By NICHOLAS MUNSON
Even with pot legalized, you might think the last thing the attendees at Hempfest would want to see was a police officer, but this weekend in Seattle, it was a very different story.
In the largest pot rally on the planet with an estimated turnout of 250,000, officers from the Seattle Police Department didn’t try to make any arrests, even though it’s still not legal to light u-p in public in Washington State. Instead, they supplied the munchies, giving out a thousand free bags of Doritos with stickers that detail the intricacies of I-502, the state of Washington’s new law that decriminalizes marijuana.
But according to SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb, the law’s passage doesn’t mean that anyone who wants can simply smoke a joint. People under the age of 21 who are caught with marijuana would still get a misdemeanor, and although an adult can purchase it from someone on a street corner, the person who gave it to them still commits a felony even with the new law.
“The headline that a lot of people saw was that marijuana is legal, and as police, we know it’s a lot more complex than that,” Whitcomb said. “We wanted to share with the community our expectations as the police force responsible for providing public safety services to over 600,000 people in our city.”
The planners of Hempfest arranged three themes for this year’s festival: supporting the complete decriminalization of marijuana, reducing the potential harm of use of the drug and recognizing the power of voting.
Kari Boiter, one of the event’s organizers, said the passing of I-502 has been the most prominent step toward cannabis law reform.
“Look at what we’ve done with our vote,” Boiter said. “We want to make sure people are getting out there and voting, and electing candidates that support our views and are going to do the work to change our laws.”
Boiter and the rest of Hempfest’s core staff say that there is more work yet to be done. There is still a mandatory minimum penalty in the state for possession of over 28 grams of cannabis, and the drug is still in the federal books as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, meaning it has no medical benefit and has a high chance of abuse.
But even for someone openly smoking at the festival, there was little to fear. Seattle voters passed a law in 2003 declaring cannabis enforcement as the police department’s lowest priority, and even if public use is still prohibited, officers have only issued warnings so far.
“Now that it is legal, they have gone out of their way to try and do outreach, realizing that there’s been a lot of damage between the relationships of average citizens who are nonviolent and police departments,” Boiter said. “They’ve gone out of their way to try and bridge some of that gap, and you have to respect that.”
Once a crime that could get you sent to jail, smoking marijuana in public will now be dealt with only through monetary penalties thanks to I-502. Even that didn’t happen in the first post-prohibition version of Hempfest.
The police department said their preferred method of enforcement right now is to give violators a verbal warning and an opportunity to comply, demonstrating what Whitcomb says is a tremendous amount of leniency and patience that pot enthusiasts can appreciate.
“The most interesting thing for me was the reaction,” Whitcomb said. “People walking over to me, looking me in the eye, shaking my hand and saying thank you — not for giving them a one ounce bag of chips but because they’ve got a relationship with the police department that’s there to serve them.
“I think that was pretty amazing,” he said. “I felt validated there.”