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Hempfest at the Crossroads: What Place Will the Classic “Protestival” Fill After Legalization?

Seattle Hempfest Photos Cannabis Now
photo gracie malley

In The Magazine

Hempfest at the Crossroads: What Place Will the Classic “Protestival” Fill After Legalization?

The Hempfest That Wasn’t

I had already walked the length of the converted hangar, stuck my nose in everyone else’s glass, vapes and T-shirts, trudged back to the unnoticed pile of books and magazines which passed for my own booth and mentally declared the whole goddamned convention to be DOA when I looked up and spotted Elvy Musikka striding boldly toward me. Her vision, just fine two years ago, had taken a nosedive for the worse; but despite seeing the wide world as a dim blur through 74-year-old eyes, the diminutive Scandinavian-Colombian embodiment of the U.S. government’s most blatant hypocrisy yanked along her patient personal assistant with a tenacious staccato stride. And suddenly it was Hempfest, after all.

“Elvy!” I cried joyfully. I hadn’t seen her since the early spring, at the California NORML conference in San Francisco. It was already late summer but I hadn’t forgotten Elvy’s rousing tirade against the War on Drugs, boldly brandishing her tin of government weed for all to see.

“Uh, is that you Jeremy?” she asked in my general direction and extended both arms. I hugged her and her handler, Big Mike, a hulking giant of a man with a disarming smile. I was so glad to see them again. While its Seattle counterpart far to the north had set the indisputable standard as the world’s premiere cannabis “protestival,” Bay Area Hempfest was looking more and more like a dud. Most of my friends and colleagues in the movement were not even aware it was going on; the old World War II hangar hosting the event made a mockery of the middling attendance through its wide echoes. But Seattle Hempfest, the original and best, beckoned only a week away. Writing off the present, I looked toward the future, Amtrak ticket already in hand.

Elvy mentioned the birthday cake someone had set up for her on the other side of the hangar, and Big Mike handed her off to one of the old lady’s old friends so she could peer dimly at the dessert’s enormity. I hugged her a temporary goodbye and watched her hobble swiftly away.

“How are you two getting to Seattle, anyway?” I asked Mike after a few pleasantries.

“Oh, we’re taking the 420 Limo,” he said, in a casual way. “Want to ride with us?”

I canceled the Amtrak ticket.

Midnight Ride

The limo pulled up a half hour past midnight, right on schedule. Elvy stayed in the back while Big Mike helped me with my luggage, which didn’t amount to much except for one parcel which Elvy had requested for a special event. I had tried to sleep for a couple of hours before their arrival but failed; my mind raced endlessly with possibilities. Foremost on my mind was the protestival itself; would the world’s largest marijuana civil disobedience event still maintain its defiant character in the wake of Initiative 502, the legalization measure which voters had approved the previous fall? The question had occupied my consciousness for nearly a week.

The thought vanished as soon as I stepped outside. There it was: idling 28 feet long and as black as the sleekest night. I shouldered my backpack and helped Mike fill the trunk.

A pungent aroma greeted my nostrils as I opened the door. “Jeremy!” Elvy exclaimed as she patted the seat next to her. “Come on in.”

The long parlor stretched past an elaborate cocktail bar, now custom-fitted to accommodate libations of another sort. A soft green glow emanated from the tops of the walls and a wide starry field of LEDs on the ceiling mirrored a moonroof aft. Dominating all other décor was a broad glass jar filled to the brim with what looked (and smelled) like some very nice bud. Pineapple Kush, Mike said. Emblazoned at the top of the jar was the 420 Limo’s signature motto: “This is how I roll.”

Mike peeked in to point out the features. “These knobs,” he said, gesturing toward the nearer of two control panels on the ceiling, “set the climate and the lighting. We’ve got full on, soft, mood lighting and off. These here,” pointing to the next row, “control the radio and CD player. If you want to play DVDs or plug in your mp3s, use the Xbox.” He pointed all the way forward. “Also, I’ve got three-prong plugs up there; let me know if you need to charge anything and I’ll switch on the inverter.”

“Okay, okay, he’s got it now,” Elvy interjected. “We’re ready to go.”

Mike flashed a patient smile worn easy with long practice. “Let’s roll, then.”

*          *          *

“This is a very special weekend for me,” remarked Elvy. The hillocked countryside of Sonoma County passed by shrouded in night. “Not only am I returning to Hempfest, but this is also the 25th anniversary of my trial.”

We had settled in for the ride. Big Mike professed an intent to drive the whole night (“I don’t sleep all that well anyway,” he had said, and pointed to a half-empty energy drink can). I had begun to feel the soporific pull of the late hour (probably 2) and the incline of my propped-elbow stance had sagged significantly toward the horizontal. My consciousness reviewed what I remembered about that trial week, way back in 1988.

It happened in Florida in the late summer. The humidity must have hung oppressively over the courtroom that day. In the heyday of Reaganism, mere months before the ballot boxes would extend the dynasty with the first President Bush, the prosecution of the Drug War had already settled into a bureaucratic routine: reports filed, fingerprints stamped, defendants appeared and disappeared. Everyone took the plea deal. The judge’s gavel had given way to the inked signature stamp. And a fiery young woman by the name of Elvy prepared throw a wrench in the gears the size of a stretch limo.

No one believed her claim, not even her own lawyer. It sounded absurd to everyone who heard it, yet she stood firm. She even rejected a generous plea bargain on the condition that she plead guilty on the count of possession. No, she insisted, with all the mutability of the Appalachians. I’m going to trial.

In the world of American criminal law, there are two kinds of defenses. The first, and by far the most common, is the “failure of proof” defense, which means in essence that the defendant makes the argument to the jury (or judge) that the prosecution failed to meet its famous burden to prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s not exactly a claim of “I didn’t do it;” more precisely, it’s a claim that “You can’t prove I did it.”

Far less common, and far more esoteric, are the so-called “affirmative defenses.” They are so named because the defendant essentially affirms that, yes, in fact, I did it; but to convict me under my circumstances would be fundamentally unfair. The classic case is one of necessity – such as when a defendant admits that he, for example, stole a car to rush his dying child to the emergency room. Yes, he stole the car – but he only did it to avoid an outcome which would be even worse than grand theft auto: the death of his child. In such a case, the defendant should be found not guilty under the affirmative defense of necessity, assuming he eventually returned the car.

On that fateful day in 1988, Elvy Musikka entered a plea no one in the courtroom had ever heard, but had in fact been tested exactly one time in all of American history: not guilty of the charge of possession of marijuana – not because she hadn’t committed the crime but rather because it was an urgent, vital, absolute necessity.

*          *          *

I awoke to the gloamings of dawn and looked around. The hills of the previous evening had risen to treed mountains, rolling by like the tossings of a livid sea frozen still by the imperceptible march of geologic time. Big Mike still sat up front, a solid and smiling fixture.

“Oh, you’re finally up,” he grinned, not too loudly. Elvy still slept on the back cushion, absurdly removed from where we both sat. “Care to roll up a couple more?”

I got to work. Keeping Elvy medicated was a part-time job. I was not the best at rolling joints, but given that Mike had to drive and the only other passenger in the rig was blind, the task fell to me by default. As I ground the bud and pulled the papers, I asked how he was holding up after the overnight leg. Mike shook off all concern. “I’ll get to sleep a few hours when we arrive at the hotel,” he shrugged.

After a few groggy moments of rolling, I asked the question foremost on my mind. “Where’d you find this limo, anyway?”

“It’s more like the limo found me,” Mike shrugged. “I happened to be browsing through eBay when I saw it. Seemed to be in pretty good shape, and the bid was really low at the time. Then I contacted the seller and found out that he had all of its maintenance records going back to day one. So I put in a bid. Price rose a bit at the end, but I won it. Nine thousand dollars. Good deal, but I couldn’t quite float that kind of cash in a big hurry. So I called up Elvy and asked if she wanted to own part of a limousine. Ah, here we go.”

The highway sign read “Elmer’s Country Kitchen.” Elvy woke as the limo downshifted for the off-ramp. “What’s happening?” she demanded immediately.

“Breakfast,” said Mike. “Just the kind you like.”

The place had a kind of maternal comfort décor – deep spongy bench seats, kitschy memorabilia from the 50s. And the coffee was good. Our server looked askance through the tall windows and over the innocuously trimmed bushes, gleaming with the day’s first indulgent light. “Is that your limo out there?” she intoned in a sing-song cadence.

“Sure is,” said Mike. “The only vehicle on the road in which you can smoke marijuana openly and the cops can’t hassle you.”

“Well there you go,” she said, refilling my coffee. Mike’s words didn’t even seem to register behind her blank stare. She pivoted back to the kitchen and the three of us went back to discussing the Doritos the Seattle PD was planning to hand out to attendees, complete with labels explaining the ins and outs of Initiative 502. Mike snorted, but I thought it sounded like smart public relations. The honorable profession of police officer had been dragged through many muddy trenches through the length of the 40-year drug war; a little good-natured humor could go far.

“How Hempfest has changed,” sighed Elvy. She had attended the very first one, held only three years after her trial.

*          *          *

The medical marijuana necessity defense had been pled only once before, in Virginia. Robert Randall, a mild-mannered speech professor who taught at a community college in D.C., had entered the plea back in 1975, after he had been busted for growing a gaggle of small plants on a sunny corner of his balcony. Yes, he pleaded with the judge. Those plants are mine. But I have no choice; without those plants, I’ll surely go blind.

At the time, the case for marijuana as a glaucoma medicine had been thin. A study by the government of Jamaica had found that some elderly Rastafarians were able to improve their night vision by smoking their sacred herb, but no proper clinical trials had ever been attempted. Not before Robert Randall came along.

At Randall’s insistence, his incredulous attorneys requested and obtained an order of stay from the judge so the accused could prove his case the only way possible: by applying his regimen under a doctor’s supervision. Randall enrolled in a special study at UCLA where the doctors administered his diurnal doses of cannabis over three weeks. And the results, which proved unequivocally that marijuana was the only effective way to preserve the young man’s sight, would eventually shake American cannabis policy at its very foundations. Robert Randall was found not guilty, because he proved that growing pot was the only way to prevent himself from going blind.

Elvy knew that if the defense could work for Randall, it could also work for her, because they both suffered from the same disease. Twelve years after his verdict, she beat the same charge the same way: by necessity. Energized by her win, she went even further, following Randall through a sea of red tape until she finally secured, by way of an obscure government program, a free monthly tin of 300 machine-rolled joints, grown under federal contract at the University of Mississippi. Her sight, she believed, had finally been saved.

The waitress returned with more coffee. Elvy produced her latest tin, complete with a standard pharmaceutical label instructing her in sterile prose to “smoke 10 cigarettes per day, or as needed.” Glancing between the tin and the limo, the server seemed to slowly grasp the enormity of the situation.

“Well I’ll be,” she muttered, almost inaudibly.

*          *          *

We crossed into Oregon while the sun still peeked over the eastern mountains. I was busy rolling another joint when a green Subaru pulled into the lane on our left and matched speed. Three college-age guys whooped, hollered and snapped photos for a minute, then accelerated past.

“Does that happen often?” I asked Mike.

“All the time,” he quipped casually. “Kids are always wanting snapshots of the 420 Limo.”

“Jeremy!” Elvy shouted from the back. “When you’re done rolling that come back here.”

I finished the joint and shuffled back. Elvy was in the process of opening her government tin. “Have you seen one of these joints before?”

I hadn’t. My heart rate sped up. I had read about these joints – each one assiduously weighed to exactly one gram, packed with cannabis grown under exclusive government contract at the University of Mississippi. Elvy pulled one out: a perfect cylinder, like a mass manufactured tobacco cigarette bereft of its filter. Tiny pieces of stems and leaves fell out.

“Now, you’re going to think I’m crazy,” declared Elvy. Reaching for a small glass of water sheltering in one of the limo’s many cupholders, she dipped half the joint and brought the wet end to her lips. “It’s too harsh otherwise,” she remarked, then lit the other end.

An acrid odor invaded the spacious cabin with the first puff. Now, I have smelled many kinds of pot: fruity kushes, piney sativas, and rancid shwag from Mexico are all quite familiar to my olfactory sense. But that government weed didn’t smell like weed at all. The first flush of smoke had a definite tobacco scent to it, followed rapidly by an alien, chemically smell with a faint whiff of formaldehyde. I asked her about it. “Yeah, I only smoke these for the benefit of my friends. They don’t really help my glaucoma much. But you can make decent oil out of them.” I glanced down at the vape pen around her neck as Elvy took another puff.

Despite the smell, I was dying to beg a hit. This was historic, after all – probably the only chance I’d ever get to try the famous NIDA cannabis. But I knew better. If Elvy ever shared the herb with anyone, the whole gig would be up. The “Compassionate IND program,” the federal exception to cannabis laws which allowed just a handful of patients to legally access medical marijuana before it was shut down in 1991, existed putatively for the purpose of research; and while no one in the government ever followed up with Elvy over the efficacy of the medication which preserved her sight for 30 years, any evidence of enrollees distributing the stuff to her friends would be immediately taken as proof of the degeneracy-causing effects of the drug. So I sighed, sat back, and puffed the Pineapple Kush joint I had just rolled. And the cabin’s scent improved immediately.

The Real McCoy

We pulled into Seattle a few hours before the festival was set to open. I hugged Elvy and Mike as I prepared to help set up the Cannabis Now booth, conveniently located between the sunny Puget Sound and a long line of food stands. But before we parted I reaffirmed special plans to meet up by the McWiliams Stage that evening for a fun opportunity.

The general admission line opened at noon, and the most massive crowd I’ve ever seen at a ganja event poured in; soon enough, manning the booth became a flurried task. Almost no one seemed to hold any regard for the “No Smoking” signs on the way in; the protestival spirit appeared alive and well.

Before too long a young man who went by the name of Roach appeared at the booth, tiny flyers in hand and a dream in his heart to break the record for the world’s largest joint. He smiled widely as he handed me his propaganda sheet.

“Tomorrow down by the pier, 3 p.m., we’re breaking the record,” he announced proudly. “Spread the word.”

I looked down at the flyer in my hand. If 1,000 people each donate 1 gram, it reasoned, the group can together roll a joint weighing a full kilogram. And no one would be in violation of the law forbidding possession of more than an ounce because the weed would belong to everyone and no one. I checked the location of my camera and made a mental note for the following day.

When I finally got away from the booth, a dizzying menagerie of sights dazzled my red-veined eyes. Against all odds the sun shone brilliantly that day, filling the Sound with an effervescent glow. Elaborate glass pipes of every size and description refracted the light in prismatic arrays. Colorful costumes adorned attendees of every age. The effect was overwhelming.

I spotted the bald pate of Big Mike bobbing over the crowd from 50 yards. As I neared them I saw that the giant had draped an American flag over his shoulders, creating an ironic contrast to Elvy, who in defiance of all “No Smoking” signs seemed determined to generate a permanent haze to fill the park. I hugged them warmly, glowing from the enormity of the event.

“Did you bring your guitar?” asked Elvy. I blanched. I’d almost forgotten my parcel for the special surprise. I hugged her hurriedly and promised to meet her at the stage before she took the mic.

I only just made it. I talked my way past the stage security and joined Mike and Elvy in the wings just as the previous speaker began to wind down. A band had already begun to set up; they were scheduled to follow Elvy. The crowd on the sunny lawn broke into scattered applause, and Mike grabbed Elvy’s hand. “Let’s go,” he said.

The emcee announced Elvy to the lawn and stepped out of her way. Then, for the first time in a decade, Elvy Musikka stepped up to Hempfest to tell her story.

She jumped right in. “I’m Elvy Musikka and cannabis saved my sight!” she cried. The crowd swelled and crescendoed as she exposed the hypocrisy of the federal war, describing a government which denied the plant’s medical value even while preserving her sight far beyond the most optimistic expectations.

But soon her tone changed. “Last year, the feds shipped me a bad batch of joints. I had a severe reaction and my sight was affected. The doctors told me I had to have an operation, and that I had to go off the cannabis for months while I waited to get it. Without the cannabis I began losing my sight, and then when I finally had the surgery the doctors messed up and left me with almost no vision in my right eye at all.” The crowd hushed. The senselessness of the tragedy rippled over the lawn. Elvy continued. “So I had to join Oregon’s medical marijuana program. Now I can finally protect my sight again, the way I should have all along.”

Scattered applause. But Elvy was just getting warmed up. “Now that you here in Washington have passed I-502, people in my shoes soon won’t have these problems anymore!” The applause grew stronger.

“And now, to celebrate,” she wrapped up. “I’m going to sing you a little song.” I strapped my guitar and took the stage, accompanying her in F major as she sang an original composition:

We will win!

Hand in hand, we will stand with each other.

We’ll begin

Sharing truth with our sisters and brothers.

The band behind us picked up the tune quickly and joined right in. The crowd began dancing, despite the heat, and Elvy swelled in her enthusiasm before switching up the lyrics to bring it home: “We have won!” she shouted, throwing up her arms in irrepressible exuberance.

*          *          *

I woke the next day excited to witness civil disobedience of the severest strain. Friday had been lots of fun and presented a broad and diverse community, but something was definitely missing from Hempfest. Elation from the legalization vote the fall before had given way to a complacent acquiescence; we’d won, so we might as well follow the rules. Fuck that, I thought. Time to bring back the protestival.

Although I didn’t know it yet, trouble had already begun to brew for Roach. Ben Livingston of The Stranger first broke the brouhaha which took root on the activist’s Facebook page the night before, when Hempfest CEO took a personal interest in the plan to break the record. “Don’t step on our message amateur,” posted John Davis, who besides co-founding Hempfest also runs Seattle’s Northwest Patient’s Resource Center, a leading dispensary. “We will see you at 2. We want to meet. It might be a very short meeting.” Later, Davis returned to Facebook to ask, “Did you talk to the event organizers about this?”

Roach responded with notable candor. “I will be wearing the cowboy hat! I will have no more than the legal limit on me John. Any joint smoked will be moved outside the park if we are asked to. The joint will have an ownership tag identifying the names, phone numbers and email addresses of the owners… so no one person owns this joint. We hope you will be part of the event.”

Davis replied, “I will. I will personally be looking for you. Thank you for identifying yourself so well.”

By the time Saturday afternoon rolled around, my excitement had reached a fever pitch. Grabbing my camera, I crawled at a snail’s pace through the gnarly crowd to the site of the record feat – a fishing pier about a mile north of the Cannabis Now booth. I left at 1, but before I got halfway up the waterfront I began wondering whether I’d make it. The jostling shoulders between gauntlets of water bongs bounced me like a pinball machine up the shore, and the sun beat my brow through beads of sweat. I finally passed through a dense crowd to my destination, camera in hand.

I arrived at a fiasco in progress. Hempfest General Manager Sharon Whitson was already on the scene. “I’m just letting you know,” she spoke in a conciliatory tone, “it’s not Felony Fest. We break ground, not law, and what you’re doing is counterproductive to our attempt to legalize and normalize cannabis. We understand. It doesn’t matter. What you’re doing is sensationalism, and I get that you’re into activism and that you’re trying to find your voice. But we have to preserve our permit and we can’t allow the law to be broken onsite. SPD is en route right now” – someone booed – “and I’m letting you know. I’m not into people getting arrested for marijuana.”

That did it. By the time the cops did arrive a few minutes later, most of the gathered crowd (which appeared far short of the aspirational 1,000) had dispersed, leaving Roach to hold down his side of an awkward explication of the federal Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Eventually Roach agreed to let the police escort him and his few remaining supporters out of the park, where he exhorted passersby in vain to join his project. Within a few minutes, he gave up.

There and back again

Night rolled past the tinted windows of a long, empty car. Mike drove up front, hugging the highway lines as stoically as ever. We’d dropped Elvy off back in Eugene, with all the warm hugs and kind words we’d earned together over the weekend. But by the time the dark of the night hung like a low blanket over the horizon, the jagged mountains of northern California had already welcomed us in; so I sat on the edge of a vacuous leather bench in a long, hollow cab and brooded the future. The world’s largest protestival had grown so ironically large that the subversion of authority it aimed to effect had finally and fully been realized. The oppressed became the oppressor at a time when oppression had begun to lose its edge; the drug war trenches began to resemble the padded altercations of inconsiderate roommates. And now there are unwashed dishes reeking the sink.

What would I do next year? Would I find my own act of disobedience, in moral support of Roach? Does Hempfest need that spirit now?

Perhaps it does. But before I drifted off to sleep beneath the looming heave of Shasta mounting to the upper distances, I decided to do it in my own space, and on my own time. Whatever the event may have become, the phenomenal feats of logistics and the long march of bravery which brought us all to it, together, earned the organizers some slack to have it their own way. I’d act up, for sure; but not there. Not yet.

First published in issue 9 of Cannabis Now Magazine.

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