Seattle Hempfest Organizers Question Marijuana Legalization Initiative

Seattle Hempfest begins as a ballot initiative aims to legalize pot this fall.

Aug. 18, 2012— -- A measure to legalize marijuana would seem just the thing to bliss out the tie-dyed, dreadlocked crowd gathered in Seattle's Myrtle Edwards Park this weekend, but Hempfest organizers and attendees say they're not ready to support the initiative that's on the November ballot.

The "Protestival" has been a Seattle tradition for 21 years, but this year is especially important because of Initiative 502, would allow licensed distributors in Washington state to sell pot, and could potentially generate $2 million in taxes over the next five years.

In a surprise move to outsiders, Hempfest, its director and its lawyer have not come out in support of the initiative. They say it's not a true legalization effort and that it has quite a few "poison pills," Hempfest lawyer Douglass Hiatt told

"The mood at Hempfest this year is contentious," Hiatt said. "There's no doubt about it. ... There are a lot of people there that are fighting about whether to support 502 or not, and it's really torn the community up."

According to the "Intent" portion of the measure, it "takes marijuana out of the hands of illegal drug organizations and brings it under a tightly regulated, state-licensed system similar to that for controlling hard alcohol."

But the initiative's driving-under-the-influence provisions have drawn criticism because it includes a zero THC tolerance for drivers under 21. People are also upset that they won't be allowed to grow their own marijuana for recreational use, according to ABC affiliate KOMO-TV in Seattle.

Hempfest director Vivian McPeak said the festival as such has no official position on the measure, calling it "very painful and very awkward."

The festival kicked off Friday and is scheduled to run through Sunday. Its colorful booths are expected to draw 150,000 people this weekend, according to KOMO. There are six stages and hundreds of vendors, Hiatt said.

The free speech event tends to involve a lot of civil disobedience as attendees smoke pot in the park, but Hiatt said they don't get in trouble for it. In fact, he said the city attorney has said he won't prosecute misdemeanor tickets for marijuana posession.

"The police and Hempfest have a great relationship," he said, adding that Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is sceduled to speak at the event.

Hempfest will debate the initiative in a "Hemposium" on Saturday, as supporters like New Approach Washington battle opponents like Sensible Washington, whichis expected to roll out its own initiative for 2013 and says 502 isn't strong enough to withstand "federal challenges" because it doesn't repeal existing laws.

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