SEATTLE – A historic vote this November on legalizing marijuana may seem like the perfect backdrop for Seattle’s Hempfest this weekend, but unprecedented political infighting within the pot-activist community may make the gathering anything but mellow.
The pro-marijuana movement in Washington state is so splintered that Hempfest organizers are staying neutral on the legalization measure, Initiative 502.
For months, a faction of pot activists has been campaigning against the initiative. And today at Hempfest – an annual event billed as the world’s largest pot rally – activists for and against the initiative will square off in a panel discussion.
Things are so fractured that Hempfest director Vivian McPeak, a critic of I-502, said several staff members would have left the organization if it had taken sides on the measure.
For Hempfest it’s been sort of like navigating shark-infested waters, she said.
Hempfest is a political rally above all else, and organizers have used the event over the years to campaign heavily for marijuana-related ballot measures. McPeak said it was easy to support legalization when it seemed like a far-off dream. Now that it’s here, with dozens of pages attached, disagreements have surfaced.
Those opposed to I-502 say it doesn’t go far enough.
It wouldn’t legalize home growing except by medical-marijuana patients and would allow sales for recreation use only at state-licensed marijuana stores.
Another concern is the measure’s driving under the influence, or DUI, provision, which would allow convictions based on the amount of active THC in a driver’s bloodstream, which medical-marijuana patients say would effectively criminalize their driving. No amount of THC is allowed for drivers under 21.
Doug Hiatt of Sensible Washington, which opposes the initiative, calls it a ridiculous waste of time and money because it doesn’t actually repeal laws barring marijuana. Instead, the initiative makes an exception to existing law to allow people over 21 to possess up to one ounce.
Hempfest organizers campaigned hard for the legalization of medical marijuana and in 2003 for Initiative 75, which made pot possession the lowest priority of Seattle law enforcement. McPeak said the festival can’t endorse I-502 with the same enthusiasm.
Proponents and opponents of I-502 will each have a booth at Hempfest.
I’m actually sad that Hempfest isn’t embracing this as sort of a pinnacle of the work that they’ve been doing for so long, said Alison Holcomb, campaign director for the I-502 campaign. There have been so many people who have worked literally for decades to have a chance to begin to roll back marijuana prohibition ... and this is the year that we can finally break through that wall.
She’s scheduled to speak from the mainstage, along with local politicians who support the initiative. Keith Stroup, who founded the national marijuana-advocacy organization NORML, said disputes about the details of the initiative are detrimental to the movement.