It’s pot-festival season in the Pacific Northwest. The sunny days of July

It’s pot-festival season in the Pacific Northwest. The sunny days of July and August bring legalization rallies in Seattle, Olympia, Tacoma, Portland, and other cities; Olympia Hempfest opened this season’s slate on July 27–28 at Heritage Park.

Organizers were blessed with a beautiful day on Saturday; on Sunday, the haze finally lifted around 4 in the afternoon. Between 20 and 30 vendors offered their wares (T-shirts, books, smoking accessories, jewelry, munchies). Also on hand was Don Skakie and his I-584 crew, gathering signatures for real marijuana legalization (guess what, I-502 isn’t).

Due to technical difficulties with the sound system, there were no music or speakers on Saturday until well into the afternoon, but once things got started, they got started in a big way. Local favorites The Cody Foster Army, in particular, rocked the stage with their brutally pounding beats and primal scream–style vocals; it was the musical highlight of my day.

The level of musical talent was almost uniformly excellent—noticeably more so, in fact, than has been the case at the much larger Seattle Hempfest. Could this be because Olympia Hempfest talent booker “Gym Bags” had an actual entertainment budget with which to work, rather than being forced to ask bands to perform for free? Whatever the reason, kudos for the great music!

One speaker on Sunday afternoon captivated the crowd with her simple message. Julia (she prefers to go by her first name only) maintains the website and the Facebook Peter McWilliams tribute page. A traumatic brain injury survivor who doesn’t herself use marijuana, she became fascinated by the work of McWilliams, a leading self-help author and poet from the 1980s and ’90s who, after being diagnosed with both cancer and AIDS, also became an outspoken medical-marijuana activist.

McWilliams’ medical-marijuana grow operation was raided by the feds; he wasn’t allowed to use California’s medical-marijuana law—which made it legal for him to grow his own cannabis­—as a defense.

The seriously ill writer ended up dying, choking to death on his own vomit, once the only nausea medication that worked for him, cannabis, was taken by the government. His senseless death in 2000—one of thousands due to the federal government’s war on marijuana—remains one of the most horrifying examples of the heartlessness of federal marijuana policy. Famed conservative political commentator William F. Buckley—despite their political differences, a friend—wrote just after Peter’s death, “Imagine such a spirit ending its life at 50, just because they wouldn’t let him have a toke.”

Back at Olympia Hempfest, Julia held the crowd spellbound; this reporter saw more than a few tears flowing. “Why am I here on this stage today talking about some guy who died 13 years ago?” Julia rhetorically asked the crowd. “Why does it matter?”

“Because there should never be another Peter McWilliams,” Julia said, her fist clenched, her voice shaking with emotion. “Because people are still dying due to the federal marijuana laws.”

Thirteen years after those laws resulted in the death of one of our best and brightest, it’s time to make that change.

Steve Elliott edits Toke Signals,, an irreverent, independent blog of cannabis news, views, and information.

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