• Looking Back at Seattle Hempfest 2012 and The I-502 Debate

    by  • August 22, 2012 • Blog, Russ Belville

    I have been a speaker at the Seattle Hempfest for six years.  It’s always been an honor to speak at the world’s largest “protestival” and there’s nothing that recharges my activist batteries more.  Every year the most dedicated marijuana law reformers from the Northwest, West Coast, and from around the country spend three days fighting for the freedom we all envision: when no man or woman is subject to imprisonment, punishment, discrimination, registration, or limitation for their personal use of cannabis.  We make our best case, each in our own area of expertise, for ending this insane second, more destructive Prohibition.

    But this year, Seattle Hempfest is different.  Green pot leaf buttons and t-shirts among the freedom fighters have been replaced by more red and blue rivalry than the Electoral College map.  Legalization is on the ballot, known as Initiative 502 (I-502), yet Hempfest’s heroes are divided on it, with supporters sporting the blue-themed “Yes on I-502″ buttons and t-shirts and opponents sporting the red-themed “No on I-502″ colors.  I’m not going to go into great detail (I blog on that plenty), but for first-time readers, the basics are that the Blue/Yes camp likes the initiative because it legalizes marijuana (buying/having an ounce, state-licensed distribution) and the Red/No camp hates the initiative because it institutes an unscientific drugged-driving provision that will wrongfully convict frequent pot smokers.

    Like most election years, I fall on the blue side of the divide, wearing my blue I-502 button.  My first direct encounter with someone from the red team came quite unexpectedly.  On my long walk to retrieve my speaker credentials I bumped into Philip Dawdy, who I had just derided on the show Wednesday before leaving for Hempfest.  Yet he approached in that open-arm let’s-hug body language known well to the 420 crowd, telling me, “Dude, you know I oppose you, but I love you and what you do, man.”

    I thought that boded well for the weekend.

    Firmly in the blue camp is NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.  Its founder, Keith Stroup, said exuberantly, “We’re looking forward to passing 502.”  He paused, leaning in to explain, “It would be a momentous change in national policy if one state had the courage to legalize marijuana and to confront the federal government; that’s what Washington State is about to do.  It will change the face of marijuana policy.”

    I made my way to the McWilliams Stage to catch Alison Holcomb’s speech.  She is the campaign director for I-502 and as we spoke backstage, she commented on the tensions and various hateful communications she has received.  “I thought maybe I’d wear red,” she joked, “so the tomatoes they throw won’t show up as well.”  Yet Alison’s speech to the small Friday crowd went over just fine without incident.  “No state has ever passed a marijuana legalization initiative,” she told the festival, “and this year, we’re going to do it, Colorado’s going to do it, Oregon’s going to do it, and we are going to send a signal across the globe.”

    Next was my opportunity on the McWilliams Stage:

    Next I returned backstage at the McWilliams and met up with Jodie Emery.  She has been a very vocal supporter of I-502, as well as passing along her husband Marc’s support from his prison cell in Mississippi.  She told me of the terribly abusive messages and threats she has been receiving over her support of I-502.  But once again, when she hit the stage, she was well received and applauded for her activism.  “It’s your responsibility here today if you are free and lucky to be free, you owe it to people worldwide to end prohibition.”

    Jeffrey Steinborn, an attorney who’s one of two NORML board members from Washington State, spoke to the crowd to express his opposition to I-502.  “I-502 does not legalize it does not accomplish anything,” he explained.  “NORML voted to support it with some very strong reservations, and those reservations were primarily, we don’t think it’s going to work.”  Steinborn explained how I-502 requires people who would want to grow and supply marijuana to fill out state paperwork and submit fingerprints and nobody will want to take that risk of federal prosecution (unlike the various medical marijuana states where dispensary owners have done just that).   Also, they’d be forced by the taxing scheme to sell $500 an ounce marijuana that everyone would undercut on the black market.  “We’re not going to buy this fraudulent attempt at fooling us into making us think it’s legalized, when it is really a government sting in disguise that has really sucked up all the money in the movement; we could have had money to have a good initiative like Sensible Washington.”

    Steinborn’s statements were surprising to NORML’s Keith Stroup, who is also on the board of NORML.  “NORML endorsed I-502 unanimously, including Jeff Steinborn,” he explained, “and while we did put up a post explaining the problems some people have with I-502, we had a discussion about whether to endorse the initiative with objections, and we all agreed that [an endorsement with reservations] wouldn’t be worth a damn.”

    Next I made it to Main Stage to record one of my favorite performers, The Human Revolution, who made my day by performing one of my favorite cannabis parody tunes, “Trimmers”.


    I am the host and producer of The Russ Belville Show - The Independent Voice of the Marijuana Nation at http://420radio.org - live from Portland, Oregon. I was the winner of The Search for the Next Great Progressive Talk Radio Star and a former host on XM Satellite Radio and Portland's AM 620 KPOJ. I was the Outreach Coordinator for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws from 2008-2012, which included lecturing all across America on marijuana legalization, writing political analysis for HIGH TIMES Magazine, and producing over 1,000 hours of video content for The NORML Network.


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