Seattle’s 4-20 ‘protestival’ enjoys tolerance, some support – and B.C. could do the same

Seattle’s Hempfest a large-scale occasions with vendors, prominent musical acts and thousands of attendees

They both came from humble beginnings: small protests against marijuana prohibition where activists smoked weed in public, boldly defying what they considered an unjust law.

But as Vancouver’s 4-20 and Seattle’s Hempfest grew into large-scale occasions with vendors, prominent musical acts and tens of thousands of attendees, the Canadian event has drawn scorn and opposition from elected officials, while American politicians have tolerated and even supported the gathering.

Seattle’s more permissive approach could be a model for Vancouver, given that marijuana is legal now and there are no signs of 4-20 winding down, said Park Board Commissioner John Irwin.

“My approach is that we permit it. Logically, I think that takes some of the protest steam out of the event,” he said. “The other issue I have with not permitting it is you don’t have as much control in the negotiations that occur. You can’t set parameters.”

Irwin’s board colleagues have refused to issue a permit, citing costs, damage and safety concerns. But the city and police have not swooped in to shut down 4-20 either, instead they are taking steps to maintain public safety during the massive gathering expected Saturday at Sunset Beach.

In Seattle, Hempfest has grown to a three-day protest festival, or “,” drawing large crowds to a 2.5-kilometre stretch of waterfront in Myrtle Edwards Park. Past speakers have included actor Woody Harrelson, former U.S. congressmen Dana Rohrbacher and Dennis Kucinich and various Seattle mayors and councillors.

The event has received a city permit every year since 1995, said Vivian McPeak, executive director of Hempfest. Obtaining a permit is no easy feat — it takes all year and involves numerous meetings and many pages of plans that need to be approved by various city departments, he noted.

But McPeak said Hempfest has won support with its “safety first” approach. It rents extra automated external defibrillators in case anyone suffers cardiac arrest, employs its own trained safety patrol and security, aggressively prevents sales of cannabis at the event and doesn’t allow anyone to bring in alcohol, he said.

“It’s been about attention to detail. We’ve had to tangle with the city a couple times in the course of 27 years. It’s our 28th year and sometimes we don’t agree on things,” McPeak said. “But over the years, we’ve gained a lot of respect for all the people in the city departments that we work with.”

Seattle Coun. Lisa Herbold spoke at the event as a candidate in 2015. She said the city’s voters have long supported loosening the laws around cannabis, as they passed an initiative way back in 2003 that made pot possession the lowest police priority.

“Hempfest has always been considered a free-speech event focused on the ending the criminalization of cannabis users, supported by some prior administrations, several council members, and most importantly, the voting public,” she said.

Jodie Emery, a spokeswoman for 4-20, said she constantly points to Hempfest as a perfect example of what can be achieved by cities. However, she added that the Vancouver event has previously received some political support — former NDP MP Libby Davies spoke at a past 4-20, for example.

“In Vancouver, we’ve not really had this much vitriol in years,” Emery said.

Police have said the 25th annual event, featuring vendors selling marijuana, baked edibles and drug paraphernalia, is expected to be a big draw because of a concert by California hip-hop group Cypress Hill.

Providence Health Care said in a statement that 40 people, including four under 18 years old, were treated in the ER at St. Paul’s Hospital during last year’s 4-20 event. Those figures were down from previous events, the statement said.

Emery said 4-20 is a “permitted event in all but name,” in which organizers work closely with park board and city staff. Organizers pay for security and toilets and there are paramedics and first aid stations on site, she said.

Last year, the event cost the city $237,356, of which organizers repaid $63,201. Emery said they did not repay the remaining amount because it represents policing costs and she believes no public event should be forced to pay an “astronomical” policing bill.

Unlike the Pride Parade and Celebration of Light fireworks show, 4-20 does not receive subsidies from the city, Emery added.

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said he wants to see the event transform into more of a festival that would attract visitors.

“What I would really like to see is to get it to a (permit-ready) status, where we could make this work in a way that moves it away from the confrontational protest type of vibe to a celebration and actually trying to build the industry here in Vancouver,” he said in an interview.

“I think that the legalization of cannabis can be a huge economic benefit to our city.”

Hempfest commissioned a University of Washington professor to conduct an economic study in 2014, which found that about half of the festival’s approximately 120,000 attendees were from outside of the county and that patrons spent $7.1 million in the area.

Park Board Commissioner John Coupar, who opposes permitting 4-20, said Vancouver has held cannabis trade shows and other events.

“I have no objection to cannabis per se. For me, it’s around smoking in the park and it’s taking over the whole park without consideration for everybody else who wants to use that park,” he said.

“My job is to really preserve and protect parks as a commissioner and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Laura Kane, The Canadian Press

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