Here's Why You Can't Smoke Weed at Cannabis Festivals

Hello, non-smoking smoke festivals.

Since its founding in 1991 as a "protestival" to promote the virtues of the cannabis plant, Seattle Hempfest has emerged as one of the largest free music festivals in the Pacific Northwest and, by some estimations, the largest cannabis event in the world. For three days in mid-August, approximately 100,000 attendees traversed over a half mile of Seattle's waterfront parks as they savored the offerings from 120 bands on six stages, along with 120 speakers and more than 400 vendors.

According to Executive Director Vivian McPeak, an economic study contracted in 2014 estimated Seattle Hempfest generates $7 million in revenue for the city along with 120 jobs. Also, a survey on the Hempfest website estimates that approximately 20 percent of festivalgoers come from out of state. 

Despite these healthy statistics indicating a boost to Seattle's economy, Washington State law prohibits Hempfest attendees from engaging legally with cannabis the way they could if they purchased alcohol at a music festival. Beyond public non-consumption, cannabis growers, processors, and dispensaries cannot advertise within 1,000 feet of public property or in a city park. Some pot businesses at Hempfest distributed literature, and some sold merchandise branded with a company logo. A few vendors sold CBD-only products or had non-THC infused products available for sampling.

Washington State law permits recreational cannabis to be distributed at 502-licensed dispensaries only. 

Noticeably absent from Hempfest, aside from potent dabs, edibles, and flower, is the gated beer garden that would be a prime attraction at any comparable, non-pot music festival. In Hempfest Executive Director McPeak's estimation, Seattle Hempfest is safer than any other music festival because alcohol consumption is not permitted on the grounds.

Though Hempfest organizers annually secure an exemption to Seattle's anti-smoking law for the duration of the three-day event, cannabis is not mentioned specifically in this exemption. Imbibing at the event is still viewed as an act of civil disobedience.

More than 1,000 volunteers, staff, and public safety officers work to ensure public safety and adherence to the laws. According to McPeak, no one has been cited for smoking cannabis at Hempfest for more than ten years. While the festival did not have a police presence for its first four or five years, at present the Port of Seattle and Seattle city police oversee the event, which takes place on properties overseen by both entities.

As a constitutionally protected free-speech event, Hempfest cannot be denied a permit. If organizers charged admission, Hempfest would be designated a commercial event, and as such, the city would not be required to let the event take place.

Hempfest organizers raise the $850,000 required to put on this event through vending sales, sponsorships, contributions at the gate, program and website ad sales, raffles, and a small hemp boutique in Lake City. The dissolution of medical marijuana in Washington State led to Hempfest losing its biggest sponsors.

The Portland-based Hempstalk Harvest Festival, which also does not charge admission, faces even tighter restrictions than those imposed on Hempfest. According to director D. Paul Stafford, Hempstalk tried to provide a smoking area in 2015, but both Portland and the state of Oregon blocked it.

During this two-day family-friendly event, held this year over September 24 and 25, festivalgoers will engage with bands, panels, speakers, and vendors in a collective celebration of a plant that provides food, fiber and fuel. According to Stafford, fuel remains the primary focus; he positions hemp as a fuel that can replace petroleum.

While the Portland festival has attracted up to 80,000 celebrants in the past, Stafford can't estimate how many people will attend the 12th annual Hempstalk. Even though Hempstalk attendees will be in a state where cannabis consumption is legal, they will only be able to consume elsewhere.

Once cannabis was legalized in Oregon on July 1, 2015, a plethora of cannabis-themed events popped up. These events, held at private spaces, charged admission and then distributed cannabis samples. However, Anthony Johnson, director of New Approach Oregon, and chief petitioner and co-author of Measure 91, notes that the interpretation of the law has tightened in the summer of 2016.

"Portland's Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI), which regulates the licensing of the local cannabis industry, has made the determination that charging for admission at events prohibits providing any cannabis, even free of charge; so only free events can provide free cannabis," observes Johnson. "Whether ONI's interpretation of the law would be upheld if challenged in court is unknown at this point." 

When the Oregon Cannabis Association held its Summer Fair in Portland on July 25, 2016, organizers were informed that vendors could give away THC-infused samples, but no smoking would be permitted. At the last minute, the Fair received permission to set up an outside smoking tent where participants could consume cannabis. (A few vendors chose to give out non-THC infused samples instead.)

Similar to events that distribute beer, wine, and spirits tastings, admission to any cannabis event requires an ID proving one is over 21 for adults. Unlike alcohol events that have a designated area for children, no one under 21 is permitted at any cannabis event where samples are distributed.

Johnson of New Approach Oregon observes, "There are political, legal, and practical obstacles to providing cannabis products and allowing consumptions at industry conferences and trade shows. The law remains a gray area. Local officials and law enforcement may consider the practices illegal, and the venues may shy away from conduct that violates federal law."

Although the Oregon Liquor Control Commission exerts its influence over Hempstalk and other Portland weed events, marijuana is not treated the same as booze. Johnson explains why: "Alcohol is promoted by Oregon and other states because alcohol is federally allowed. lt has been an accepted recreational drug for a long time and doesn't have the cultural baggage associated with cannabis."

Johnson predicts that cannabis will work its way out of the stigma as various cultural wars recede, and will soon be on a level with alcohol in Oregon.

"Elected officials and regulatory bodies just need a few years under the statewide regulatory system to feel more comfortable with cannabis," he says. "After it is proven that cannabis events are as safe as, if not safer than, beer and wine festivals, and more of the public supports cannabis legalization, we will see Oregon embrace the cannabis industry, just as it does the local beer and wine industries."