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June 10, 2004 - Columbus Alive (OH)

The Hempfest That Almost Wasn't

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As Bob Fitrakis sat in federal court last Friday, listening to Ohio State University's legal team rattle off a list of its fears about allowing the annual Hempfest to proceed as planned, he couldn't help but wonder if the OSU would tackle football next.

"I thought, Wow, they're really indicting their football program," said Fitrakis, a lawyer, Columbus State Community College professor and well-known activist. "They actually made the argument that the Hempfest was a 'clear and present danger to the safety and health of Ohio State,' probably the single most bizarre argument I've ever heard made in a court of law. Usually that's reserved for revolutionary groups about to overthrow the state, and, I would argue, the only thing I've seen close to it at the school is the football riots."

Indeed, Hempfest, which has taken place on OSU's campus annually since 1996, is hardly an alarming event. Like a more narrowly focused, mini-Comfest, the June festival features a mix of music, vendors, political speakers, hacky sack-ing and fair-style refreshments.

Sure, it's an indictment of the un-winnable "War on Drugs" and a celebration of old-school hippy culture that draws a lot of folks who may also smoke marijuana. But there have never been any hempseed cookie-fueled student riots leading to mass arrests, thousands of dollars worth of damage or public humiliation for the university and city.

"Anyone with any thinking capacity would realize the real threats to the community have always come from alcohol and football games," Fitrakis said. "Victories over Michigan or losses to Michigan or Notre Dame, that's where you have the burning of cars and couches and the overturning of cars."

But while it may be ironic that OSU tried painting the Hempfest in colors better suited for a Buckeyes home game, it certainly wasn't funny, at least not to the organizing student group Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) and the 40 vendors -- including local businesses like Dragonfly Neo-V restaurant and the Clintonville Community Market -- who stood to lose the $50 to $250 fees they paid for space there.

Here's what happened: On Tuesday, June 1, four days before the scheduled event, OSU informed SSDP via e-mail that the university had canceled Hempfest since the group had failed to give the university 10 days' notice of the event (the students had given nine days' notice) and had failed to get a faculty advisor's written consent.

These were two new conditions on the event, enacted in response to an SSDP film screening in November, where people were busted for smoking pot in a university building. The new conditions were laid out in a letter sent to former SSDP President Brian Burgess in March -- even though Burgess had left the group in February. The Hempfest space was originally reserved by SSDP in October, and confirmed in January.

Unable to negotiate with the university, SSDP's volunteer legal team -- consisting of Fitrakis, Sandy Spater and Ed Forman -- asked for an injunction against OSU in U.S. District Court to allow the festival to proceed. On Friday, less than 24 hours before the event was to begin, U.S. District Judge Algenon L. Marbley granted it. (Marbley received plenty of shout-outs from the Hempfest stage on Saturday night.)

Marbley decided that OSU was behaving in a manner that was "constitutionally suspect at least." He also ordered SSDP to pony up $6,800 for 10 police officers -- a compromise between the zero officers SSDP said were assigned to the festival last year and the $23,000 worth of police manpower and other costs OSU wanted. Fitrakis ultimately used his own house as collateral for the security bond to cover the $6,800.

But though the students won their day in court, they also lost a lot. The increased scrutiny led to a lot of extra headaches, said Russell Selkirk, one of the festival's organizers. They had a $1,400 deal for tables, chairs, tents and a stage that was lost on Friday amid the controversy, and had to find a different provider Saturday morning (and ask a friend to build the stage that would host the electronic music).

Time was also spent away from class and work and last-minute organizing to fight the university for the right to proceed with Hempfest.

To discourage crime at the event, organizers posted spray-painted signs reading "No Crime" and "Don't Break Laws" around the South Oval location and provided their own eight-person volunteer security force, decked out in neon orange shirts and carrying walkie-talkies and video cameras to perform "cop watches." As Selkirk explained, they were there to keep an eye on both the fest attendees and the cops.

OSU Assistant Police Chief Rick Amweg said there were a total of 11 arrests made campus-wide during the day-long festival, five of which were for drug-related charges like possession of drug paraphernalia. There were also eight citations issued for possession of drugs (a less serious offense that gets a violator a ticket bearing a fine of up to $100).

Not exactly a danger to the safety and health of the university. But then, that's the problem with making hysterically dire predictions -- there's always the risk that they won't come true.

Selkirk put it another way.

"We made them look like the fools that they are," he said of university officials. "They tried to stop this festival which has become an annual tradition at OSU in a very foolish manner."

The unsuccessful attempt to cancel the fest could make things better or worse next year. SSDP treasurer Arlette Roeper said she hopes communication will go smoother next year, as "we definitely want to better our image."

Selkirk seems less optimistic. "We'll probably be under much higher scrutiny, and there will probably be a much higher police presence," he said.

Maybe OSU and SSDP should start planning 2005's Hempfest now, just to be safe.

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