suddenly from natural causes at 34 years old. He founded Hemp.net, a Seattle-based internet service provider. Robert’s philanthropic and drug policy reform efforts were monumental and he will be forever missed. 2002 also saw city initiative I-75 qualify for the next year’s ballot, something Robert played a big role in and would have been proud of.
2003 hosted a victory for the Pacific Northwest pot movement as I-75 won by a considerable margin. The Seattle city law makes simple possession the lowest enforcement priority, directing local resources toward violent and property crimes. 2003 also saw an amazing speaker lineup, including actor/activist Woody Harrelson, famous travel writer and TV host Rick Steves, and former Dallas Cowboys center Mark Stepnoski. Second Coming and Joules Graves rocked the mainstage.
Vicci Martinez played a set that almost caught the mainstage on fire in 2004, and movement heroes Ed Rosenthal, Eddy Lepp, Kyle Kushman and Dana Larsen were among the line-up of guest speakers.
2005 was the year that almost everybody came to speak at Hempfest. Movement luminaries such as Rob Kampia from the Marijuana Policy Project, Jack Cole of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Stephen Gaskin from the Farm Commune and medical patient Angel Raich came to address Hempfest’s massive crowd. This was also the last year with the old entrance of Myrtle Edwards Park, as construction continues on the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Scultpure Park.
2006 was in many ways the best Hempfest ever. Former Seattle Police Chief, Norm Stamper, spoke on our stages, a first for a pot rally and a real honor for us. Air America radio goddess Randi Rhodes shared some of the emcee work on Mainstage both days, and John Sinclair, an icon within both the culture and the movement, participated as a poet and musician. The band Rehab tore up the Mainstage, as the sun shone down on the essential event.
2006 was, however, a terribly bittersweet year. Our band/speaker coordinator, James Matthiessen, was stolen from us by cancer on August second, right before the fest. In a surreal turn of events, his step-mother, Hempfest’s treasurer, Share Parker, passed away on December 4th. Share was a five star general in our peace army. We miss them both. Share was also the bass player of the Hempfest house band, the Herbivores. James coordinated our Speakers Bureau, which has blossomed into a serious committee.
2007 was a year of great success and great loss. Record crowds thronged to Hempfest 2007 despite the occasional showers and mild weather. Pato Banton, Miss Crazy, Alan White and Charlie Drown are among the great bands who performed for the cause. Rick Steves came back and was as out and as vocal as ever. Hempfest revealed “Toking Man’ in honor of our new relationship with the Olympic Sculpture Park, and Hempfest had the front page of the Seattle P.I. on Saturday morning.
Not long before Hempfest our dear brother Billy Mitchell passed away too young. Not long after Hempfest 2007 our beloved Traffic Ogre Meril Draper lost his life in a motorcycle accident. These losses leave us stunned, shattered and somber, but our resolve and commitment to ending prohibition has been anything but diminished. We will honor James, Share, Billy and Meril and all the others who have passed in the struggle by working hard to win human rights and equality for Americans who choose cannabis.
2008 saw the hottest weather in the history of Hempfest. Record crowds attended the fest, especially on Saturday, which boasted weather of 96 degrees. Mo Thugs (members of Bone, Thugs and Harmony) performed along with All Hail the Crown, Flowmotion, Kim Manning and over 60 other great acts. Hempfest volunteers carried the big load and the entire event was broken down, packed out and cleaned up in two short days.
The 2009 Seattle Hempfest also took place in beautiful summer weather, and record crowds thronged to the downtown waterfront to check out the scene. The theme was “cannabis for a better future” and we were happy to work with the Hemp Industries Association in offering a glimpse of what the hemp pant could do for America. The music included Potent, from L.A., Oregon’s Alice Di Micele, and our own state’s Rich Wetzel’s Groovin’ Higher Orchestra (a fourteen piece brass band). On Saturday Hempfest experienced a crowd crunch from unprecedented attendance.
Our Board of Directors met for an emergency meeting that night and identified 11 points throughout the 1.3 mile event site that needed to be widened. The next morning anything that could be was moved. Generators, fencing, sanicans, vehicles, and other obstructions were moved to gain more access on the paths. Hempfest worked with SPD to manage the crowds on Sunday and there was no notable crowding issues at all that day.
For 2010 Hempfest has made significant modifications to accommodate anticipated record attendance in a safe, manageable fashion. A minimum path width has been established, all vending on the east path in Myrtle Edwards Park has been relocated, strolling vending has been eliminated, and motorized cart use has been suspended each day from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.
In addition, Hempfest made attempts at obtaining permit authorization for an additional day, but that request was turned down by the City of Seattle because of budgetary reasons. Hempfest continues to believe that a third day would greatly assist in insuring that our message can be heard by every persons who wishes to hear it. We are asking supporters to call and write the mayor’s office suggesting that a third day is granted in 2011.
For 2010, Hempfest made significant modifications to our ground plans to accommodate anticipated record attendance in a safe, manageable fashion. A minimum path width was established, all vending on the east path in Myrtle Edwards Park was relocated, strolling vending was permanently eliminated, and motorized cart use has been suspended each day from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.
In addition, Hempfest made attempts at obtaining permit authorization for an additional day, but that request was turned down by the City of Seattle because of budgetary reasons. Hempfest asked supporters to call and write the mayor’s office suggesting that a third day is granted in 2011.
2011 saw the 20th annual Hempfest get that third day, and the result was a much smoother flow of pedestrian traffic throughout the entire weekend. The first three-day Seattle Hempfest was a hempy humdinger, featuring Main Stage performances by the Kottonmouth Kings, legendary Pacific Northwest punk act The Accused, and a jam session between members of Smashmouth on the Peter McWilliams Memorial Stage. Other notable acts that participated include the Super Sonic Soul Pimps, Missionary Position, Manoogi Hi, and the mystical Jah Levi and the Higher Reasoning.
Signature gatherers were out in force to qualify Citizen’s Initiative 502 for the 2012 ballot, and those efforts were successful, placing the bill on the November 2012 Washington State election ballot. The initiative was very controversial within the Pacific Northwest reform community, because of two DUI driving provisions, a multi-tiered taxing scheme, and the lack of authorized home production (I-502 mandates state operated cannabis stores, yet to be implemented at the time of this writing).
Never before had the organizers of Seattle Hempfest encountered such division and disagreement within the regional reform community. After polling the core membership of the Hempfest organization (Seattle Events, a Non-Profit Corporation) and discovering that the membership was evenly divided on I-502, the Hempfest Board of Directors voted for Hempfest to maintain a neutral position on the effort. That decision was both frustrating and painful, but it allowed Hempfest to offer all parties an equal degree of respect and participation, as there were many inflamed and passionate opinions among our speakers, volunteers, vendors, and performers, regarding the potentially historic legislation.
Also, after completing the 20th annual Seattle Hempfest we felt that we had earned the opportunity to ramp things up to the next level, as Hempfest prepares for its third decade of activism and advocacy. In the months after the 20th anniversary Seattle Hempfest we invested thousands of dollars redesigning the Hempfest website, expanding Hempfest’s outreach to the public and adding the “bells and whistles” necessary to make the site more user friendly.
After 20+ years working from our homes without a central office, Hempfest took the plunge and secured offices and storefront on Lake City way in North Seattle. We like to say that we worked “grass-roots to our ass-roots” for years while we organized the world’s biggest pot rally on a shoestring. After many months of looking, we finally secured a storefront at 12351 Lake City Way NE # 102, in Seattle. We call our new home Hempfest Central, and in some ways it is like a Hempfest mullet, with the store in the front and offices in back.
We moved into our offices a few months before the 2012 Hempfest, which was somewhat dominated by heated debate about the controversial Initiative 502. There were organizations participating from both sides of the issue, and Hempfest’s guest speaker line-up included Alison Holcomb, the principle author of the initiative, and Rick Steves, travel guru and high profile sponsor of I-502. Music performances included hip hop recording artists Potluck, Northern California’s Human Revolution, Diemonds from Ontario, Canada, and movement and culture personality Rocker T.
Immediately after Hempfest we went right to work building our hemp boutique and 420 culture store, Hempfest central. On our November 15th grand opening there was a line of folks waiting to get in. Featuring an initial inventory of industrial hemp goods such as quality soaps, oils, bags and other gear, Hempfest Central also carries books, custom glass, 420 wall art, handmade earthenware, posters and assorted Hempfest event merchandise. Eventually, 90% of the Hempfest Central inventory will be up in this website, available for purchase on-line.
As history will record, I-502 passed by 56%, making simple possession of one ounce of cannabis legal for adults in Washington State. Colorado voters simultaneously passed Measure 54, also legalizing an ounce of cannabis for adults. The result was a media firestorm, with Seattle Hempfest spokespersons appearing on international news media, including Al Jazeera English, Current TV, FOX News, BBC, and Japanese, Mexican, French, Canadian, and Chinese media.
The passage of these two citizen’s initiatives is the biggest event since prohibition began, and the momentum for continued reform is increasing with each passing day.
The 2013 Seattle Hempfest was unlike any previous one. The historic victories in the previous election cycle set the stage for an equal part protestival and victory celebration, and the 22nd annual Seattle Hempfest featured unbridled revelry as attendees relished in the knowledge that victories are being realized after so many decades of prohibitionist control. The year began with another iconic poster image from husband and wife art duo Cory and Catska Ench. The image of Uncle Sam passing a lit joint against a backdrop of the Emerald City embodied the new paradigm that is emerging as the meme of prohibition being an impenetrable barrier has been shattered.
The 2013 Hempfest musical line-up was stellar, including recording artists Everlast, Hed PE, Lucero, DJ Muggs (from Cypress Hill), Junior Toots, & Jack Endino’s Earthworm (featuring the Godfather of Grunge himself). Guest speakers included Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, mayoral candidate Senator Ed Murray, former Senator Mike Gravel, I-502 architect Alison Holcomb, attorney Henry Wykowski, Harborside Medical’s Steve DeAngelo, and Dr, Bill Courtney. During the Friday eve in-house V.I.P. Party, the Seattle Hempfest Excellence in Cannabis Activism award was given (regional) to attorney Fred Diamondstone and (national) Cheryl Shuman.
However, the biggest thing that happened was the media firestorm created when the Seattle Police department announced that it would be giving out bags of Doritos emblazoned with informational stickers detailing the new legal parameters in the post-I-502 environment. The result was international media attention, with Hempfest representatives appearing on CNN and a host of other national media outlets. Bill O-Reilly on FOX News reported about Hempfest, as did every major news source in the United States. History was further made when Seattle Police Department spokesperson, Sergeant Sean Whitcomb, spoke from the Seattle Hempfest Main Stage.
The 23rd annual Seattle Hempfest took place August 15, 16, 17, 2015. The weather was good, and former members of the Seattle music icon Heart performed a blistering set on Main Stage with the band Heart by Heart. Chimaira rocked the McWilliams Stage, Seattle favorites Jim Page, Joanne Rand, and Annie O’Neill all played a 4:20 pm slot on Seeley Stage over the weekend. Hempfest’s theme was Time, Place, and Manner, and it was reflected in the introduction of two “Adult Lounges” that were out of public view. Hempfest teamed up with The Human Solution to advocate for “adopted” prisoners, raising $3,400.85 for Jimmy Roman, George Montorano and Eddie Lepp. Hempfest Voter Registration volunteers registered 1,206 new voters during the 3 day event. Sadly, we lost two loved members in 2014; Mimi Peck from Safety Patrol, and Michael “Parijat” Kearns from the Hempstory Book Booth. Recreational stores opened as the brave new world of legal cannabis emerges, a testament to the sweat equity and shoe-leather organizing and advocacy of thousands of local and regional activists. Hempfest Central, our storefront and offices, raged on, approaching its 3rd year of existence.
Work on the 2015 Seattle Hempfest event are ongoing, and this year we introduce Hempfest Business, at Seattle Center, during Hempfest weekend.
It’s not too late to get involved in any of these activities. Volunteer. After all, you’d be helping to make history! Those who have paved the way live on in our activism. Why not get involved? Volunteer!
For the complete history of Seattle Hempfest you can also purchase Protestival; A 20 Year Retrospective of Seattle Hempfest on line HERE or at Hempfest Central, 12351 Lake City Way NE #102 Seattle, Wa 98125 and have a piece of Seattle Hempfest history with you all the time!
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