August 18, 2003 - Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Pro-Pot Initiative Gets Political Push At High-Flying Hempfest
(For more on Seattle Hempfest, including reports and pictures, visit www.hempfest.org)
Hempfest, the nation's largest annual festival promoting liberalization of marijuana laws, drew tens of thousands to the waterfront yesterday and Saturday -- reaffirming Seattle's reputation as a pot-friendly place.
"It's a welcoming city," Mikki Norris of the California-based Cannabis Consumers Campaign said yesterday, addressing the ultimate laid-back crowd -- men and women lying comfortably on Asian rugs and pillows under a giant tent made of hemp.
For two days, the politics of pot pervaded Myrtle Edwards Park, demonstrating a momentum that most politicians can only dream of.
For example, Hempfest director Dominic Holden estimated that a record 175,000 to 200,000 showed up for the weekend event advocating the legalization of "responsible" marijuana use. Even Bill Clinton at the height of his popularity drew only 15,000 people to a Seattle rally in 1992.
But will Hempfest's faithful hordes prove their potency at the ballot box?
Seattle will find out Sept. 16, when city voters decide Initiative 75. The measure would direct police officers and prosecutors to treat the personal use of marijuana by adults as the city's "lowest law enforcement priority."
Much of the city's liberal establishment is backing the initiative, touted as a way of protecting scarce tax money to fight serious crimes and to provide such basic services as parks, libraries and homeless shelters.
Democratic Party organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, the League of Women Voters of Seattle, the King County Bar Association and City Council members Nick Licata, Judy Nicastro and Heidi Wills are among those endorsing the measure.
There is no organized opposition, but City Attorney Tom Carr signed a voters pamphlet statement against the measure. He said in an interview that Initiative 75 would put him in a difficult position because, as city attorney, he must defend voter-approved city laws but also must enforce the state's marijuana laws.
Carr said his office has not analyzed the legality of Initiative 75, but he doesn't expect a direct challenge to it.
Rather, its validity is more likely to be tested in the context of individual criminal cases, in which defense lawyers will argue that their clients can't be prosecuted because it would violate the "lowest priority" rule, Carr said.
It's an open question how lawyers would prove that marijuana use is, or is not, the city's lowest priority, he added.
As it is, only 150 of the 16,000 cases handled by Carr's office last year involved personal use of marijuana, he said.
"Obviously, we do not make marijuana prosecution our top priority. We have no plans to undertake a massive marijuana enforcement scheme," he said.
Yesterday, activist Meril Draper was one of the speakers urging the crowd to support Initiative 75. Praising Seattle police for cooperating with Hempfest, Draper said: "They are here to help us, not to bust us .. They have a job to do. We are here to change that job."
The festival wasn't all politics. Dozens of vendors sold the usual hemp products -- including brownies, soap and sandals -- as well as tie-dyed shirts, incense, drums and other merchandise reminiscent of Grateful Dead shows.
Some people came for the hot bands, including Genus, a rap trio commanding a rapt audience as it wailed, "Higher than cocaine, higher than weed, higher than methamphetamine or Ecstasy ... Don't be afraid to fly. We can touch the sky."
The fact that Hempfest attracted its largest-ever turnout this year reflects "a clear recognition on behalf of Americans that the drug war has failed," said Holden, the festival director.
Holden added that Hempfest registered "a lot of voters" over the weekend. The crowd, however, was primarily under 40, an age group never known for voting en masse, he acknowledged.
Last year Nevada voters rejected a marijuana legalization measure despite wide support among the young. The Bush administration campaigned against it.
Adam Eidinger of Vote Hemp, who came from Washington, DC, to enlist supporters at Hempfest, said Seattle's annual festival is the largest "open, pro-pot event" in the world.
"Politicians generally still marginalize us," he
said. "But they can't do it for long. Our numbers are too
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