SEATTLE -- There is a man in a 10-foot-high bong costume strolling around, narrowly missing a pack of teenagers admiring a vendor booth stocked with Bob Marley T-shirts and tie-dyed toilet seats. A man in a wheelchair wearing holographic weed sunglasses says he's on leave from his veterans' retirement home, and a gentleman in a mushroom hat shakes a tambourine and urges people to "start the party!"
Welcome to Hempfest 2013, a free three-day festival in Seattle and the largest pot rally in the world, according to its organizers. Held each August for the past 22 years, Hempfest was started by a group of activists as a political protest, seeking to change marijuana laws in the United States and educate the public about the many uses of cannabis.
Since Washington state legalized marijuana this November with the passing of Initiative 502, allowing for simple possession of up to one ounce per person, the festival has evolved to become, as one organizer said from the main stage, "one-half protestival and, for the first year ever, one-half victory celebration."
While the revelers are out in full force, lying on one another in pig piles, dancing and openly smoking in groups huddled around impressively large water pipes, the protest element remains evident from the number of speakers and attendees passionately sharing their concerns about the greater war on drugs and its national implications.
William Fisher and Sarah Frank from Spokane, Wash., were at the event to speak on behalf of families who have lost custody of their children because of medical marijuana use. Fisher was denied custody of his daughter Lily this year after admitting he uses marijuana — despite having a license he received for degenerative-disc disease after falling off an eight-foot wall while pouring concrete. Frank says Child Protective Services wants Fisher to stop smoking pot and go on pharmaceutical narcotics before he can take his daughter home. In the meantime, Lily is in the care of an 86-year-old foster parent. "Which one's more harmful — marijuana or the foster-care program?" asks Frank.
Other politically minded people have capitalized on their beliefs, joining the many vendors at the increasingly commercial event. Canna Nexus is new to the festival this year after packing up its operation in California and moving north to take advantage of I-502's provisions. Kim Marshall, a partner in Canna Nexus, says her company offers I-502 application assistance and compliance along with business planning, bookkeeping, graphic design, marketing strategy and budgeting for cannabis industries.
Booth vendor Amir says this is his second year selling pipes and other smoking equipment at Hempfest. His gas masks with smoking tubes attached have been a big hit since last year.
But some vendors were there purely to take advantage of the huge turnout and have no pot affiliation whatsoever. There was even a booth there to sell jam — just regular, hemp-free jam. "We usually sell at farmers' markets," says employee Josh Pakenin.
Devon, Mike and Delfino, a group of openly smoking late-20-somethings, are here just to celebrate, particularly Mike, who just got out of the military after 10 years and says this is his first trip to Hempfest. Devon has attended "for years" and says the only difference this time is the number of children in attendance.
Robert, a 48-year-old father has arrived from Mississippi with his wife and two boys, ages 9 and 5. He feels the event is appropriate for his kids and has taken them for several years. "It's just a part of life and something we choose to celebrate" he says, adding that this year's festival feels better and more open than ever.
Technically, smoking marijuana in public remains illegal in Seattle parks but has largely been ignored since 1991. Because Hempfest is a constitutionally protected free-speech event, there is no age limit, and there are kids as young as 15 openly smoking.
Even before Initiative 75 was passed in 2003, pot possession was one of the lowest priorities of law enforcement in the city, with the support of law-enforcement officials. Since legalization, formerly closeted marijuana users fearful of social and professional implications have come out in droves. This year's Hempfest seems to reflect this era of openness, with nearly every segment of society represented. In years past, it was famous travel-guide author Rick Steves who served as the face of the event. This year, he's a sponsor.
Hempfest is, by any estimate, a huge undertaking. The festival costs about $700,000 to produce each year and is largely funded by revenue generated at the event. The rest comes from donations, benefits, sponsorships and membership sales. Essentially a nonprofit event, it is organized and run by an all-volunteer staff.
Festival volunteer Michael Dare became involved with the festival six years ago as a way to come out — something he says is the critical first step for the revolution.
"I've been hiding my pot smoking all my life," says Dare. "I've spent 50 years hiding in the shadows and always going into an alley to smoke. I finally found a group of people where I don't have to hide who I really am."
But not everyone approves of the festival. Some Seattle residents feel embarrassment over or hostility toward the event, and the city has received complaints since its inception. The ACLU got involved in 1994 to establish Hempfest as a recognized, permitted political rally.
Dare says the festival remains an important act of free speech and a chance to celebrate the city's lax views on the drug — even before it was legalized. "I have smoked pot in front of the chief of police, and he didn't pull one of his officers to have me arrested. We're the most progressive city on earth."