SEATTLE - Thousands streamed into a Seattle waterfront park Friday for the opening of a three-day marijuana festival — an event that is part party, part protest and part victory celebration after the legalization of pot in Washington and Colorado last fall.
"This is going to be the biggest year for Hempfest," said Jack Beattie, an 18-year-old Seattle University student, as he shared a joint with two friends. "In past years, people were a little bit sketched out about smoking in public. Now, there's going to be a lot more."
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The free, annual event was expected to draw as many as 85,000 people per day. On Friday, many strolled by vendor stands, joints in hand as they checked out colorful glass pipes, tie-dyed clothing, bags of "ideal cultivation soil," and hemp wares, including purses and necklaces.
Others sprawled on the grass in the steamy sunshine, listening to bands and speeches, or lit bongs on the beach and watched ferries cross Elliott Bay.
Hempfest is in its 22nd year of advocating for the legalization of marijuana, and this is the first time it's been held since last fall, when Washington's voters approved Initiative 502 and Colorado's passed Amendment 64, legalizing the possession of up to an ounce of pot by adults over 21. Both states are developing systems of state-licensed growers and processors, along with stores where taxed, regulated weed will be sold.
Vivian McPeak, Hempfest's executive director, said this year's event was dedicated to reforming federal marijuana laws — specifically, the removal of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning a drug that has no medical benefit and a high likelihood of abuse. He asked festival-goers to make a voluntary $10 contribution to help offset the rally's $800,000 cost.
"When we started Hempfest in 1991, many people thought we were jousting in the wind," McPeak said. "What we've seen with the historic passage of I-502 and measure 62 in Colorado is that change is definitely in the wind."
That was a sentiment shared by 21-year-old Giovanni Pelligrino and three friends as they sat on a driftwood log getting stoned.
"This year, it's not really for us anymore," he said. "It's for everyone else, all the other states."
"As long as it's illegal federally it's not really legal anywhere," added one of his companions, Dean Bakeberg, also 21.
Technically, public use of marijuana remains illegal under Washington's new law, punishable by a $103 ticket. But Seattle police have only been giving people warnings since the law passed, and they had no plans to write anyone up at Hempfest.
In fact, the cops planned to hand out Doritos on Saturday morning, said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb. In what they were calling "Operation Orange Fingers," officers had about 1,000 bags of the nacho-cheese-flavored chips — which they affixed with labels reminding people of some of the nuances of Washington's legal pot law.
Though it's a huge party, Hempfest remains an important political event for many attendees, including Carole Defillo, of Monroe, and her son Collin Berry, 29, who said medical marijuana — in the form of a cannabis oil capsule twice a day — has made a world of difference for him since ulcerative colitis forced doctors to remove his large intestine in 2008. Since he started using the oil, he said, he has stopped taking any other painkillers and finds it much easier to walk around.
"It's always good to have a good time, but there's people who are sick and who need it as medicine," said Berry, lifting his shirt to reveal a gnarly scar on his abdomen. "That's why I come to Hempfest. I don't have a lot of money to donate, but I can bring my presence."