Hempfest has been advocating for the legalization of marijuana for the past 25 years. If it doesn’t turn a profit this year, it could go up in smoke.
Seattle Hempfest is in danger of going up in smoke.
The cannabis convention — which bills itself as a protest and festival, or “protestival” — has been advocating for the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana use since 1991.
This year’s 25th-anniversary celebration will proceed as planned Friday through Sunday in Myrtle Edwards Park, but organizers worry that the festival may not have enough money to return in 2017.
Noon-8 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Myrtle Edwards Park, 3130 Alaskan Way W., Seattle, free (206-364-4367 or www.hempfest.org
The immediate cause for Hempfest’s financial troubles stems, surprisingly, from bad weather. Last year, the first day of the festival was rained out, shutting down many of the day’s events and driving away visitors. An organizer said the losses of 2014’s Hempfest, coupled with a canceled business show, cost them roughly $140,000.
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Hempfest co-founder Vivian McPeak said they had enough funding to ensure this year’s festival would happen; however, if Hempfest doesn’t turn a profit, it may come back smaller next year, if it comes back at all. McPeak estimated that a decision would be made by mid-September.
The passage of I-502 in 2012 complicated Hempfest’s situation. In addition to the legalization of the use of cannabis products in Washington, I-502 led to the passage of several laws to regulate the new industry. McPeak said the restrictions have made it difficult for vendors to advertise their products, even at Hempfest, reducing incentive for them to purchase a booth at the convention.
“If you have a 502 license, you can have a logo, you can have your name, and you can give out information about vague subjects,” McPeak said. “You cannot promote any of your products in any way, shape or form.”
Although medical-marijuana dispensaries were largely exempt from such regulations, many have been shut down after I-502. What this means for Hempfest is that it has fewer booths that can generate revenue.
This is further complicated by the fact that, as a free-speech event on public property, Hempfest can’t charge admission fees. If it did, it would be a commercial event, in which case the city may deny a permit.
McPeak said Hempfest has not yet formally discussed with the city the possibility of making the festival a commercial event, and he thinks the festival gets a permit “because, as a political rally, under the First Amendment we cannot be denied one as long as we meet public-safety requirements.”
Meanwhile, the legalization of marijuana in Washington has led to competing festivals cropping up around the state. CannaCon, a nationally traveling exposition, was held in Tacoma on the same weekend as Hempfest last year. (This will not be the case this year.)
“In a strange way, we’re almost victims of our own success,” McPeak said.
Fortunately for Hempfest, its success has also spawned loyal supporters such as DOPE Magazine, which started a GoFundMe campaign last month to keep Hempfest alive. As of Monday, the campaign had raised $1,537 toward its $20,000 goal.
“A lot of people owe a lot of things to Hempfest,” said James Zachodni, partner and chief branding officer of DOPE Magazine. “I mean, that kind of set the groundwork for this whole movement.”
McPeak says attendee donations are crucial to Hempfest’s financial well-being. He said that Hempfest draws between 106,000 and 108,000 visitors on average, and that it collected $46,000 in donations last year. Much of Hempfest’s outreach this year has been about encouraging attendees to donate a few dollars to preserve the festival’s sustainability.
McPeak “bristled” at the notion that the legalization of cannabis in Washington has made Hempfest irrelevant, and said the event would continue to be an advocate for complete legality and equality at the national level.
“We have a 25-point platform on our website showing all the things that we believe are important to still work for, including home growth, medical-marijuana rights and getting marijuana off federal schedules for the Controlled Substances Act,” he said. “We don’t in any way think that our job is complete or that we’re finished.”
He even compared Hempfest to another internationally renowned celebration of substance — Oktoberfest — noting that beer has never been illegal in Germany.
“Even if marijuana and cannabis was completely legal, and we had equality,” McPeak said, “we don’t see any reason to not have the Seattle Hempfest.”