Two Decades of Peace, Love, and Marijuana

Every August since 1991, Seattle Hempfest has shown what the world will be like when pot is legal.


It takes a while to figure out what's so different about the crowd of 100,000-plus people basking in the rare Seattle sunshine at Hempfest 2011, which took place August 19 to 21. It's not the smell of pot everywhere, or the vendors selling bongs and pipes and high-carb munchies, or the familiar leaf imagery slapped on everything from lighters to bandanas to T-shirts, or the uncoordinated hippies playing hacky sack. If you remember the '70s, or ever went to a Grateful Dead concert, or have visited Amsterdam, you've been there, grokked that.

But then two things come into focus at the twin Myrtle Edwards and Centennial parks, bound by the indescribable Puget Sound on one side and grim railroad tracks on the other. The first is that no one is arguing, despite the dense crowds, slow-paced walking, scantily clad young folks, and loud bands. It turns out that a massive gathering where open pot use is tolerated (even celebrated) but booze is banned doesn't have to be filled with fights and scream fests; this isn't Dodger Stadium, or Saturday night in Collegetown, USA. The only attendees having a rough time are those who failed to heed Hempfest Executive Director Vivian McPeak's frequent fatherly warnings from the main stage to be respectful while speakers are talking and to always be hydrating. Sunstroke and necking are the only overindulgences on regular display. Whether it's the early morning or the late afternoon, the vibe is more mellow than anything Olivia Newton-John sang.

The second unusual sight is one that should give medical-marijuana skeptics pause: scores of people with visible physical handicaps integrated seamlessly, without special comment, into a subculture that has recognized their pain and need for relief as being worthy of individual dignity and choice. There are more wheelchairs, crutches, and missing limbs than at Lourdes or Fatima. You would certainly never see this many cripples at Lollapalooza, an annual musical event whose attendees pride themselves on their tolerance, or at the National Mall on Independence Day. The medicine that has salved these people's conditions has also provided them with a tolerant community in which they are in every sense equals.

No Booze, No Narcs

This is Seattle Hempfest, the largest annual pro-pot event on the planet. Since its inauguration in 1991, tens of thousands of people from all over the country and the world have been coming each August to hang out, listen to speakers (including both of us this year), catch a few bands, and scope out acres of booths hawking everything from black-light posters to cannabis-themed sex aids to the Libertarian Party. By an all-too-rare yet inspired treaty, the organizers of Hempfest keep the place clean of garbage, booze, and obvious drug sales while the Seattle police and (one presumes) narcs of all stripes turn a blind eye to the open use of pot by one and all. If Seattle Hempfest is a vision of what the world will look like when dope is legal, that world will be peaceful and polite.

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We came to Hempfest to give several five-minute mini-speeches over the course of the weekend, drawing on themes from our new book, The Declaration of Independents, where we argue that the drug legalization movement needs to push past political tribalism. When the drug war ends, we write, it will be because activists and citizens have routed around Democrats and Republicans, who are far too satisfied with, entrenched in, or just scared of upsetting the status quo. During Hempfest, dozens of speakers take to the stages, talking up everything from industrial hemp to sentencing reform to the need for single-payer health care (as with all such gatherings, it's impossible to keep folks on message). 

The Most Misunderstood Plant  On Earth

Since the federal government banned the plant in the 1930s, marijuana prohibition has been one of the country's deadliest and most senseless government policies. The war on drugs is essentially a war on pot, the only illegal drug that more than 1 percent of the population uses on a regular basis. Even its adversaries will grant that pot doesn't make its users violent or dangerous, although its illegal status brings on all the horrors of a black market. As we move oh-so-slowly yet inexorably toward legalization—the last three presidents of the United States are real winners who did drugs; support for selling and taxing the stuff like beer and wine has never been higher—this event (along with dozens of smaller versions all around the country) deserves special thanks for helping to make that liberation possible.

"The presence that we have here today," Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) told the crowd from the main stage, "empowers us. It strengthens us. We must become visible en masse if we're going to bring about the change that we want in the society." (See the sidebars for interviews with Kucinich, travel journalist Rick Steves, and drug policy activist Dale Gieringer.)

The first Hempfest, which invited attendees to "discover the truth about the most misunderstood plant on Earth," took place in Seattle's Volunteer Park on August 17, 1991. No state legally recognized medical marijuana back then, there was no World Wide Web, and it was a month before a little-known Seattle punk band called Nirvana released a single called "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Organizers say just 500 brave souls attended that first gathering.

Twenty years later, we are living on a different planet. The single day of music and talk has spilled over into three, with hundreds of thousands—including mainstream politicians and cops—thronging the Emerald City's showcase parks. Internet culture and commerce, much of it spurred by nearby Microsoft and Amazon.com, have upended modern American life, making it easier than ever to find like-minded fellow travelers and organize around single-issue political topics. Nirvana and the Seattle-centered grunge movement are the subjects of respectful exhibitions at the Frank Gehry–designed Experience Music Project museum near the Space Needle.

California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996. Now medical marijuana is legal in 16 states and the District of Columbia (residents overwhelmingly approved the D.C. measure in 1998, but Congress blocked its implementation until this year). Reformers are beginning a push for full legalization. Last year a California ballot initiative that would have legalized and regulated pot in a manner similar to alcohol pulled 46.5 percent of the vote. At Hempfest, away from the music stages, art-bong booths, and ubiquitous marijuana prescription peddlers, there was much serious talk in the "Hemposium" tent about Washington state's Initiative 502. This proposition, endorsed by PBS travel show host and Hempfest regular Rick Steves, probably will be on the November 2012 ballot. The state's Democratic Party backs the initiative, and polling in September showed voters evenly split on legalization, 46 percent for and 46 percent against (the rest are undecided).

Some of the biggest concerns about Initiative 502 are coming from drug policy activists and participants in the medical marijuana industry, who are concerned about (among other things) the proposition's provisions regarding driving under the influence of marijuana. Embedded in some of those complaints are the tensions and growing pains of a subculture going mainstream and a black market becoming legit.

Paranoia and Political Babble

It wouldn't be a mass gathering of stoners without some paranoia and political babble scattered amid the celebrations. One of our first conversations backstage was with a man who, after learning that reason has been fighting against the drug war for more than four decades, averred that prohibition was "the least of our problems" and proceeded to inform us how various gas and oil pipeline experiments in Alaska were threatening to cause a cataclysmic event in October along the New Madrid fault line in the middle of the country, potentially submerging tens of millions of people under God knows what. After that deliberate act of ultra-violence, there might not be any country left to save. "It will be even worse than the spill in the Gulf of Mexico," he said. And yes, that "accident" was part of a much bigger plan.

By and large, the politics of Hempfest speakers was much less nuts, although not much more inspired. The common perception was that when it comes to pot and drugs more generally, Republicans are pure evil and Democrats are reformers. At times, there seemed to be a general ignorance of just who is currently serving as the top law enforcement official in the country, as when one speaker warned that if you thought George W. Bush was bad, "just wait till you get a load of President Rick Perry." Strangely, the speaker ignored Barack Obama, whose administration has overseen more-frequent raids on medical marijuana dispensaries than Bush's. The bustling commerce on display at the hundreds of stalls came larded with generous helpings of anti-corporate animus, including a "Just Say No to Imports" sign atop a booth selling "Northwest Glass." There was much more love in evidence for Dennis Kucinich than for Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), co-sponsor of a bill that would lift the federal ban on marijuana. Kucinich himself bookended his inspiring rap about becoming visible with angry non sequiturs about campaign finance reform. There is plenty of libertarianism within drug policy circles, but it is far from a libertarian movement.

But at its core, Hempfest is not about enacting policy reform or even changing the political process. Rather, its meaning and power are as a proof of concept. Here is what an America filled with open rather than closeted pot smokers might look like: a peaceful commons in which people get along despite disagreeing on all sorts of topics, a world in which folks look out for each other even as they have a good time. Hempfest and related festivals are stirring reminders that millions of Americans smoke pot and manage just fine. Judging from the government's own survey data (which are based on self-reports and therefore probably understate the prevalence of drug use), more than half of adult Americans born after World War II have tried pot. The government estimates about 23 million people use it monthly, willing to live illegally rather than obey unjust laws. By becoming increasingly visible and outspoken, marijuana activists have pushed repeal much further than the most baked reformer would have thought possible in 1991. And they've done so largely by avoiding politicians and the two-party system, taking their message directly to voters. Along the way, they have provided a blueprint for any bloc of citizens who understand, at some deep and personal level, that the two major parties in this country are worse than useless when it comes to many essential questions of freedom.

Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch are co-authors of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America (Public Affairs).