Seattle Hempfest, the grand dame of noncommercial cannabis events in the U.S., concluded yesterday with a lot less controversy and media scrutiny than I have seen since I began speaking there in 2007.
The 23-year, all-volunteer event celebrated its 19th iteration at Myrtle Edwards Park, where over three days the all-volunteer crew served 5 stages, hundreds of speakers, about 200,000 people, and a new 21-over space called the Liberty Garden.
Cannabis community organizer extraordinaire Vivian McPeak reckoned this year that made the Main Stage on the downtown waterfront park a strong candidate for the “stoniest place in human history.” Those of us who have spent some time in the Emerald Triangle take this estimation for the consumption accomplishment that it is: I reckon at least half the cannabis consumed there over the decades came from California.
Seattle Hempfest is different from cannabis events to which Californians and indeed the rest of the world are familiar — the “Cups” that sprang from Steve Hager’s High Times efforts in Amsterdam in the early 1990s and more recently throughout the U.S.
The main difference is of course commerce: the High Times Cups — which now don’t have to use the word “Medical” in Washington and Colorado — quickly became hotbeds of industrial trend-setting despite Hager’s founding interest in generating cultural value through “ceremonial magic” rather than prioritizing the production of economic surplus through commercial business. The Emerald Cup, now in Santa Rosa, is a variation on the Cup that promotes regional outdoor breeding and production with a strong commitment to environmental and place-specific cultural values.
With the Emerald Cup going “on the road” to demonstrate for wider audiences a less commercial approach to the Cannabis Event, the Golden Tarp Awards evolve the Event by staying true to its geographical roots while celebrating a key industrial innovation for outdoor cannabis agriculture. The proliferation of light dep practices in the Emerald Triangle the last five years or so means that newly legalizing states can evolve from indoor-dominated agriculture that much sooner.
To some degree, Cannabis Events all demonstrate some combination of commercial cannabis promotion and Hager-style “ceremonial magic” that calls together a range of closeted and open cannabis interests in the process of constituting “the cannabis community” as a generic new/old cultural identity.
None of these events are possible without cannabis commerce: the question is always to what degree are commercial interests calling the shots, and how that shapes the cultural identity of cannabis as a political class interest. In the rest of the economy, intense and growing economic inequality has meant that the people who make the most money are the ones who get to define our national culture.
Cannabis Events thus always have a purpose beyond their immediate individual cannabis agendas. Each one performs another ritual of cultural formation. These are increasingly rites of local, state, and national cultural integration that send signals to the outside world about what cannabis culture means relative to let’s say permissible identities. Those signals can broadcast social values as well as commercial values. Seattle Hempfest has always broadcast the message that cannabis culture means first and foremost a commitment to increase the peace, and then after that a commitment to free speech; grassroots organizing; democratic participation (the event is free and made possible by immense volunteer efforts); small-scale entrepreneurship through vending; and so forth.
The question going forward with Cannabis Events will be to what extent they perform cultural rites of economic inclusion and democratic participation, relative to “normal” cultural values of commodification and industrialization. The latter has always been necessary to some degree because it’s awfully hard to organize effectively without the support of cannabis industry. And although I am deeply aware that cannabis industry is not always as kind as it could be, I am convinced that we find values of kindness and sharing far more broadly within cannabis industry-supported culture than we do in the rest of the economy. Seattle Hempfest 2014 did nothing to disprove that conviction, and I hope it continues to inspire other Cannabis Events in this direction.