Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Hempfest is huge, but is it good politics?

In the months leading up to the 2009 Hempfest in Seattle, Dominic Holden, one of the long-serving leaders and organizers of the famous Seattle Hempfest, criticized what he saw as Hempfest’s narrow cultural foundation. He argues that the movement for drug policy reform needs to be much broader, and that the Hempfest could be more valuable politically if it were not exclusively a “tie-die” affair. Some leaders of Hempfest, responding to his published critique, had his VIP pass revoked and was ejected.

Aside from the personality issues involved, I think his political critique is important. (Of course, that may be because I largely agree with him.)

More than a fifteen years ago I became very concerned about the role of hemp rallies in the politics of drug policy reform. This post was started and mostly written in the early 1990s after I stopped speaking at hemp rallies.

* * * * *

In many towns around the nation, the entirety of the drug policy “debate” is either on the letters to the editor page of the local newspaper or a hemp rally on a campus or in a park. But in larger cities, within the next six weeks, there will be various hemp rally–“harvest festivals,” such as the 20th Annual Boston Freedom Rally on September 19, 2009 and the 39th Annual Great Midwest Marijuana Harvest Festival in Madison, Wisconsin, Oct. 1-4, 2009. The fall semester will probably see a resumption of campus marijuana policy protests packaged as hemp rallies.

Of course, these rallies are not a debate, at all. Even as a “political” rally or protest, the hemp rally is a hodge-podge of bands, speakers, and clouds of smoke. I am deeply troubled that for much of the public the most common face of the politics of drug policy reform is teenager smoking a pipe at a pot rally. Does it need to be said that this is profoundly counter-productive? Well-meaning and passionate, but immature strategies and tactics keep holding back our movement.

Around the nation – indeed around the world – serious analysts and commentators know that our drug policy is a counterproductive failure leading to more crime and little drug abuse prevention. The U.S. government and its political establishment are the linchpin for reform, but until a proper political campaign is executed, the status quo will remain firmly in charge. We are close to a global tipping point for reform, but our reform movement squanders the energy and political force of tens of thousands of our activists on ill-conceived events. Protests are necessary, and large, well-planned demonstrations would be a tremendous asset to the global reform movement. But the hemp rally paradigm is out of date.

Woodstock was a great cultural moment. But it is preposterous to think that two-bit re-enactments of the Woodstock vibe in parks and quads around the nation are a positive political tactic.

The drug policy reform movement has many organizational problems. In this paper I suggest that one of our reform movement’s most serious image and organizing problems are "hemp rallies." I am using this term to describe any marijuana legalization or hemp legalization rally or festival at which marijuana is smoked, encouraged, or justified and at which persons college age or younger predominate.

Have you ever been to a hemp rally? In the early 1990s, at a string of such events – the Texas Hemp Summit, the Boston Freedom Rally, the Ann Arbor Hash Bash, the Illinois Hash Wednesday, the New York Pot Parade, the Fourth of July Marijuana Smoke-in in front of the White House, Hempstalk in upstate NY, the Harvest Festival in Madison, WI, and various similar events in California, North Carolina, Kentucky and elsewhere, I basked in more than my share of cheers and applause, as I contributed my Washington, DC political perspective. But I haven’t spoken to any in fifteen years, having concluded that they are politically pointless. In the mid-1990s, when I heard the entire drug policy reform movement described as "pro-drug" and "pro-pot," I analyzed my hemp rally experiences and understood why those accusations could be seriously made.

But aside from any accusations, we must fully appreciate that in order to change the drug laws in Congress and the state legislatures, we need the cooperation and engagement of a broad-based coalition. We certainly need a much, much, MUCH larger coalition than we now have. And certainly, we need the support of people who feel most strongly about the drug problem and who are aware of the current approach's failures.

Why haven't the PTAs, the teachers unions or the Chambers of Commerce endorsed drug policy reform? Their reticence is based almost entirely on the plausible fear that teenage drug use will rise. Well, there remains a lot of teenage marijuana use – about one out of five high school seniors is a current user, which is less than it was at the start of this decade. This prevalence certainly and reasonably alarms parents and their teachers.


Let's face one fact. Marijuana use can be harmful. Undoubtedly the harms are grossly, frequently hysterically, exaggerated by anti-marijuana crusaders -- but the harms to some users are real -- often subtle, but significant, none the less.

Marijuana use can be habit forming. Perhaps six to ten percent of users can be considered addicted – the users have tried to quit but quickly resumed using marijuana, and their use is interfering with their lives – their relationships, their studies, their work. One of the great psychiatrists and researchers of drug abuse, Harvard’s acclaimed Norman Zinberg, M.D., the author of the Drug, Set and Setting, and a long time friend of NORML, recognized that marijuana addiction was one of the toughest addictions to treat because it was hard for the addict to recognize the urgency of addressing it. The addict knows it is harmful but not so obviously and deeply harmful and compulsive as addictions to heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine frequently are. I suspect that most of us in drug policy reform know some persons we could fairly call marijuana addicts.

Judgment often is impaired when one is stoned. This doesn't mean one does not deny that one can have useful, valuable insights when stoned. But people can be impulsive while stoned and engage in “risky behavior” that they might not take if sober. Marijuana does not cause the gross impairment that is common with overindulgence of alcoholic beverages. Certainly some athletes believe that cannabis improves their performance, but marijuana-caused impairment can increase the risk of accidents and injuries when bicycling, hiking, skiing, boating, swimming, etc. while stoned. Motor skills and cognitive skills are often impaired when stoned. There is no doubt that this has led to several hugely tragic accidents – usually in conjunction with alcohol use. These tragic examples of the misuse of marijuana, however, do not warrant prohibition of adult use because they are more than balanced by the pleasure millions of people obtain when they are stoned. But these tragedies must not be ignored.

The biological and developmental risks for kids from heavy marijuana use are probably greater than they are for adults, simply because kids’ bodies are still developing. Of course, most teenage users are not heavy users, but some are. In general, the risks for kids engaging in many adult behaviors such as driving cars, using firearms, and having sex – to name just a few – are also greater than the risks that adults run. But we would not think of banning adults from these behaviors to "send a message" to kids that they run risks in such activities. Prohibition is definitely not the approach to address these risks, harm reduction and education are the correct route.

It ought to be obvious that none of us are in the drug policy reform movement to increase the number of teens in trouble or the number of drug addicts. Most of us believe a system of regulation and control of drugs will lead to better control, and more credible prevention, than the out-of-control situation that exists in the prohibition structure of criminal markets, and the prohibition culture that results in a mix of secretive use and flamboyantly rebellious use.

Before we can mobilize the public to end prohibition, we need dramatic expansion of effective public health-based prevention programs to discourage people of all ages, but especially children, from using drugs in risky and inappropriate ways.

The drug policy reform movement wants to create conditions for safer, more responsible, less harmful drug use than is possible under prohibition. When we talk of harm reduction, of course, we are explicitly acknowledging the risks and dangers of drug use. But we must be more forthright in acknowledging those risks, especially about marijuana. Our political work demands that we be truthful and that we are truly working to reduce the harm from drugs. Our mission requires that we practice harm reduction in our politics.


Marijuana use by teenagers is not a sign of enlightenment. Yes, there are certainly bright, curious kids who smoke marijuana, but their adolescent marijuana use is not a cause for celebration! Some marijuana using kids are more likely to use other drugs than kids who have never used marijuana. That's what the data shows, and it makes sense, even though the overwhelming majority of teenage marijuana users never use another illegal drug. Statistically, marijuana is more frequently a “terminus” drug than a “gateway” drug.

The fact that marijuana experimenting teenagers are more likely to experiment with other illegal drugs than a kid who never tried marijuana is not the bogus pharmacological "stepping stone" theory that a "marijuana addict eventually needs a stronger drug to get high." Rather, it is both a psychological truth and a legal and cultural phenomenon. Psychologically, a willingness to take risks cuts across a variety of behaviors. A risk taker might try out for a role in the school play, the varsity football team, or the debate team. A risk taker might ask someone for a date. A risk taker might take a toke when a joint is passed to him or her. Appropriate risk taking is healthy.

What we call “risky” behavior is different. “Risky” behavior is not wearing a seat belt, not wearing a condom during sex, running a yellow traffic light, shooting the rapids without a life jacket, kayaking or climbing without a helmet, etc.

Risk is to be encouraged, risky is to be discouraged.

In addition to the personal behavior and psychology, there are the cultural features of the pot smoking world. The gestalt values new experiences and adventures. It includes a music scene which is embedded with drug use. It has an ethos that mixes almost boundless individual liberty with voluntary (never compulsory) social responsibility. One of the accepted values is getting high. Experimentation with drugs is commonplace and tolerated -- particularly with LSD, nitrous oxide, MDMA (Ecstasy), peyote (mescaline), psilocybin mushrooms, tobacco, and alcohol. Many pot smokers don't use other drugs or if they do, for most, their experimentation is short-lived. But many pot smokers do try other drugs, and pot, after underage and illegal alcohol and tobacco experimentation and use, was another illegal drug – the first culturally illegal drug – they tried.

Increasing rates of teenage pot use is not a good thing. It would be a political cynicism and stupidity of the most odious sort to see expanding the cohort of teenage pot smokers as an enlargement of a political base.

Certainly it cannot be heresy in the harm reduction movement to observe that it is statistically likely that more kids will be hurt by hard drugs if the number of teenage pot smokers continues to rise. Many of these new pot smoking kids are not college kids, they are not even senior high school kids -- they are usually junior high or middle school kids and sometimes younger.

It is important to ask why teenage pot use went up a decade ago. It would be simply glib to say that it is the fault of prohibition, or the flawed design and execution of D.A.R.E. programs. Like most social phenomena, it is almost certainly due to a number of factors. As public health oriented advocates, we must ask if hemp rallies have anything to do with that increase? If so, we must examine what happens at hemp rallies.


I'd like to describe the hemp rallies I attended from the perspectives of the rally organizers, the speakers, the participants, and the different groups in the viewing public.

Rally organizers
-- like most of us, much of the time -- often have mixed motives. On one hand they want to hold a political rally. They want a forum for making political statements about marijuana and hemp. For the old Cannabis Action Network, for example, that was the principal motive. Rally organizers want the press to cover the event, and they need to draw a crowd. They may also want to cover their costs and raise money.

For the organizers of the Fourth of July Hemp Coalition's Smoke-In at the White House, the motive was primarily politics. As a concert, the stage and sound system were practically non-existent -- indeed, there is a companion concert later that afternoon. But they almost never have political literature around the marijuana issues.

For organizers of other events the primary motive seems to be to have a big party, e.g., the "Hash Bash" in Ann Arbor, the "Windy City Weed Fest" in Chicago, and the "Great Atlanta Pot Festival." "Let's get some great bands together and kick back in the sunshine. If we all get together and get high, won't that be great."

For some hemp rallies, the motives are clearly mixed. For NORML's Fourth of July rock'n'roll party near the Lincoln Memorial, for example, politics is the motive, but fun and music is the lure. As a political event, this has repeatedly been an utter failure. No one takes it seriously as a protest. New York's "Fifth Avenue Pot Parade" has a serious political hue -- until it gets to Washington Square Park when the real business of the day begins -- the party!

For the Boston Freedom Rally, the organizers have an explicit political objective, but the bands are critically important, and the vendors and fund raising is important too.

For Hempfest in Seattle, it appears that the political objective is mixed and inseparable from hosting a cultural celebration.

At one level, the hemp rally is like the $500 per person gala benefit organized by "high society" socialites to benefit the opera guild, the Childrens' Hospital, or cancer research -- "The public may think we're wealthy, social parasites -- but we're actually doing good work for the community." Yes, we are raising money for an important charity. But at heart, we also like hobnobbing with the local wealthy elites. This is the hempy alternative: we're not stoners, we're political activists!

On campus, hemp rally organizers recognize the value of associating their "spring fling" with positive political and social messages -- individual freedom, equal justice for all, criminal justice reform, medicine for the sick, save the planet!

Rally organizers look for the best bands and the best speakers they can to get the biggest crowds. They target the rally publicity to the youth media. The organizers know that what really draws crowds is the promise of a good time.

The speakers come with a range of motives. Some of us look forward to getting our message out to an audience more appreciative than a right-wing talk radio show. A few of us think we present seriously developed analyses of various drug policy issues and that this is a forum for education about the issues. We bring copies of our reports, white papers and book chapters.

For other "speakers" at a hemp rally, this is a party -- this is like cheerleading at an athletic event. I've seen speakers dressed up in costume. One earnest speaker used to make a living selling bumper stickers, "Thank you for pot smoking" -- that imitated the American Cancer Society's slogan "Thank you for not smoking." At some rallies, there are "doobie tosses" -- the throwing of marijuana cigarettes into the crowd. Functionally, at most events the speakers are on the program to fill the time as the bands who have drawn the audience move their equipment off and on stage. This is down time, perfect for rolling a joint and filling a bowl before the next set begins.

Speakers generally express outrage that the crowd shares. The ever-present shadow of arrest genuinely interferes with the peace of mind of America's 15 or 20 million pot-smokers. Prohibition enforcement is an enormous psychic burden upon adult marijuana users -- a genuine denial of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." But this is a very narrow political message.

That the Federal government denies sick people legal access to marijuana which is a medicine that would help them, and interferes with state efforts to permit such legal access, is another legitimate source of outrage. But that outrage is not what draws most of the participants.

A hemp rally is rarely a call to specific political action. It is a festival of marijuana use. It is an entertainment with excitement -- being an outlaw and hoping to get away with it. The job of the speakers is to entertain the crowd. Inevitably, speakers extol the pleasure of pot smoking. We hear from the stage "Let's get high!" "Let's party!" We rarely hear calls to “Register to vote here. Join a political campaign here.” No one is here for a reasoned analysis or education. The repetition of cliches is always dependable.

The musicians sing about the subject matter -- the pleasures of getting high, the evil persecution of the drug law, the ugliness of police practices, and adoration of the hemp plant. To get a sense of this, listen to NORML's "Hempilation" album. And of course this can be an opportunity to get exposure, get fans to sign up on email lists for club invites, and sell CDs.

Who are the participants? At the Hash Bash in Ann Arbor, for example, many of the participants are committed, heavy consumption pot-smokers. The participants are there for the excitement, the crowd, the entertainment and the music. Many are there for the self-identification: I am a pot smoker. They are there for a good time and for camaraderie. The curious are there because this is "a happening." This is completely unlike the usual weekend of chores, homework, shopping, movies, TV, etc. This is "the place to be."

For some participants the rally is an opportunity to get their feelings of persecution off their chest and tell society, "I'm stoned -- Get over it." "I'm gonna get high and there's nothing anybody's going to do about it." At its core, the rally is essentially an affirmation of pot smoking.

But as politics, this is most definitely not about contemplating the serious work of lobbying or coalition building, or stuffing envelopes for a mailing. No one's attention is focused enough to comprehend a target of the protest.

Others are simply curious. They heard the ads on the radio or got the Facebook post. The teenage students are forming impressions. Is this what Woodstock was like? Is this what the 60s were like? Is this like the civil rights movement, or the anti-Vietnam War "peace" movement?

At the Fourth of July White House smoke-in, there is the thrill of smoking pot in defiance of the law, the frisson of deviance when “straight” people are crowding the mall for a patriotic concert and fireworks.

But while the bands play and the speakers speak, the participants are standing around, sitting around, or walking around, smoking pot and getting stoned.

Of greatest social and political significance, however, is that for the youngest participants this may be the first time they have been so publicly encouraged to smoke pot. It is one thing to be covertly offered a joint by another kid from school or the team down in the woods, or hear a pot joke on TV. But here, everybody seems to be doing it. Look, someone on the stage is saying how great it is to get high. Look, up on the stage, someone is smoking a pipe or a joint, and everybody is cheering. Hey, someone is offering me a 6-foot bong! If I smoke a joint, won’t I be worthy of being cheered right now? Gee, everyone seems to be having such a good time, isn't this a good place to try pot, if I haven’t before? In this sense, hemp rallies are a social menace and political disaster.

For conscientious reporters, there is significant challenge in reporting this event. In Madison, Wisconsin they actually reported the speeches. But that was atypical. Is the content the “news?” Do they report the gestalt, the “flavor” of the event, as the Seattle Post Intelligencer does with photographs and no news story? The sideshow character of the event is often much more interesting than what the speakers said (for no matter how loud they were, the messages were pretty lame). Some reporters wonder how to report the event without condoning drug use? If they actually quote a speaker, for balance, should they interview some of the stoned kids, and some critics of the event? Standing back and looking at the event overall, isn’t this event, first, about getting stoned, and second, celebrating getting stoned? It must be conceded that some reporters cover the politics but do not report on the event itself.

For many of the police the rally engenders anger and disgust. For officers who have seen car crashes resulting from irresponsible drug and alcohol use, this is outrageous. For those who teach in D.A.R.E. programs, to see stoned kids at this "pro-pot" rally is maddening. For those who bust drug dealers -- at some personal danger to themselves -- this is infuriating. "Not in a million years would we take the policy proposals of the organizers of this event seriously -- we don't even take their phone calls!"

True, the kids are not rioting like drunken college students after a championship ball game -- which has plagued Ann Arbor during March Madness. But the drunks at the ball game riot are celebrating the values of “winning,” of "sportsmanship," of "the competition that makes America great," etc. And drinking is legal, something that cops certainly do a lot of, and they understand drunks. At the hemp rally, so much that “ordinary” Americans ostensibly value -- family values, respect for the flag, patriotism, rule of law, cleanliness, modesty, chastity, heterosexuality etc. -- is being flouted wantonly and indiscriminately.

For teachers and parents who are concerned about drug abuse among their children, this rally is a sickening sight. No matter what caveats about the problems of drug use that might be uttered by a few “serious” speakers, and despite the political literature being distributed (too often crudely produced drivel), a legitimate overall impression is that this is a "do drugs" rally. They accurately hear speakers praising pot and getting high. They see an audience filled with young people using pot. They see kids who are more interested in finding drugs than in finding the literature. They see kids more interested in smoking a joint than in listening to the speakers.


About sixteen or seventeen years ago, I was a featured speaker at some hemp rallies. I even had my name silk-screened on a rally T-shirt. I've made my share of passionate hemp rally speeches, and – woo-hoo – a handful of people have later asked for my autograph. I found the "rock star" treatment of being a hemp rally headliner very seductive!

But I have been a serious advocate of drug policy reform for a much longer time. As part of a comprehensive policy reform, for example, I think marijuana ought to be legally sold to adults under the explicit condition that it be used carefully, with controls in place to minimize misuse, with restrictions on juvenile access, with appropriate taxation, and with appropriate penalties for dangerous conduct while under the influence.

Overall, the many hemp rallies I've attended have been political duds, and I'm ashamed that I didn't speak out against them sooner or more forcefully. I distributed an outline of a system for regulating marijuana for adults only, along the lines of a state hunting license, but the audience simply did not care. I regret that my exuberant participation at hemp rallies more than 15 years ago may have been seen as legitimizing teenage drug use by some in the audience.

I fear that overall, hemp rallies are bad for the kids who attend, bad for the country, and very bad for our movement. I gave too much weight to my hope that I was recruiting idealistic college students to a fulfilling political activism. I didn't pay close enough attention to the event as experienced by the audience.

As constructive political activity, these rallies are not simply a failure, they are a catastrophe. What is the number one obstacle to drug policy reform? The public's fear that kids will use drugs. Hemp rallies fully legitimize those fears.


Let's face it, hemp rallies are not only a fraud as serious political events go, they are worse -- they are advertisements of irresponsible drug use. Prohibitionists are on the mark when they describe hemp rallies as "pro-drug" events. We do not know that they contribute to the increase in juvenile drug use, but we do not know that they don't.. Do those of us in drug policy reform who are committed to public health perhaps have a responsibility to change the character of these events, or to boycott and help end them?

In America today, there are no other political protests like a hemp rally. Does any other political cause have such superficial preparation and indifference to the message and to organization? Hemp rallies are the antithesis of serious political protest. Would any serious political figure outside of the drug policy reform movement, who knows anything about a hemp rally, consider participating?


The drug policy reform movement claims that it has a better solution to the drug problem than prohibition. We say to those genuinely concerned about the tragedy of drug use, join us for we have a better solution. How do we demonstrate our sincerity in trying to curb drug abuse and its related social disorder?

We condemn the prohibitionists as obtuse who can't see the fallacy in their arguments. Have we been equally obtuse in not seeing that our movement's most common "political" events contradict our standards and our analysis? I argue that there is such a thing as responsible drug use -- but I regret that I have spoken at pot rallies where there has been uncontrolled drug use, drug use by kids, and the extolling of drug use. That was obtuse -- I certainly didn't model responsible political behavior. I apologize for having undermined the work of so many in this movement by having participated in these events.

I call upon serious drug policy reformers to reform hemp rallies or end them. To associate our movement with hemp rallies makes our movement repellent to the most important constituencies we claim we are trying to reach.

The drug policy reform movement must expand beyond those who are energized by concerts and festivals of pot smoking, and by their own sense of personal persecution. We must get beyond the abstract discussions of policy and into detailed proposals. We must reach those who are deeply concerned about the drug problem among our youth. We must be in a real coalition with parents and teachers to resist teen drug use. We can’t effectively be in such coalitions if we are participating in hemp rallies, hash bashes and doobie tosses.


We pay a terrible price for allowing our political face to be hemp rallies. Ultimately we teach our politically inspired students the wrong lesson, that public politics is a casual, almost trivial affair. We teach that a political action should be an occasion for feeling good, partying, talking to the converted, cheering, hanging out, uttering banalities, and then going home. This "politics" is as empty as the self-esteem voodoo that passes for preventing teenage drug use.

It doesn't matter how articulate or compelling the speakers have been about writing well-written letters to the legislators -- almost no one is sending those letters. It doesn't matter that participants are encouraged to sign petitions -- few sign, and fewer are delivered. It doesn't matter that we circulate sign-up lists -- few follow up to organize the signers. This is not politics, this is a party -- that is the medium, and that is the message.

We squander the energy of our activists by arranging pot rallies and encouraging them to drive hundreds of miles to engage in pointless events.

Compare our events to the newsreel footage of political rallies of the 1930s and 40s. When serious political organizations staged an event, the male participants came in neckties; women wore dresses. People came to listen and to make a point with their presence. Drinking was unthinkable. The events were organized. People trained to be political organizers -- not wannabe show business producers.

During the civil rights era, it was inconceivable that people would drink at a march or at a rally. The Civil Rights Marches were undertaken with sober reflection -- they were led by preachers and were undertaken prayerfully. Look at the photographs of the 1963 great civil rights march on Washington.

How do we expect the allies we must have to take our "movement" seriously when we don't take our own political events seriously? Do we take seriously as “supporters” and “members” upon whom we can rely, the majority of the youth who attend hemp rallies?

What kind of politics is it that takes the rock concert as its paradigm of political protest?

How can anyone take seriously a rally that purports to be for medical marijuana when 99.9% of the marijuana smoked is done so recreationally, and with indifference to use by children?

How can anyone take seriously a rally promoting hemp to protect the environment when 99% of the hemp present is there to be smoked or ingested to get someone high?

How can we make a serious claim to be advocates of harm reduction and of legitimate alternative forms of drug control if we participate in hemp rallies in which drug use, particularly by the young, is flagrantly uncontrolled?


Can we develop standards or best practices of what our movement considers an appropriate and effective marijuana reform rally or event? Can we set criteria regarding the kinds of events we will participate in? Or do we simply speak wherever there is a crowd? Should we denounce irresponsible drug use, especially when it is undertaken in the name of drug policy reform? Can we organize true protest rallies?

Isn’t it a reasonable rule of our politics that there be no pot smoking, no drug use and no drinking at public drug policy events, unless it is Gandhian nonviolent civil disobedience? If we want to build our movement, shouldn’t the days of pot rallies and casual smoke-ins be declared over?

If there is to be marijuana use at a political event, it can only be in the context of a carefully planned civil disobedience action with the intention of generating arrests as a moral witness against the evils of the drug war.

Those who organize fundraising concerts and parties to support drug policy reform (and those who attend) will need guidance about responsible drug use behavior. I commend MPP and DPA for leaving behind the rock concert model as the paradigm for drug policy reform fundraisers.

Don’t we have an obligation to show by example what responsible drug use in a post-prohibition world might look like. Don’t we have an obligation to reduce the number of future victims of the drug war by doing our political work well? Doesn’t this obligate our movement to "clean up our act."

The drug policy reform movement is not a "pro-drug" movement, it is a drug control movement. It is pro-control. Can it ever succeed as long as it can be fairly charged that it is a "pro-drug" movement? Isn’t it time that the leaders of the movement act in concert to end the association with a "politics" that is "pro-drug?"

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kurtz said...

(Fyi, Dominic was not ejected from the festival, just the back stage at the main stage.)

I used to be concerned about the image of Hempfest, being someone who works in an organization who is trying to put the issue of drug reform into not only the mainstream, but the professional organizations (as you know). But year after year, the festival grows. Who are we to say what is or isn't mainstream? I hear criticisms all the time that "people from Kent" (a seattle poor suburb) were there, as if "those people" are scum. Those people are people, too, and are just as legitimate in their views, hopes and dreams as anyone else.

I've come to the conclusion that the political punch of the festival isn't in the message but the numbers. Some estimates this year put the festival at 350,000 - that's as big as a NASCAR race, and no one criticizes the atmosphere of NASCAR rallies and the fact that Budweiser sponsors people driving really fast. Instead, they see them as a constituency worth courting, merely because of the numbers. If this was a "rally" with only speakers, no tie-dye, and threats of arrest, about 200 people would show up, and where's the political punch there?

We're always pushing people to "come out" about their pot use. Hempfest is a way to do that with some anonymity - someone may not be on the stage proclaiming their use, but they are one of the 100's of thousands that attend an event celebrating cannabis. This isn't a drug policy conference - it's a festival! People should be allowed to celebrate, have an enjoyable time, and learn something from the great speakers while they're at it. Out of the 350,000, some of them really are listening.

Steve Rolles said...

Completely agree with you on this front Eric. Transform in the Uk moved from festival based activism to dedicated policy analysis and lobbying / campaigning as it becamnme clear where our limited resources were most usefully deployed. Festivals are festivals and should not be confused with political action. Smoking pot in itself is completely ineffectual form of political protest.

podchannels said...

Excellent article - I share your concerns across the board - I believe it is incumbent upon the hemp movement leadership to represent the key hemp issues to the mass population in a manner they can embrace - in order to bring about the critical policy and regulatory changes - failure to do so means the many negative impacts that current prohibition imposes will be borne by the hemp leadership and not the prohibitionists. In order to spread this important discussion, have reposted this article on my blog:

Anonymous said...

350,000 people gather in a park, smoke marijuana, and nothing bad happens. How in the world is that not by some measure a political success?

We are told that marijuana smoking will make you lazy, yet the pot smokers who put on Hempfest organize a world-class NASCAR-sized event with no major incidents.

We are told that marijuana smoking leads to anti-social behavior, yet even when standing shoulder-to-shoulder in an 8,000 person traffic jam (as happened on Saturday), everyone is calm, polite, and respectful.

“...We rarely hear calls to “Register to vote here. Join a political campaign here.” No one is here for a reasoned analysis or education. The repetition of cliches is always dependable....”
Then you're not listening to me speak at these rallies, Eric. I both entertain and inform. Thousands of young people now have the White House and Congressional comment lines programmed into their cell phones because of my speeches. Thousands now know the holy trinity of police encounter replies -- "I do not consent to a search", "I wish to speak with my attorney", "Am I being detained or am I free to go?" -- and more about their Fourth & Fifth Amendment rights than they were ever taught in high school. Thousands now know through my retelling of news stories the horrors of prohibition.

But "reasoned analysis" is the point of a drug policy conference, not a public rally. I've heard those speeches at Hempfest and watched as the crowd fell asleep. I'll take 1,000 cliché-spouting young people to the polls over 1 middle-aged guy full of "reasoned analysis" any day.

“...We do not know that they contribute to the increase in juvenile drug use, but we do not know that they don't....”
The old "what about the children?!?" cliché is something I expect from prohibitionists; it hurts to hear it used by a supposed ally. What about the children? Sure, I saw lots of young people probably under age 18 at Hempfest. I didn't see them fighting or being anti-social. I didn't see them puking from alcohol overdoses. Chances are the vast majority of them are good kids and will grow up to be good adults. I counsel them onstage and in person to wait until they are eighteen, but you and I both know that many young people aged 12-17 will smoke pot anyway - so should that happen in secluded places with no adult supervision or in public where they are surrounded by adults, police, and medical staff?

“...Compare our events to the newsreel footage of political rallies of the 1930s and 40s......”I think all these button-down, I-used-to-speak-at-rallies-but-now-I'm-above-that critics ought to but together the 1930's-style shirt-and-tie or 1960's-style preacher-led rallies about which the author reminisces. I'll be glad to speak there, too.

But I'll bet ya 350,000 people won't show up. I'll bet ya you're lucky if you get 350.

“...I commend MPP and DPA for leaving behind the rock concert model as the paradigm for drug policy reform fundraisers....”
Yes, because a fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion priced well beyond the range of the average reformer is a far better model. Nothing gets your average conservative Christian soccer mom on board for marijuana law reform than pictures of celebrities cavorting with "bunnies" at a pornographer's house.

Anonymous said...

(continued) Personally, I'm tired of the "I'm not pro-pot, I'm pro-control" people denigrating the summer festival circuit. I am pro-pot. Many of these organizers and attendees are pro-pot. When you know that cannabis can stave off head and neck cancer, kills prostate cancer, doesn't lead to lung damage, safely elevates mood, is a superior pain killer (among many medicinal uses), doesn't lead to hard drugs, and can provide us a sustainable fuel source, nature's best protein source, a carbon "sink" for greenhouse gases, and so much more, why would you moderate that stance because a few people (the smallest rate of any recreational drug) have problems with it or lying D.A.R.E. cops don't like it? How can you expect the undecided public to think pot legalization is OK when the button-down marijuana policy reform supporters like you are doing everything you can to divorce yourself from any inference that cannabis use is acceptable and cannabis is a wonderful thing?

I'm fully aware that the vast majority of attendees are at Hempfest for the party. In that respect I liken it to events like the Oregon Brewers Festival, an event one fifth the size that runs twice as long. (I have a request in with the Portland Police Bureau for a log of arrests from that fest, anybody want to bet it had more arrests for violent behavior than Hempfest?) But nobody says that Teens Against Drugs & Alcohol should boycott the festival because it provides a pro-alcohol celebration; TADA shows up and uses the event to help educate about responsible use and "We Card" ID programs. If my speaking at Hempfest educated just 1% of the attendees and motivated just 0.1% to register to vote and drove just 0.01% to become actively involved in marijuana law reform, I just educated 3,500; registered 350; and enlisted 35 new activists.

Anonymous said...

(continued) “...I call upon serious drug policy reformers to reform hemp rallies or end them. To associate our movement with hemp rallies makes our movement repellent to the most important constituencies we claim we are trying to reach....”
Who? The police? The politicians? Mom & Pop? Evangelical Christians? They believed all the bad things you claim Hempfest propagates before Hempfest existed and would still believe it even if Martin Luther King Jr. himself reincarnated on the Main Stage to lead a clean-cut tie-wearing audience in a chorus of "We Shall Overcome". To them, you're just a dirty stinky hippie gone incognito. No, Hempfest is about rallying our side to realize their power in numbers, not to try to convince the squares we're something we're not. From the once-a-year-at-Hempfest toker to the daily pothead, there are 22,000,000 of us of voting age in America. That's more voting power than Texas or African-Americans (another point Hempfesters learned from my speeches). The regular users - once a month or more - number 12.7 million adults; that's greater than the memberships of the NRA, ACLU, NARAL, NOW, NAACP, Greenpeace, PETA, the Elks, and the John Birch Society COMBINED. The true stoners - once a week or more - number 8.1 million adults; that's greater than the US membership of the Mormon church.

But I never read about a Texan telling Texans to lose the cowboy hats and drawls because the dumb redneck image hurts the chances their bill will pass in Congress. Nobody from NAACP tells the Million Man Marches to tone down the blackness a bit because it scares away the white folks they are trying to reach. PETA doesn't try to position themselves as "anti-cruelty" instead of "pro-animal" and the NRA will hold a pro-gun rally right after a deadly school shooting in the same town. The Mormon Church, with only 5.5 million, managed to help invalidate the marriage rights of hundreds of thousands of gays and lesbians in California; they didn't tell their members they needed to cut back on the Jell-O and stop knocking on my door Saturday mornings to get it done.

I really believe that a lot of this criticism is just bigotry, plain and simple. "I'm a clean-cut, employed, well-educated, middle-class guy who likes to smoke pot," I imagine they think, "and dammit, those dirty stinky tie-dyed patchouli-smellin' reggae-lovin' dreadlocked hippie kids are making me look bad for supporting marijuana legalization!" Well, guess what, Eric? Without those hippies there would be no NORML (thus no MPP or DPA, since they were formed by former NORML staffers), no 13 decrim states, and no 13 medical marijuana states. And how did those medical laws pass from 1996-2008 while Hempfest, Freedom Rally, and Harvest Fest were in full swing if nobody could "take seriously a rally that purports to be for medical marijuana when 99.9% of the marijuana smoked is done so recreationally, and with indifference to use by children?"

It's a bit much to ask the hippies who've been driving the marijuana law reform bus for forty years to get under it because you want to smoke pot, too. You might say, yeah, but maybe that's why it's taken 40 years and hasn't happened... well, except for 13 decrim states and 13 medmj states and public support for medmj pushing 80%, decrim pushing 70%, and outright legalization pushing 50%. I'd say it's tilting at windmills; you're never going to change the hippies, the hempfests, or the people who hate hippies and hempfests. Go ahead and organize Squarefest, let's see how that goes.

Anonymous said...

The whole pot predicament is self-defeating. No sucessful lawyers, architects, doctors, police, politicians can admit to use.

There are no positive role models.

I learned that Carl Sagan smoked, but not until after he had died.

As for linkage to accidents; well the pot residuals stay with you for a month. Someone is texting while driving a train, or driving drunk, has the wreck, and two+ week old pot shows up. An unfair blame assignment that can't be worked around.

Anonymous said...


You have been a positive force but you do need to lighten up a little bit:

Let's face it, hemp rallies are not only a fraud as serious political events go, they are worse -- they are advertisements of irresponsible drug use. Prohibitionists are on the mark when they describe hemp rallies as "pro-drug" events. We do not know that they contribute to the increase in juvenile drug use, but we do not know that they don't.. Do those of us in drug policy reform who are committed to public health perhaps have a responsibility to change the character of these events, or to boycott and help end them?

Hempfests should be thought of as a new and safer Octoberfest: like the harvest fests in Germany which were celebrated with days of drinking, dancing and sex.

I would also like your views on the MERP Model that is beginning to get some serious support:

MERP Headquarters
The Marijuana Re-Legalization Policy Project (MRPP)= "MERP"

MikeCann said...

Boston Freedom Rally changed the law in MA to decrim. Seatle Hempfest did the same in Seattle. Hard to argue with that. What have you done that's had bigger results than this?

Not to mention the money, awareness, new activists raised at these events.

That one small negative for people who will never support us, doesn't mean anything.

DML said...

I agree that Hempfest should be more inclusive. I also feel that people who offer constructive criticism should not be punished for doing so - even if their criticism turns out to be incorrect.

The main problem I have with this opinion editorial is that it puts cannabis in the "not quite harmless" category - which makes about as much sense as putting a hammer into the "not quite harmless" category.

Drugs are tools. They are neither harmful nor harmless - they are only used or misused. Cannabis can be used or misused, but so can sugar, chocolate, TV, masturbation or anything fun. Please don't use the word "harmful" or "harmless" the next time you write about pot - talk in terms of proper use instead please.

Mafficker said...

Aside from the fact that no drug is illegal in the US or any western democracy: what is unlawful is unauthorized activities such as possession, supply, cultivation, manufacture, etc, we at the Drug Equality Alliance wholeheartedly agree with your tone, attitude and insights gathered within this article. Responsibility begins with the willingness to be cause in our own lives and thus in the efforts we put forth in to right the wrongs of a 'War on some people concerned with some Drugs'.

palmspringsbum said...

Those alcohol prohibitionist in their button-down shirts and ties didn't do so well in the long run.

420 Jen said...

~ JEN ~