How Hempfest Seattle Continues to Change the Game for Weed Culture

Hempfest Seattle, held the third weekend of August each year, is the largest annual cannabis rally in the world. Affectionately known as a “protestival,” the event started as a peaceful protest against the government’s prohibition of marijuana. Today, the event has become the premier flagship event of global cannabis culture with talks on cannabis issues, volunteer musical performances, and plenty of food and crafts to enjoy.

Humble Beginnings: The Washington Hemp Expo

The Hempfest Seattle WA event originally started in 1991 as the Washington Hemp Expo—a humble gathering of 500 marijuana users at Volunteer Park. The following year, the gathering was renamed Hempfest. Over three years, attendance grew to 5,000 people and the event was moved to Gas Works Park where 15,000 people turned up in 1994.

Myrtle Edwards Park: Further Growth and Medical Legalization

In 1995, Hempfest Seattle moved to its current location of Myrtle Edwards Park on the Seattle waterfront and attracted tens of thousands of visitors. The event started to become known around the world as an example of peaceful protest in support of marijuana law reform.

In 1996, the organizers produced the first Hemp Voters Guide for Washington State. Thanks to this effort and others, medical marijuana was legalized in 1997 with Initiative 692, making Washington one of the first states to recognize the medicinal value of cannabis.

Hempfest and I-502

Hempfest in 2011 became a hotspot for discussions surrounding Citizens Initiative 502, which would go to the ballot in 2012. The initiative, which would legalize adult-use marijuana, was controversial even within the hemp and cannabis reform community due to the provisions related to driving under the influence, taxation, and home production of cannabis.

In 2012, I-502 was passed in Washington State by a strong margin, allowing adults ages 21 and above to possess up to one ounce of cannabis. The same year, voters in Colorado passed Measure 54, paving the way for further marijuana legalization bills in states around the country.

High-Profile Visitors at Hempfest

Over the years, Hempfest has attracted several high-profile speakers, including:

  • Nick Licata—Seattle city council member

  • Norm Stamper—former chief of the Seattle Police Department

  • Woody Harrelson—actor and activist

  • Rick Steves—TV host and travel writer

  • Jill Stein—2012 Green Party speaker

  • Mark Stepnoski—professional football player for the Dallas Cowboys

  • Dennis Kucinich—Ohio congressman

  • Mike McGinn—Seattle Mayor

  • Pete Holmes—city attorney

  • Mary Lou Dickerson and Roger Goodman—representatives for Washington State

Other attendees include police and politicians, medical professionals, former cannabis-offense prisoners, and musicians who volunteer their time at the festival because they were happy to support the cause. Several well-known performers have participated in the Hempfest concert program:

  • Fishbone (2002)

  • The Kottonmouth Kings (2004)

  • Rehab (2006)

  • Pato Banton (2007)

  • Everlast (2013)

  • Hed PE (2013)

  • DJ Muggs of Cypress Hill (2013)

Hempfest Today

Today, the Hempfest annual event, run by Seattle Events, has become known as a socially responsible cannabis rally. It has a budget of $1,000,000 and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to Seattle’s waterfront at Myrtle Edwards Park, Centennial Park, and Olympic Sculpture Park.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and budget constraints, the 2021 Seattle Hempfest rally, concert, and crafts fair didn’t run as normal. Instead, attendees were invited to participate in a new citywide trash pickup initiative called The Great Green Sweep. The organizers are requesting donations towards Hempfest Seattle 2022 in consideration of rising costs in recent years.

Is Smoking Allowed at Hempfest?

In the early days, smoking was a feature of the Hempfest event. However, in 1997, Seattle police arrested 20 people for illegal marijuana use, showing that changes needed to be made. Over time, the event organizers and city police came to an agreement about marijuana use at the event and, in 2001, only one arrest was made.

If you go to Hempfest today, you will notice that there is no cannabis use at the event. This is because public consumption of marijuana is prohibited under I-502 and carries the penalty of a class C felony. It is also an enhanced felony to sell cannabis or cannabis food in a city park, so you won’t see any weed for sale. However, you can still shop for cannabis-infused edibles and cannabis flower at local Bellevue dispensaries for use in a private residence.

Entry to the Hempfest Event

Entry to the three-day Seattle Hempfest event is free, although donations are welcomed. There is plenty of merchandise for sale (including hemp textile products) that helps to support the running costs. You can also sign up to volunteer.

If held in its usual location, you can enter from Centennial Park on the north (limited parking) or Olympic Sculpture Park on the south (ample parking). You can also park near 3rd Avenue W and W Harrison Street, found blocks west of Seattle Center, and walk or cycle straight into the event using the West Thomas Street Pedestrian and Bicycle Overpass.

Hempfest Seattle Awards

The first award given in relation to Hempfest was a national award for art design and creativity, presented to the event’s cigarette pack poster in ’94 which was printed on hemp paper and 100% hemp burlap.

On October 17, 2008, Hempfest volunteers were awarded the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) award for “Outstanding Cannabis Advocate of the Year.”

At the event itself, awards are given for Excellence in Cannabis Activism. Previous awardees include Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata in 2002, Fred Diamondstone and Cheryl Shuman in 2013, and two husband-and-wife teams—Chris Conrad and Mikki Norris, and Stitch Miller and Joanna McKee—in 2015.

The Seattle Hempfest Human Solution Chapter

The team at Hempfest is not only dedicated to advocating for law reform. It is also dedicated to seeking justice for prisoners who were convicted on federal—not state—marijuana laws. To date, one of the two of Hempfest’s adopted cannabis prisoners has been freed from prison and the other has had his sentence shortened to 30 years.

If you are interested in helping people imprisoned for cannabis use and educating the public on their rights when placed on a jury, you can contact The Seattle Hempfest Human Solution Chapter at humansolution@hempfest.org

Seattle Hempfest: Working Together Toward a Common Goal

The founding belief of Hempfest is that “the public is better served when citizens and public officials work cooperatively in order to successfully accomplish common goals.” History has certainly shown this to be true. What began as a “pot party in the park” became a gathering event for interested parties that eventually led to the legalization of marijuana in Washington.

If you’ve never been to Hempfest in Seattle, be sure to check out the next event. You’ll learn a lot about the many uses of cannabis and hemp, the latest research on medical marijuana, and political issues that affect us all. If you’d like to go even further and help Hempfest to continue strong, consider making a donation, becoming a sponsor, becoming a member, or offering to volunteer.

It’s thanks to the courage and perseverance of people like you that cannabis is now legal in Seattle. As we continue to stand together and educate the nation about hemp, we can hope to see legalization grow.