The organizers of Hempfest, Seattle’s annual giant celebration of all things marijuana, and a pair of the state’s largest cannabis retailers have filed a lawsuit and are seeking an injunction to prevent the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) from enforcing a ban on advertising at the festival, which they say violates free-speech guarantees, particularly because the event is held at a public park.
“City parks are the quintessential public forums that have been recognized as free speech areas under the Washington and federal constitutions, for time immemorial,” wrote attorney Fred Diamondstone, who represents Seattle Events, which has sponsored Hempfest at Myrtle Edwards and Centennial parks for the past 27 years.
The lawsuit alleges the WSLCB in April issued a “vague and confusing” bulletin intended to “actively dissuade licensed marijuana businesses from participating at Seattle Hempfest” by suggesting they will be cited for violating cannabis advertising restrictions imposed as part of Initiative 502, which legalized the recreational consumption of marijuana. The restrictions prevent “any sign or other advertisement” for a cannabis business within 1,000 feet of a school, playground, library or public park.
Along with Seattle Events, two large marijuana retail businesses, Universal Holdings LLC and Multiverse Holdings LLC, are listed as plaintiffs.
Stephanie Davidsmeyer, a spokeswoman for the cannabis and liquor board, said that it had not received a copy of the lawsuit but that the board’s policy is to not comment on pending litigation.
The lawsuit alleges those restrictions are unconstitutional when applied to the sort of signage and educational materials that retailers would employ during Hempfest. No commercial sales of marijuana are allowed at the festival, which attracts more than 100,000 people every year, according to the lawsuit.
Instead, Hempfest has been a venue where the legalization and deregulation of cannabis has been debated, and where everything from paraphernalia and food is sold and live music performed.
The lawsuit alleges the liquor and cannabis board in 2016 “agreed that the use of a business trade name on a booth, or identified as part of a sponsorship level would not constitute a violation” of the restrictions. However, the lawsuit alleges a bulletin issued to retailers in April does not make that clear.
Instead, Diamondstone said it includes what he says is “confusing” language stating that the ban “does not prohibit licensees from attending or having noncommercial messaging as long as that message does not reference or otherwise promote the marijuana licensed business or its products.”
Diamondstone said that Seattle Events and the retailers approached the WSLCB last year to further discuss the issues, but that the liquor and cannabis officials never contacted them. He alleges their actions were taken in “bad faith.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified I-502.