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Hempfest 2014: A Newbie's Guided Tour

As a relative newcomer to all things cannabis, it was hard to know what to expect when walking into Seattle Hempfest; the event is part rally, part symposium and part street-fair that all comes together into a three-day celebration of a single plant with myriad uses.

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With the passage of I-502, it feels like the cannabis plant is becoming an acceptable part of society.

Though in its 23rd year, the gathering seemed heavily influenced by I-502 going into effect in early July. Hempfest has always been a place where cannabis consumption is at the very least tolerated (who could forget the Seattle Police Department handing out bags of Doritos last year with heady reminders of what to do and what not to do when smoking a joint or eating a cannabis-infused brownie?) – but this year was noticeably different, even for longtime participants.

“It feels way more open this year,” said one dedicated attendee. “People are just way more open about showing off and comparing their stashes this year.”

“Unabashed” might be the better word.

Friday, the first day of the event, the fog that had rolled into Seattle was still lingering over Myrtle Edwards Park and Centennial Park, but taking no more than five steps past the enthusiastic Hempfest greeters, it was clear the haze hanging in the air had little to do with atmospheric pressure.

Grassy knolls, scenic spots overlooking Puget Sound and any dry areas beneath the trees were filled with people packing bongs, rolling joints, sucking on vaporizers and exhaling thick clouds of smoke.

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With thousands of hungry people attending the festival, food vendors were readily available to offer any type of treat imaginable.

“You’ve got the munchies? We’ve got the cure,” a vendor selling greasy French fries doused in melted cheese called to a crowd of droopy-eyed event goers.

“We make all our tie-dyes locally while consuming large amounts of cannabis,” a dreadlocked man told one of his prospective customers.

“I don’t care about t-shirts, where’s the pot?” a middle-aged woman asked aloud.

For those looking to learn more about Hempfest in Seattle and the people involved in it, Friday at 4 p.m. was completely the wrong time to do so. The sensory overload was enough to make a newcomer’s head spin, and the surging crowd and hysteria of it all caused more than one person to duck out of the nearest exit to rethink their plan of navigating the event.

At 10 a.m. on Saturday, the crowd was thinner and the vibe more sober – a perfect time to visit with some of the enterprising individuals looking to take canna-business further than selling pipes, bongs and paraphernalia. They were a little harder to find, undoubtedly most of the canna-preneurs looking for investors were south at Cannacon in Tacoma, but those present at Hempfest this year came with a mission.

“Cannacon is really more business-to-business, and we really wanted to engage the consumer,” Dan Nelson, founder of Wikileaf, said.

Wikileaf is a website where visitors can type in their location and then specify how much they are willing to spend for cannabis and how far they are willing to travel. With those forms filled in, a map appears on the screen showing dispensaries that meet their criteria and how much their products cost (the company is planning to include retails stores in the fall).

“The goal is to bring price transparency and competition into the market,” Nelson said.

A lot of the other canna-business booths at Hempfest, which ranged from cannabidiol-rich dog treats to environmentally-friendly lighting systems, to vaporizer pens, echoed Nelson’s sentiments of wanting to engage the consumer rather than the investor.

“The consumers are the ones who buy the products, and who will ultimately drive the industry,” Nelson explained.

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A cannabis plant from Amsterdam Exchange was on display during Hempfest, showing participants what products look like before being purchased.

Hempfest 2014, is, by all appearances, dominated by consumers.

While the theme of this year’s festival or ‘protest-ival,’ as die-hards prefer to call it, was “Time, Place and Manner,” the people imbibing cannabis in every square inch of Hempfest – except in the two tents that were devoted to consumption – seemed to be missing the message of that theme.

Some of the more sparsely attended spaces at the festival were where intelligent and innovative companies and individuals were busy explaining how important it was for consumers to understand cannabis products so they could make good decisions while consuming it. While such sentiments didn’t fall on entirely deaf ears, there’s no denying a great number of those attending were there to enjoy the novelty of getting high in public and taking in the atmosphere.

The desire is understandable; Hempfest is one of very few places in the US where a citizen can smoke cannabis openly and without any trepidation (I couldn’t help but note the limited presence of the Seattle Police Department throughout the weekend). Or maybe the euphoria surrounding the enactment of I-502 was on full display during the festival and participants were happily testing the waters of what cannabis legalization might feel like in the future.

But the question remains for the Seattle cannabis community and beyond: What happens when Hempfest ends?

Earlier this month, I wrote about canna-business, canna-preneurs and what parts of this quickly evolving industry would be sustainable. But it’s not a one-sided issue; Just as businesses need to use best practices to ensure their companies have a place in the future, the same can be said for the consumer.

Vivian McPeak, executive director of Hempfest, lauded the forward-thinking efforts of Washington, Colorado, and other states that are beginning to pull back “the Iron Curtain of Prohibition.” But McPeak noted that more work needs to be done.

“Cannabis reform is a process rather than an event,” McPeak wrote in Hempfest’s program, “and while great momentum has us striding forward, there is much heavy lifting left to do.”

The consumers are the ones who will need to do much of that heavy lifting. It’s great fun to pull on your cannabis leaf socks and tie-dyed t-shirt and let your stoner flag fly for a weekend, but – as simultaneously underscored and undermined by Hempfest weekend – there is still a “time, place and manner” for cannabis consumption. The people voted for I-502, legislators worked to make it happen and the police are enforcing it. However, consumers have to do their part, too, and exercise their powers to make socially responsible decisions that prove the stigmas and negative associations wrong.