A committee tasked with issuing permits to events on public property has denied permission to Hempfest, the annual marijuana-legalization festival held on the downtown waterfront, for a three-day event this year. The biggest pot event in the world, Hempfest serves as a national assembly point for advocates who want to change drug laws.
In years past, as a two-day event, Hempfest exceeded capacity in the venue—the adjoining Myrtle Edwards Park and Elliott Bay Park—and police have closed the gates in some instances. And each year the mile-long stretch can feel so crowded it's downright claustrophobic.
So this year, organizers applied for a third day of festival (Friday, August 20) in addition to the traditional two weekend days to make sure everyone who wanted to attend could make it.
"We believe that not only do we require a third day for public safety, due to the throngs of people who attend Hempfest," says the event's executive director, Vivian McPeak, "we can't afford for someone to not have access to our free-speech message, and essentially that is what the city is suggesting."
Hempfest is filing an administrative appeal tomorrow. If the event doesn't win that appeal, the group will consider its options for going to court. The last time Hempfest sued the city for delaying the permit, the city capitulated within a couple days.
The city is in a miserable position on this issue. The permit application was filed in March and the city is supposed to act within 60 days. It's been more than 90 days already. "The city dragged its feet until just now," McPeak says.
"I knew this was coming but i don't know why," says Joelle Hammerstad, a spokeswoman for the parks department (which oversees permits). She says she will look into the reason that the city rejected the application, but she says, "Every event has a beginning and end. If you can't get to the park on the day of the event, then you missed the event. I don't think you are denying people free speech."
Event organizers says Hempfest needs either more time or more space to safely get all the people who want to assemble—who have a right to assemble—into the venue. There's no additional space available (rules at the larger Seattle Center make that venue cost prohibitive and Hempfest doesn't believe there's any additional usable space there anyway). And now the city is saying Hempfest can't get more time to let people attend on the waterfront.
According to McPeak, city officials said "it can't afford a third day of Hempfest." But, McPeak responds, "We are sensitive to the city's budgetary issues, but freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are not the place to tighten the belt."