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Seattle’s Hempfest takes on new feel after legalization of marijuana

KIRO Radio's Jason Rantz says it's time to let Hempfest go. (AP)

This weekend, more than 100,000 people are expected to flock to Myrtle Edwards Park to partake in one of Seattle’s most unique and aromatic festivals: Hempfest.

The festival started almost 25 years ago as a movement to legalize recreational marijuana in Washington state, but now the focus has shifted to a loftier goal of promoting legalization nationwide.

“We’ve adopted two people that are doing life without parole for cannabis: Jimmy Romans and George Martorano,” said Hempfest General Manager Sharon Whitson. “Jimmy was sentenced in 2013 to life without parole for marijuana distribution and George Martorano is the longest-serving, first-time, non-violent offender in the history of the United States of America. He’s been in prison for 34 years for marijuana distribution in Florida.”

At Hempfest, you’ll see Romans’ and Martorano’s faces plastered all over posters and hand-outs about the War on Drugs.

Whitson said even locally, there’s a long way to go when it comes to pot activism.

“There are still people being arrested for marijuana, federally, here in the state of Washington,” Whitson said. “We still have the Kettle Falls Five facing over 20 years in prison for marijuana. They were growing the legal limit of medical plants there &#8212 a cancer patient, his wife, and their son. I mean, it’s the most sympathetic thing you could possibly see. Yet, the federal government is still prosecuting them and they’re facing tens of years of prison.”

Over the years, Seattle’s Hempfest has evolved into a “protestival” to advocate for broader issues surrounding marijuana and society. For example, the Twenty22Many campaign, which is designed to raise awareness about the high rate of suicide among active duty military members and veterans, will have a booth at Hempfest. The group will be handing out resources for veterans who suffer from depression and PTSD.

Hempfest has also invited the family of Keaton Farris to hand out water bottles. Farris died of dehydration at the Island County Jail in Coupeville in April when corrections officers turned off the water to his cell. His family spent a full day wrapping tens of thousands of water bottles with pictures of his face and quotes to raise awareness about what happened to Keaton.

Even though it’s expanded its horizons, at its heart, Hempfest remains focused on marijuana, with dozens of speakers on a variety of cannabis-related subjects and even a business mixer at the Space Needle on Saturday.

The program also includes live music all three days, along with educational speaking panels and booths showcasing the latest in marijuana technology.

But it’s not a free-for-all. While organizers and police traditionally have looked the other way during acts of “civil disobedience” in the form of pot smoking, there’s one hard and fast rule: no selling marijuana products of any kind.

“The public thinks it’s fun to buy marijuana brownies,” Whitson said. “I always say there could be snot in those brownies! Why would you buy brownies out of someone’s backpack? I mean, that’s just so unsanitary and disgusting to me.”

And if organizers find illicit pot being peddled, Whitson said, “We give them two options: option a) is we escort you out of the park, you get a ‘no trespass,’ and you may not come back. Option b) is you could take [the marijuana] backstage, at one of our stages, and we dump them into a bin and pour vinegar on them.”

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