Illustration by Zach O’Hora.
Seattle’s Annual Hempfest attracts a range of characters. As we wait in the half mile long queue to get into this years festival which is focusing on ‘responsible use and harm reduction’, we can’t help but notice that we might be some of the oldest people there. We’re surrounded by teenagers, a lot of them know each other and almost all are wearing T-shirts emblazoned with massive cannabis leafs, joints, ‘witty’ stoner phrases (Honestly officer it’s my new cinnamon eyedrops). Shouts of ‘dude’ come from everywhere. This is an all American stoner festival. In the press release it starts, ‘Marijuana, known as a wonder drug to its advocates and the ‘Assassin of Youth’ to critics of the plant, takes center stage again at the world’s largest cannabis re-legalization profestival’. The festival spans three Seattle waterfront parks, is free and has been run by volunteers for nineteen years.
Seattle Hempfest, photography by Louisa Lee.
Walking through the three parks in a loop I see some of the strangest, most wonderful and most depraved sites I have seen at any festival. It is a fascinating yet exhausting experience. Teenagers walk past with seven foot tall bongs strapped to their backs, T-shirts are sold saying, ‘No Herb No Freedom. Know Herb Know Freedom’. There are stalls and stalls of multi-coloured, jewel-like bongs and plastic, hawaiian style hemp leaves to hang around your neck. Although there are plenty of people selling hash cakes, I have not yet seen one person selling weed. Not knowing what the laws on smoking cannabis are from state to state, I am left even more clueless. Clearly everyone here is off their tits as a haze of smoke engulfs the whole festival but cannabis doesn’t seem to be legal outside of the festival. The police presence is still very visible as a group of menacing-looking officers stand on a knoll beside the path.
Illustration by Edmund Tucker.
We wonder further into the site. Either side of the path is a combination of more teenagers and a large collection of the homeless people and drug-addicts who normally hang around Seattle’s chinatown district. However, in the middle of the site is a tent aimed at cannabis education. Speakers stand up to advocate the differences between organically and non-organically grown weed. In the corner there is a ‘Grammas for Ganja’ stall run by two old ladies selling hemp T-shirts and giving away pencils and ‘Seattle Hempfest’ M and Ms. The older generation here do seem to want to promote cannabis’ medical benefits and positive social impact.
Illustration by Edmund Tucker.
Throughout the day there is a massive array of bands on various stages. We watch one for a while but I cannot help but be distracted by the boy on my left lying on his back, not moving and slowly turning blue. His friends initially joke around and chuck stuff at him. Eventually a worried bystander goes to fetch some medics who look ready to take him away until he finally regains movement. 4.20 comes (in American culture 4.20 in the afternoon suggests stoner culture, a time to smoke weed), and at this time the singer is supposed to say, ‘What time is it?’ and throw loads of free weed into the audience. The band is too stoned and continues the song for another fourteen minutes.
King Bong by Zach O’Hora.
We leave the festival excited but slightly depressed. Hempfest has good intentions. It is chilled out to the extreme and yet treats the benefits of weed with utter seriousness, following all the cliches that come with it. However, what to me could be a fun, relaxed and good-natured way to spend a weekend has a distinctly sinister underside as a result of attracting the kind of crowd which doesn’t help the festival’s biggest aim: re-legalization.
Herb War by Zach O’Hora.
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