Illustration by Marie Hausauer

How Hempfest Is Staying Relevant—And Solvent—Amid the New Weed Order

Vivian McPeak explains what it’s going to take to keep Hempfest weird.

This weekend marks the 25th anniversary of Hempfest, Seattle’s weird, awesome, one-of-a-kind “protestival” of pot.

After a quarter-century serving as a celebratory safe haven for topless MMJ activists, pot-loving celebrity speakers, and stoney musicians of all stripes, Hempfest is facing funding woes and questions about its continued relevance given that weed is now legal here. Legalization has also caused a funding crunch for the festival: With medical-marijuana shops put out of business by the state in favor of recreational shops, and with strict rules about how those rec shops can advertise in public parks, many of Hempfest’s traditional sources of funding have dried up. Some wonder if Hempfest’s survival is only a pipe dream.

I sat down with Vivian McPeak, Hempfest’s energetic founder, to ask him what’s up with Hempfest 25, why he’s still at it, and what’s next.

I’ll just dive right in. We’re in the 25th year of Hempfest, which started as a “protestival,” so what do you protest now that weed is legal? Weed’s not legal! We have this decriminalization, I-502 in Washington state, but pot is federally illegal. President Trump or President Clinton theoretically could undo it all in a week. Not only is weed not legal, medical marijuana just got decimated in Washington state.

So how has I-502 and some of the subsequent legislation affected Hempfest? I-502 didn’t destroy medical marijuana, but SB 5052 [The Cannabis Patient Protection Act] did.

All the people in that medical cannabis space that you were depending on for sponsorships … ? They’re gone. And keep in mind, that dried up last year when they saw the writing on the wall. They were like, “Oh man, we’re gonna get shut down.” They stopped spending money and they started selling as much as they could. And then of course the I-502 people hadn’t made a return on investment yet. Some are [advertising], but not that many. My guess is that they’re nervous, they don’t quite understand the parameters.

You mentioned that the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board [WSLCB] has some specific restrictions for I-502 businesses at an event like Hempfest around advertising. The restrictions are for being in a public park or 1,000 feet from public property, and that’s where we’re at. So according to the WSLCB, [if you’re an I-502 business] you can have your logo and you can have your address, but you can’t say that you sell anything. You can’t have a product or a picture of a product or a price.

Obviously sponsorships are slim this year, and I’ve heard that Hempfest is doing charity fundraisers. Like, emergency fundraisers almost? Let me just clarify that for you. We have a membership program that we’ve had for several years, so there’s nothing new about that. What is new is that DOPE magazine heard about our predicament and they put together a GoFundMe campaign for us. They just did it on their own, we had nothing to do with it, and they set the bar a little high. They had it at $100,000. I was like, “It looks like we made 1 percent. Lower it and if we get close, raise it again.” It’s all good, they’re trying to help us. But of course then the next thing I know KOMO News is like, “It could be the last Hempfest! It’s over!”

Just to be clear, Hempfest is still happening next weekend? Oh yeah, absolutely. From the very first Hempfest in ’91, it’s always been a leap of faith, though. It’s always been equal parts labor of love, leap of faith, and call to action. But we have to raise $850,000 this year for an event that’s free to attend. [Ed. note: Most of the money is raised; they’re only about $70,000 short, according to McPeak.] We can’t do a GoFundMe campaign every year. What we really want to do is get the word out to people. Like, you’ve got 120 bands, 120 speakers, six stages, and 400 vendors right on the waterfront. There’s the Space Needle, there’s Mount Rainier, there’s the Puget Sound, and you’re blazin’ with impunity! How much is that fucking worth to you? Kick down 10 bucks! Ten bucks for the weekend, $3.33 a day. We’d be fat city! Ten bucks times 100,000 [attendees], that’d be $1 million. Instead we’re getting, on average, $0.46 for each attendee for the entire weekend.

So it’s not like the festival is gonna shut down, but if people don’t show up and shell out, you’re looking at having to cut back? Well, next year, yeah, and if it continues, then we’re not around. But we’re gonna limp along probably for one or two years if things don’t turn around.

So why keep doing it? We have to do it! We don’t do this because it’s fun, man, even though there are fun aspects of it and it’s exciting. We’re patriots, man; this is for our nation, our culture. It’s a war. We’re defending against the drug war. And we’re doing it with panache and style and creativity.

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