Seattle Hempfest started out as a humble little gathering of stoners and has grown into one of the most sophisticated marijuana/hemp policy reform events in America. Originally billed in 1991 as the “Washington Hemp Expo”, the first Hempfest started in Volunteer Park where it would stay for three years. With a meager attendance of only 500 people, and a staff that consisted of 20 members of the Seattle Peace Heathens Community Action Group, we had no way to know that we were sowing the seeds that would make Pacific Northwest history.
The fallout from Jack Herer’s groundbreaking publication “The Emperor Wears No Clothes” was just beginning to permeate the atmospheric climate of American society. The time was right for a new wave of marijuana activists to emerge on the political scene.
In 1992, organizers placed two large budding sinsemilla plants on the small amphitheater in Volunteer Park and Hempfest’s reputation as a politically flamboyant but professionally astute public assembly had begun to develop. We were amazed that 2,000 hempsters showed up for the second annual event. Seattle’s “grunge” scene was starting to zenith and there was no shortage of bands chomping at the bit to support the cause. We were honored to have Herer himself as our keynote speaker that special year.
Hempfest 1993 brought 5,000 supporters, featured a “Bong-A-Thon”, and an even stickier and more beautiful example of nature’s magical foliage. As the event got better, so did the music, and ’93 featured great Seattle bands such as Stickerbush and Bam Bam (both defunct) and established the hard drivin’ rockin’ reggae act, Herbivores as Seattle Hempfest’s House Band. Hempfest was growing at the same rate as the increasing public awareness of the half truths, lies and misinformation that had been generated by our government for over 60 years, and it became apparent that we would have to find a larger site Volunteer Park, US hemp team for regulation had been maxed out.
By 1994 a strong tribe of dedicated volunteers had been established, and it became clear that a very special and unique spirit of community had developed around this group, a spirit that has only grown stronger with the passage of time. The move had been made to beautiful Gasworks Park, a former petroleum production site, huge towers and stacks still standing…ironic for an event promoting alternative sources of energy. Featuring legendary Seattle band 7 Year Bitch, and the sensational El Steiner, ’94 brought out 15,000 people and blew the lid off of Seattle while creating a snarled traffic cluster for miles around. This was the last year that Hempfest was able to exist without charging fees for vending and forming a formal, city approved security force. The “mosh pit” that ensued ensued for 7 Year Bitch’s performance put a serious scare on the organizers as bodies surfed the crowd and the brave and daring dove from the stage like doobies being thrown to the crowd.
As the event was growing exponentially in size and notoriety, the cost of production and promotion grew as well. The need for sound equipment, staging, scaffolding, radios, and advertising required the introduction of musical benefits and merchandising to offset the monetary demands of our growing phenomenon. Famed Seattle clubs such as the Crocodile Cafe, Rckndy, The Off Ramp, and The OK Hotel all opened their doors to help raise green energy for the cause. To date, literally hundreds of Northwest bands have contributed by playing gigs for free, and without any promise of playing the “big kahuna”. ’94 was also the year we picked up the most kick ass graphics design team that any Hempfest has ever had. Jamie Sheehan, Hempfest’s art director, and world renowned music art poster luminary Art Chantry collaborated on our famous cigarette pack poster, produced both on hemp paper as well as 100% hemp burlap. This poster was the first of many designed by this team to win national awards for art design and creativity.
The sheer girth and magnitude of Hempfest ’94 brought the scrutiny of city officials and alarmed residents (traffic was clogged for miles) who saw a sleeping giant just starting to wake from a haze of political apathy and indifference. Up to that point not a single uniformed officer had ever stepped foot into Hempfest. That would change. A growing concern from police, parks department, and neighborhood groups would be reflected in a series of negotiations that would span 5 months, and involve 6 subcommittee meetings to determine our ability to meet the new demands of the “Special Events Permit” that was now required of us. These negotiations culminated with assistance from the ACLU, and required a $1,000,000 insurance policy, the addition of paid licensed bonded and insured security, strict contingency plans (emergency evacuation contingency), an on site ambulance and paid EMT’s. Meetings with concerned community groups soon followed, establishing Hempfest as a legitimate political rally, not a “pot party” in the park, as had previously been claimed by our critics.
None of us were ready for the success of Seattle Hempfest ’95. This time police were very present and for the first time ever citations were issued for public smoking and there were three marijuana related arrests. The event was now located at Myrtle Edwards Park, downtown on Seattle’s beautiful waterfront. Police reports said 25,000 people attended, but local news media proclaimed that the ’95 event drew an estimated 50,000 people. They were greeted by speakers like Jack Herer, Chris Conrad, Dennis Peron, Bill Conde, and Elvy Musika. The legend had been born…Hempfest gained international acclaim and proved that hemp/marijuana reform supporters could gather by the tens of thousands peacefully to educate on the historical, industrial, medicinal, and spiritual uses of the cannabis plant.
Elated from a successful event, but exhausted from the high stress diet of marijuana activism, organizers took 1996 off to produce the first ever statewide Hemp Voters Guide.
Blessed with searing hot weather for years, 1997 produced a staggering contrast by delivering a literal torrential downpour of epic proportion, closing down the mainstage several times, but creating an atmosphere of solidarity reminiscent of the tribal consciousness and determination of Woodstock. The defiant and courageous spirit of 1997’s event was symbolized by the presence of the late medical marijuana movement hero, Ralph Seeley. Despite the agonizing pain of terminal bone cancer combined with his bittersweet and short lived judicial victory against Washington state’s medical marijuana laws, Ralph made a historic, brave and articulate address to the rain drenched hempsters looking on. Only 25,000 showed up for Hempfest ’97.
We started earlier in ’98 and later expanded the inner core group to around 30 people. The size and complexity, as well as the intense responsibility associated with producing such an influential and controversial event comes with a price. And the Drug War raged on. The most powerful thing that had happened the previous year was the introduction to Hempfest of the amazing Nora Callahan and her inmate advocacy organization, The November Coalition. By putting names, faces, and stories behind the prisoners of the War On Drugs, the November Coalition proved to be one of the fastest growing organizations of it’s kind and has since become the most formidable foe of America’s criminal war on it’s own people.
In 1998 we realized to fight for medical, industrial or personal use for adults means to fight the greater War On Drugs, as it is this policy that is preventing all aspects of the cannabis plant from being utilized in this nation. It was Nora Callahan who helped us broaden our speaker range to include not only the hidden victims of the Drug War, the families of the prisoners of war, as well as the introduction of an audio CD featuring the actual voices and words of the prisoners themselves, but also the suit and tie national level drug policy warriors, who have been fighting in the trenches along side us for years (see 1998 main stage lineup).
With the passing of our hero Ralph Seeley in January of 1998 we dedicated our second stage as the Ralph Seeley Memorial Stage. We were honored to have Ralph’s wife Judith speak from that stage (Judith passed away shortly after Hempfest 98). The second stage will from now on be known as the “Seeley Stage” in honor of Ralph and Judith.
Hempfest 1999 was the last of the century, and 90,000 strong supporters came out to show the world that the Pacific Northwest is a bastion of political awareness and activism. The same year WTO paralyzed Seattle with property damage and violence, Hempfest kept it’s reputation as a civil, orderly demonstration against the Drug War as thousands poured into the long park for music, speakers and freedom.
The year 2000 brought over 100,000 enthusiastic supporters to rally for the cause, listen to speakers and tunes and catch some Seattle sunshine. The year also saw the introduction of our terrific compilation CD Hemplennium. Hemplennium features cuts from various Northwest musicians including Merl Saunders with Jerry Garcia, John Trudell, Herbivores, High Times Cannabis Cup Band, Phat Sidy Smokehouse.
2001 saw the introduction of another day to the Hempfest formula. The first ever two-day Hempfest went off with nary a hitch, breaking records with a 150,000 person attendance over two days. The theme was No Prison for Pot, and an amazing array of bands and speakers all answered the call for an end to the drug war and its injustices. The highlight of the event was Woody Harrelson taking the stage at 4:20 to address the screaming crowd. We alo had several digital cameras and a hydraulic boom onsite to record the event for our upcoming documentary.
In 2002 we threw out all the stops and declared pot pride! Seattle City council member Nick Licata received a Green Ribbon Award for excellence in cannabis activism, and we paid lasting respects to our beloved brother Robert Lunday. Robert passed away suddenly from natural causes at 34 years old. He was the founder and operator of Hemp.Net, a Seattle based ISP that has provided web design, hosting and e-mail for Seattle Hempfest for years. His philanthropic and drug policy reform efforts were monumental and he will be forever missed. And Robert will be alive in our hearts. 2002 also saw city initiative I-75 qualify for the 203 ballot.
2003 hosted a victory for the Pacific Northwest pot movement as I-75 wins by a considerable margin. The Seattle city law makes simple possession lowest enforcement priority, directing local resources toward violent and property crimes. 2003 also saw an amazing speaker line-up, including actor/activist Woody Harrelson, famous travel writer and TV host Rick Steves, and former Dallas Cowboys center Mark Stepnoski. Over 170,000 people came out for a day in the sun and politics in the park.
The morally unlawful and intolerable human rights abuses and violations that have resulted from this failed “war” are greater than the destruction caused by all drug use in America. As the resistance to the persecution of Cannabis supporters continues to grow globally we are prepared to expand our call for justice and increase our collective voice calling for change. After decades of lies, persecution, and injustice, Americans are calling for sweeping reforms in our nation’s pot laws. And we are vocal.
We are demanding that patients get their medical marijuana, that American farmers be allowed to produce the world’s friendliest plant, and that humans not suffer the indignity and immeasurable injustices that we have endured for our love of one of our Earth’s finest creations…the Cannabis plant. Please join us for another peaceful, educational and informative year of inspiration as we prepare the world for a change in Cannabis policy everywhere!