While cannabis might now be legalized for recreational use in Washington State and for commercial purposes across the US, Hempfest is still about resistance. You can just smell it in the air.
The 28th annual event, the world’s largest dedicated to decriminalizing cannabis sativa, or hemp, took place this weekend from Aug. 16 – 18 at Myrtle Edwards Park, a long and scenic stretch of the Seattle waterfront, with DOPE hosting its own pop-up carnival, DOPELAND, and the High Times Cannabis Cup awards show as part of the festivities. But even amidst all the smoke circles and promotional booths, there were little reminders everywhere around the three-day political rally/arts and music festival that the fight on behalf of this plant is far from over, and that the culture around it is still very much in opposition to the status quo – or at least, in favor of challenging and pushing it forward.
There was the drama that kicked off the weekend with Expedia stubbornly denying access to Hempfest organizers and attendees at the north entrance due to the tech company’s adjacent development project, evidenced by the “BOYCOTT EXPEDIA” signs plastered on all the port-a-potties. There were the calls for donations lent urgency by the legal battles Hempfest is waging against the city and state for its very existence. There were the art and t-shirts for sale depicting famous Disney and other corporate-branded characters in decidedly non-Disney situations. There were the “Don’t Tread on My Meds” banners and “Make American Hemp Again” baseball caps, the spirited cries of N.W.A.’s “F*ck tha Police” directed at SPD officers on the pedestrian overpass above, and the weekend program ending with Tina Hendrix shredding the “Star-Spangled Banner” in tribute to her uncle Jimi at that granddaddy of all countercultural happenings, Woodstock.
More than anything, however, there were the many booths devoted to activist causes, everything from simply getting voters registered and legalizing cannabis home grows to democratic reform through ranked choice voting (Fair Vote Washington), unionizing cannabis labor (United For Cannabis Workers), and supporting the release of nonviolent cannabis offenders from our nation’s for-profit prison system (Freedom Grow).
Of course, there were also plenty of diverse opportunities for recreation, celebration, and consumption to go along with Hempfest’s heavier, headier, more holistic subtext. It’s large, lively, and freewheeling enough to create that magical music festival atmosphere of discovery, wherein you can stumble upon something totally unexpected and unique just in getting from point A to point B, whether it’s NW Leaf’s geodesic dome playing host to spacey instrumental funk bands, a line of live glassblowers making intricate pipes at Hype Herbally, or just one of the fried food stands slinging hemp-infused curly fries.
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Some of the weekend’s best discoveries were at DOPELAND, a grove of sponsoring cannabusiness booths and sunny lawn space surrounding the historic Seeley Black Memorial Stage, named in honor of Kevin Black and Rob and Judith Seeley. Smokers could commune and play cornhole with Uptown Sponsor reps from brands like Phat Panda, Dabstract, Grow Op Farms and Flav while enjoying live bands and speakers like Seth Cunnigan, who had backpacked 1,000+ miles from San Diego to be there in spite of fibromyalgia and other disabilities. A backstage VIP area offered free snacks, drinks, and massages by donation while the Cannabis Cup medals, designed by psychedelic artists Alex and Allison Grey, were being laid out in anticipation.
Now hosted in conjunction with its subsidiary DOPE, the High Times Cannabis Cup is one of this fledgling industry’s highest awards, providing another forum not just for celebrating the plant, but for recognizing the people and companies growing it.
“We should really give [the producers] a round of applause,” said David Tran, DOPE’s founder and chief brand officer, by way of introducing the awards, “because it is not very easy to get something from a seed all the way to what you’re smoking right now,”
From there, a trio of High Times hosts got progressively higher passing around joints onstage while tossing out merch and calling out the top three contenders for every category. The first prizewinners were invited up to accept their trophies and say a few words, with some representatives scrambling up late because they were busy – what else? – getting high. Most acceptances speeches were humbly grateful, short and sweet, but reflecting the long and difficult journey it’s taken to reach this point for cannabis.
“Hemp can change the world,” said a representative of multiple CBD-related awards winners Blue Forest Farms.
“It’s nice to be out here and smoke weed in public,” High Times VP of Content shares. Jon Cappetta later reiterates, “… but make sure you’re donating to the causes that matter. Wherever we are today is nowhere compared to where we’re going to be five years from now, and we only get there by taking steps forward.”
The greatest official coming together of cannabis smokers and advocates the world has, every Hempfest goes to show that the many subcultures therein – the old heads, health nuts, vets, medical CBD users, Instagrammers, and on and on – can coexist and mingle harmoniously. It’s a demonstration of nonviolent community around a substance that has for so long been criminalized and its proponents brutalized, which is why the organizers’ stated top priority is that no one get hurt.
Now that cannabis is finally being recognized and respected by the letter of the law, Hempfest is still empowering those steps forward. Like the red, white and blue hemp leaf cutout above the Share Parker Main Stage, it’s trying to normalize cannabis as part of the American mainstream, but not without bringing some of the most vital countercultural values, of community, sustainability, diversity, openness and free expression, along with it. If DOPE stands for Defending Our Plant Everywhere, Hempfest can be a reminder that, fun and beautiful as it is to smoke for its own sake, cannabis represents much more as a symbol, a healing medicine and, for many, a way of life – not something to be commodified or homogenized under the same profit-first systems as other crops or pharmaceuticals – and we need to defend those principles as one and the same.