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Illegalizing It: Seattle Hempfest 2001

10.05.2001 | CULTURE

According to the literature

According to the literature distributed at the event, The Seattle Hempfest is "the largest and most comprehensive Cannabis event in the world." Over the course of the two-day event, the organizers of the 2001 Hempfest estimated attendance by over 150,000 people. The stated goal of this year's event was to "focus on prisoners of the drug war and their families." Speakers scheduled for the event included attorneys, physicians, convicted felons and Tommy Chong.

Firing it up

I don't get high very often. And when I do I lock the doors. So I wasn't just getting high the morning of Hempfest, I was raising the ante on my own paranoia. My security blanket for the day was a pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses that made me look like a cross between a cop and fat Elvis.

Welcome to the melting pot

My roommate attended Hempfest with me and is featured pretty prominently in the article. For the sake of protecting his anonymity, he will be referred to as "Cheech."

At three o'clock we arrived outside the waterfront park where the Hempfest was held. We stood against a stone wall watching the overcrowded line for entry. The event had been advertised as "free for all," yet each entrance line was marked as a "donation station." The donation was optional, but bag checks were mandatory. I wondered what the hell kind of subversive pro pot event would check bags. When I realized they weren't patting people down and that Cheech had his weed and works in his sock I dropped the issue.

The changing demographic of the marijuana smoker was immediately evident in the crowd's footwear; Nikes far outnumbered Birkenstocks. The smell of petchuli oil was present, but not omnipresent, and each dreadlock hairstyle was countered by a short, cropped part or a coquettish ponytail. Of course, there was the obligatory drum circle, but the arrhythmic bongo playing did not rise organically out of the crowd. According to the event program, the drum circle was organized and orchestrated by a "drum circle expert" hired by the event's organizers.

The crowd was about as multi-ethnic as Seattle gets. Latin homeboys smoked joints on the rocks overlooking the water. Young black dudes walked around sporting FUBU gear, young white kids sported Abercrombie and Fitch gear, which is kind of like FUBU for white people. Dot com button downs mingled with scruffed out teenagers.

Lots of arts and crafts on sale; beads, tapestries, homemade jewelry. Paraphernalia abounded. There were pipes on sale so ornate that they looked like Barbara Eden would appear if you rubbed them enough. Other items had prices out of the dime bagger's reach: hand-woven rugs, thousand-dollar ceiling mounting canvas chairs. A host of vegetarian and ethnic food was offered at food tents, but the longest line was for the tent selling hot dogs.

Staying off the Brown Acid

The vibe was more Altamont than Woodstock. I don't mean to say it was violent; the crowd was too weeded-out and the city too Microsoft-boiled for that.[1] Just that even though some people had flowers in their hair, there were far more holding "show your tits" signs.

The speakers seemed prepared for contrite hippie reverence, not the borderline hostility which met them. They seemed unable to engage the audience and resorted to repeating their mission statement key points over and over, GW style.

The crowd didn't seem to care about any kind of political agenda, the sun was too bright, the day was too nice, the bud too potent. One guy on stage yelled that the war on drugs is a fraud. I turned to Cheech and asked, "the war on drugs is a frog?"

He said, "A fraud. F.R.A.U.D. Fraud."

Some fat fuck sitting ahead of us cracked up, and repeated that line for the next ten minutes. I hated myself for making that guy's day.

The crowd clamored. In response, the speaker started rambling, "you're trying to shout me down, man, and I like, respect your right to free speech, but I just ask, like for you in return to respect me, you know?"

When the editor in chief of the allegedly FBI run publication High Times Magazine said he was happy to be at the 2001 tattoo convention, he wasted the opportunity to malaprop the name of the event into the 2001 Shempfest and make goofy jokes about the lack of 3 stooges memorabilia on sale.

The alleged FBI puppet asked, "who wants to be in high times," and was received with a loud cheer. He took a photo of the crowd and said "congratulations. You guys are in High Times magazine." If the picture makes the cut I'll be in the back of the frame, wearing a "Fresh Jive" tee shirt, thinking about how my FBI file just got slightly thicker.

Misappropriated logos seen on t-shirts at Hempfest

  • H*A*S*H for M*A*S*H
  • Stoners for Snickers
  • Superhemp for Superman
  • Masterbuzz for Mastercard
  • Cap'n Chronic for Cap'n Crunch
  • Dope for Coke
  • Enjoy Weed for Enjoy Coke
  • Coke for Toke
  • Got Weed for Got Milk
  • Got Dank for Got Milk
  • Got Glass for Got Milk[2]
  • IMCD for CBGB[3]
  • I heart hemp for I heart NY or I heart Vermont[4]
  • DARK graduate for DARE graduate.[5]

The man with the clipboard

The ineffectual speakers and the apathetic crowd left a bad taste in my mouth about cannabis related social action, so when the man with the clipboard approached I told Cheech. "I ain't signing shit."

The petition man smiled like Kent State never happened and asked, " Do you guys want to stop the cops from seizing property, selling it and keeping the proceeds?"

"No, we support that." I said, shutting him up and leaving him confused.

I took off my aviator narc shades for the first time that day and saw that the sky had filled with clouds. I turned to my friend and said "proves my point."

He said, "what's that?"

"That God hates stoners."

The musical portion of our show

The bands were pretty good. I don't remember any of their names. One of them sounded vaguely like the Doors. Cheech started speaking in rambling Jim Morrison poetry. I saw a man who looked like Arlo Guthrie. I cut Cheech off.

"Check out that dude," I said, motioning across the crowd," He looks like Arlo Guthrie."

"Which one?" My friend asked.

"That one," I said, "The one who looks like Arlo Guthrie."

"What guy?"

"The Arlo Guthrie looking mother-fucker over there."

"What does Arlo Guthrie looks like?"

"Looks like that guy."

"Oh." Cheech paused. "I thought Arlo Guthrie had a beard."

"That guy does have a beard."


"Shit. OK. Say some more poetry." I reached into my backpack, fishing for my notebook, determined to record his Lizard King improv.

"I don't have any more ideas." Cheech said.

"OK, you're in the desert, there are some Indians, take it from there."

Cheech said some funny shit after that, but I was too busy scribbling this intro to transcribe his monologue. Anyway, the band's bass player began performing spoken word that was like the shitty poetry on NPR, so we left for the techno tent.

By then, the "what were we just talking about" rule was in full effect, so it took me ten minutes to remember the funny thing I wanted to write down. When I finally remembered, it turned out to be kinda funny, but not as funny as I thought it was.

Faced in the crowd

The guy in the long black robe wearing a black army helmet with a fully articulated skeleton carved into it. You know that dude has like the best dungeons and dragons character ever.

The woman in the dusty plum tank top and embroidered chino Capri pants, both relieved and worried that there were so many identically dressed women present.

The two dudes in baggy rainbow clothes. Their threads were rave cut, but Mork suspenders colored. These guys obviously had the good drugs. You know how much you've got to be on to think that's a good idea? That's like twenty hits of ecstasy right there. To get to that moment where you put those outfits together, look at yourselves in the mirror and say "God, we look good?" They must have had enough MDMA in them to keep the entire Pacific Northwest twitching for hours.

The guy in the skin-tight Slayer tee-shirt, straw cowboy hat and stud goatee who had a face like a fashion model and the insouciant swagger of old money was thinking "I'm not a stoner, but I play one on TV."

The guy who had obviously taken a lot of trouble to draw inverted crosses all over his body. Ozzy rules.

The guy in the creased button down and recently laundered khakis standing in line for the porto john nervously scanning the crowd to see if anybody else from Microsoft was there.

I kept thinking I saw people I knew. A half-seen face, a telltale slouch, an identifying demonstrative body motion or physical characteristic. After so many near misses, I began to suspect that all stoners just look the same.

Boeing hits

One side of the park was lined by the Puget sound. There the breeze blew onto the park after collecting a saltwater smell and chill. People sat in small clannish clusters on the sand and rocks smoking joints, bowls and blunts. The other side of the park was bordered by a chain link fence guarding railroad tracks, which held a long freight train holding the hulking bodies of Boeing airplanes. Wingless and unpainted, the planes looked freshly robbed from a desert fighter jet graveyard. Occasionally, the train would begin to move. It never rolled anywhere, just rattled and moaned an industrial yelp like it needed to remind the crowd of its existence.

Post party

Sometime in the late afternoon we spotted a pretty young black girl holding a handmade cardboard sign advertising the post Hempfest party. Admission was discounted with canned goods, which would be donated to an unnamed charity. Just as the day was a celebration of the aimless dim of marijuana masquerading as a political event, the night would be a chemical vacation event posing as a charity ball.

We showed up around 1:00 A.M. with two cans of Dinty Moore chili chowder purchased at 7-11 for 89 cents each. A cheerful septuagenarian woman took our cans and discounted our entry fee.

As neither of us looked even remotely close to 15, we encountered difficulties finding ecstasy. Cheech eventually scored from some high school girl wearing suburban blue eye shadow and pigtails sucking on a neon pacifier. He asked her if she was holding, then she asked him if he was a cop. He said no. Then she asked him if he was a cop again. He still wasn't, and said no. Then she asked him if he was a cop again. He said no. Only after his third denial was she assured. The question had been posed in triplicate because she believed a real cop admit he was a cop after being asked more than twice, or risk entrapment. Not that I'm accusing this girl of knowing what entrapment is.

Once we had started rolling, my friend and I parted, wanting to immerse ourselves in the crowd. Walking through kinetic dancers and dead eyed e-tards propped against the walls seemed like a revelation.

I sat down with my back to a mural series of distorted figures and abstract science fiction scenes. Soon I was engaged In conversation with the two kids sitting next to me, one a boy with bugged out eyes, the other a girl whose face glowed like it had just felt the first orgasm in the history of the world.

Personal histories and clenched jawed observations spilled forth. The speed kid and I had a "You like punk rock? I love punk rock too!" moment. He was 18. his name was Pat. I told him I was 26 and he asked me what an old guy like me was doing at a rave. I told him I was 26, not 40. He asked me why so many former punk rockers were going to raves. I knew the answer (better drugs, absence of agenda) but was sober enough to keep it to myself.

Soon, after promising them a ride back to their hotel the third member of their party approached. I had seen her in the Hempfest crowd wearing an American flag wrap skirt, matching bikini top and a blue fright wig. By this time she had lost the wig, but retained both the Abbie Hoffman wrap and top. She was holding hands with a boy whose features resembled a Terminator 2 era Edward Furlong. Under a black light his face shined with a green fluorescent pattern. He looked all of about 14.

I went to find my friend that we had picked up three passengers for the ride home. He wasn't having a stellar time. The music, he felt, was sub par. He did agree, though, that the lasers were fucking cool. After dancing like idiots for a while we went off in search of the kids.

When we found them, the Eddie Furlong kid was flanked by two uniformed cops. One cop was a woman in a ponytail, the other a crew cut bulky man. The man shone a flashlight into the kid's eyes and asked him questions I couldn't hear. From what I could lip-read the kid either said "seventeen" or "on e" in reply.

The cop was obviously scaring the hell out of the kid. I asked the lady cop what the problem was and said I was willing to give the kid a ride home. The lady cop told me that the kid had no ID. As she spoke I felt my pupils expand to five times the size of my eye sockets. I said, "OK."

Just as I was about to tell officer crew cut that to lay off, the American flag wrap girl took me by my hand and said "OK, we're gonna go home now," in the voice that Marilyn Monroe would have had if she had never stopped being Norma Jean and became a Kindergarten teacher in the Midwest. I lost interest and narrowly avoided a certain disaster. Everybody assured me the kid would be fine, I don't remember why or how.

On the ride back into daylight was uneventful it turned out both of the girls were 16. My last words to them before we dropped them off downtown were "I'm ten years older than both of you." One of the girls said, "As long as you're not old enough to be my Dad it's all good."

After dropping them off Cheech and I spent the rest of the ride home in silence.

* * *


  1. A week later I was proved dead wrong about Seattle's potential for violence when I took part in an anarchist demonstration downtown. It was all a blur, and my lasting impressions are too scattered and immediate for me to write anything coherent about it. I saw the police throw demonstrators face-down into the asphalt for crossing streets against red lights. I saw a shirtless woman yelling "don't you dare ever touch me again" at cops in riot gear. As I tried to leave I was knocked on my ass by a nightstick and nearly trampled by a cop's horse.
  2. I'm not certain if this was a reference to glass marijuana pipes, the strain of high-grade speed often called "glass" or one of Seattle's many glass sculpture art studios.
  3. I didn't get a real clear look at this one, and I honestly can't be sure which logo was being appropriated, if any.
  4. Admittedly, this is a tenuous connection at best.
  5. It should be noted that the wearer of this shirt had the appearance of what is often termed a "goth" look, and that the shirt should therefore not be taken as indicative of marijuana smokers in general. The DARE graduate appropriation far more common to the average stoner is the "DANK graduate" shirt, which is a slang term for highly potent marijuana.

About the Author
New Jersey native Adam Bulger currently resides in Hartford, CT. As a free-lance writer he has written numerous articles on booze, cops and robots.
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