Exclusive Interview With Hempfest Founder Vivian McPeak

Seattle Hempfest
Photo by Getty Images

Revolutionary founder of Seattle Hempfest, Vivian McPeak is a veteran of a great many psychedelic rodeos. While growing the world’s largest gathering of cannaphiles from a modest happening down at Gas Works Park into a behemoth “protestival” that brings 150,000 people to the skinny, shore-hugging Myrtle Edwards park in the heart of the city for three days each August, McPeak and his crew of stalwart volunteers have transformed the good vibes of Hempfest into a year-round lifestyle, with a full-time office and retail store and a devoted following who return to the park every year.

However, instead of focusing solely on celebration at the 25th Anniversary of Hempfest, McPeak is distracted by financial woes, compounded by the ever-changing legal landscape around cannabis as well as local pundits who feel the festival has become irrelevant.

The situation is so dire that without increased contributions from festival visitors, this year’s Hempfest could be one of the last. Read this exclusive interview with Vivian to find out why and how you can help.

HIGH TIMES: Looking back on 25 years of Hempfest, how does it feel to see the progress that has been made with marijuana reform?

Vivian McPeak: It feels surreal, humbling, rewarding, and it’s mind blowing! When we did the first Hempfest in ’91 we had absolutely no idea that there’d be a second one, and I remember 500 people showed up, and we were like, ‘Dude did you see the crowd, it was huge!’

There was no way to know back then that we would be what we are today and when I think about 25 years… I see an ocean of faces of people that have come and gone, thousands of staff members, over a million people have come to Hempfest and over ten thousand people have volunteered for Hempfest and over a thousand bands have played Hempfest over the years, so it’s just so many people… a lot of them are gone, you know. We lost five people just last year, so my heart swells up thinking of the sacrifice, commitment, dedication, loyalty and the family and the community and all of it.

Hempfest is a free speech event, so donations can only be encouraged, not required.
Hempfest is a free speech event, so donations can only be encouraged, not required.

HT: I know that a combination of factors have forced Hempfest into a very precarious position. Could you briefly summarize those challenges?

McPeak: First of all, the economy is lukewarm, but beyond that, our primary source of sponsorship and advertising—which were medical marijuana dispensaries—were closed this year, and the money dried up because they stopped advertising.

That was a real body blow to us, and so we thought ‘Well that’s ok, we got the recreational stores coming and they can advertise.’” Well, the state legislature made it against the law for a I-502 licensee (which includes rec stores or cultivators, or packagers and processors) to advertise within a thousand feet of public property or within a state park. We’re on city park public property, so they can have a booth, they can give out information, but they can’t talk about their products or their business or the fact that they sell anything.

Combine those two things, and that’s really a challenge for us. Plus, it rained last year on Friday, harder than I’ve ever seen. It rained all day long, pouring rain, and not a single speaker spoke, not one damn band played, so that robbed of us of one entire day out of the three.

Our primary presenting sponsor of five years apparently had a hostile takeover of his business, about two weeks ago, and just pulled out a $50,000 sponsorship this year… We just went to file the same staging permits that we’ve filed for the past 15 or 20 years at DPU and they demanded $10,500 worth of additional changes, so we had to go reengineer all of our plans.

The obstacles keep coming. Last year we made 46 cents per attendee in donations for the whole event, for all three days, so it’s very challenging.

HT: Why can’t the event be ticketed? Because it’s on a public park?

McPeak: No, the event can’t be ticketed because it’s a constitutionally protected free speech event, and that’s the only reason that we even get a permit and that’s why we’re on public property. Because if you’re on public property they have to allow you to do free speech.  But if you charge anything, now it’s a commercial event and you’re not a free speech event and so they don’t have to give you a permit. It’s a real Catch-22 for us.  We can’t do the event anywhere else but on public property yet you can’t charge while you’re on public property.

Hempfest provides a forum for activist and educational panels.
Hempfest provides a forum for activist and educational panels.

HT: Do you feel that there’s a lack of gratitude from the larger cannabis community that has benefited so much from Hempfest but maybe isn’t giving back as much as they should?

McPeak: I think that’s absolutely accurate. Of course there are there are companies, activists and people who show us their love and gratitude but it’s not the majority… Absolutely, I think they take Hempfest for granted.

If you’re 25 years old, Hempfest has been going on as long as you’ve been alive, and they just take it for granted. I heard somebody say ‘Why should I give a donation, you guys are rich,’ to which I say ‘Man, you obviously don’t know how it works, because this shit all costs money, it’s extremely expensive, $40,000 for security, $20,000 for fences…’

There’s a lack of understanding about the way economics work and they don’t really understand how hard and expensive it all is. I hate to say this, but the cannabis movement, all the dispensaries that were community and compassion oriented, well now it’s different, now it’s about making money, it’s about profit and competition. They’ll sell just as much pot if there’s no Hempfest.  

HT: I see you’ve redoubled your efforts on your platform towards envisioning the kind of truly legal cannabis space that we would all like to see.  

McPeak: There’s 25 items on our platform agenda of what we’re working for right now. Three years ago, we did an economic impact study that shows that Hempfest generates seven million dollars for the county and supports over 120 jobs.

We’ve managed to find a way to protest which is not disruptive and adversarial, we’re not stopping the freeway, we’re not surrounding the federal building, we’re raging and we’re supporting businesses and revenue into the county. 20 percent of our attendees come out of state, so we’re bringing tourism, and we managed to find this amazing protestival model which brings so much to our community and to our region, and adds so much flavor to it. I think helps define it as a green state, and I believe it’s partially responsible for pot being legal in our state.  

HT: Over all of your years of negotiating and coordinating with your local government, how do you feel their attitude towards the event has changed or evolved?

McPeak: Well, it’s definitely evolved, we have a tremendously positive relationship with the Seattle Police Department, we have a good relationship with the Port of Seattle, we work with our brothers, man, I love those guys, I love them! They respect us because we’ve pulled it off every year for 24 years, and we could put our arrests, accidents, and injury stats up against any other big event in the country and hold water against any of them!

We’re a thousand volunteers on 118 crews, you know, it’s a miracle that we’ve been able to do this. We work with about twenty different agencies in the city, the event sits on property held by three different entities including the Seattle Parks Department, the Port of Seattle, and the Olympic Sculpture Park, and everybody has different concerns. Some of them love us, some of ‘em hate us, a lot of our neighbors hate us, because we bring the wrong kind of people to the area, as far as they’re concerned. So it’s a mixed bag, it’s a real mixed bag, and we’ve made  tremendous inroads with some departments and some agencies and with other ones we haven’t made any inroads at all.

The immense festival requires coordination with multiple city and government agencies.

HT: Is the prevailing attitude amongst the activist community a sort of disillusionment with the form of legalization that’s been implemented in Washington?

McPeak: Oh yes, the reformers in this state, the medical marijuana patients, are demoralized, disillusioned, bitter, and angry. No doubt about it, this isn’t what we all thought that we were working for and fighting for so much. We helped pass I-692 in 1998, making medical marijuana legal here, and to have that to be completely destroyed by the state legislature hurts, and the sad thing is that this model is going to be exported all over the world.

We just think it’s ‘prohibition light’ right now. We essentially traded a possessions charge for a DUI charge in Washington State with I-502.  A lot of good things are happening too… you can go up to a brick and mortar store and you can buy some pot…. you can have a half ounce in each pocket, and that’s great, but you can’t grow a single plant if you’re not a patient.

The patients that can grow plants have had their plant count cut to one quarter of what it was. I just interviewed a woman with a brain stem glioma, a terminal cancerous tumor on her brain stem, who was on 23 pharmaceutical drugs, and she gained 200 pounds… she has six children that she thought she was never going to see again, and she started using marijuana, and now the brainstem glioma doesn’t show up on an MRI.  She moved to Oregon, so she could get the oil that she needs, because you can’t get it here, anymore. It’s unavailable. That’s our legalization.  

HT: Have you looked at the California proposition at all? What are your feelings on that?

McPeak: I’ve looked at them. I have mixed feelings about it. There is home grow. It’s a mixed bag, it’s much better than I-502 but there are some legitimate concerns that some patients have in that state that it might also be opening the door for a kind of commoditization of marijuana, but I don’t live there and I haven’t studied as closely as some people.

I mean, nobody has ever legalized marijuana, nobody’s ever undone 80 years of federal prohibition, there’s no right way to do it, it’s complicated stuff, man. It’s the stuff of lawyers, and policy wonks and you gotta start somewhere.

In our state, the most ruthless, the most connected, or the most wealthy are the ones that are making all the money. A lot of the reformers I know that helped make this happen lost everything, people that invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in a medical dispensary, lost everything. Instead of having a merit based system to grant I-502 recreational licenses, they had a lottery system.  What sense does that make?

HT: In the most challenging times, do you ever think of just stepping aside and doing something else?

McPeak: When it gets scary and it gets hard, and you question yourself: ‘Can I take this, can I do this event?’ It’s not getting any easier, and I’m getting old, but I have to remind myself that there’s a drug war going on and we’re fighting a war, but we’re doing it with with bands, stages, vendors and stuff. We’re just defending our culture and we’re trying to make our country more free. It’s war, and war is ugly and war is painful and war hurts, but we managed to make it cool, with a great soundtrack, but we’re fighting a war and so that’s what I try to remind myself and then I get back up and I do some more.

It’s 25 years, it’s my life, it’s defined who I am. It’s an amazing group, and if it wasn’t for this group, this community, I probably would have walked away a long time ago. It’s my bonds of love for the family and the community that means there’s no way I could ever walk away from this.

HT: What percentage of the operating budget is made up of sponsorships and booth fees versus donations?

McPeak: Our donations are miniscule, the vast majority is raised by vendors and then sponsorships, memberships and advertising in the program and the website, merch sales, water sales, raffle sales, everything that we can possibly think of, but the vast majority comes from 400 arts, crafts, food and informational vendors.

HT: What would it take to pull Hempfest out of danger?

McPeak: I’ve got such an easy answer to that!  There’s only one thing that we need to have happen. We made 46 cents per attendee for all three days in our donation bins last year, for 120 bands, 120 speakers, six stages, 400 vendors, and more freedom than you’ll find in Amsterdam!

If we could get five dollars, or ten dollars per person in our donation bins, three dollars and thirty-three cents a day… that’s a million bucks. We’d be styling.  

If we don’t do well this year, we’re going to have  to cut the whole northern end of the event. That means we lose stages where people have been working for 20 years. That’s going to wound us, but we can only do that for a year or two… until there’s nothing else to cut.

Our plan is to stay alive long enough, that there will come a day when banks and car dealerships and what-have-you will say ‘Man, look at that amazing diverse demographic there,’ and they’ll wanna advertise with us, but we’re not there yet.

HT: You’re saying that instead of receiving 46 cents per attendee if you guys received three to five dollars per attendee….

McPeak: That would make all the difference in the world. We’ve used our business acumen to raise the $850,000 with everything we can think of, now it’s down to the people that come to the event. You either appreciate this event and value it or not.


1 comment
  1. In “Joining the Discussion”, please rest assured that I am not joining with those abusing this Commentary to promote their products or political party. I will, however, reinforce Viv’s message that free still costs someone. If you are able to help out, support the organization. Become a member. Go to their store in Lake City and buy something (there is some nice stuff there). While there, have a word with them. Maybe Viv will come out and sign a copy of his book for you. Maybe he will recruit you to volunteer next year’s event. Put a buck or two in a donation bin the next time you are at Hempfest (that would double or quadruple their average per-attendee donation from ’15). I enjoy Seeley stage. It’s a bit less packed with bodies up there and the content is great with the grain-elevator backdrop. The 10-foot bong sculpture this year was nice, too. If scaling back for Hempfest is necessary, so be it. I do not accept that premise. I believe that many of those profiting now from Legalization will come to realize how much more profit can be had if this market is allowed to expand beyond it’s currently over-regulated self. Cannabis is not “legal” when buying a joint at a regulated access point and taking it home to smoke it (most other places would be illegal), I might be viewed as a felon for passing it to my wife of almost 25 years. Fuck that. Support Hempfest — it will be good for business, and it will certainly be good for the soul. If I were to see a regulated Cannabis business supporting Hempfest, even under the unfortunate restrictions that our regulators have placed on promotion, I’d tend to support that business. There were a number there this past weekend. I’ve already spoken with a few that were there celebrating and joining in the Protestival, while contributing valuable funds in support of it’s existence. It was nice, for example, to congratulate the folks at the “Magic Kitchen” booth and congratulate them on the fact that their company had topped all other businesses in the State (Retailers included) in gross revenue over the past 3 months. They are creating revenue from Washington’s State-legal Cannabis market, and they were there there giving some of it back to Hempfest (as were many others that are now benefitting from the environment that Hempfest helped to create). Scan the “Vendor List” in the program, and if you see an I-502 (or SSB-5052) – enabled business in the list, consider giving their store or their brand more of your attention in the future. That would also be supporting Hempfest (particularly if you let them know that is one of the reasons you are shopping as you are).

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