The politics of pot

Industrial hemp is a cash crop that can be used in a stunning number of ways—fiber, paper, building materials, cosmetic products, feed, fuel, flour, birdseed, paints, inks and dyes, bedding for cattle and horses, and untold numbers of industrial uses, among others. When cannabis was criminalized in the first half of the 20th century, communist bloc countries exempted industrial hemp from their prohibitions; after the end of the Cold War, European countries started following suit, beginning with France. In the last five years, Germany, England, and Canada have all begun growing hemp, giving rise to hopes that the U.S. will also relent. Edwards, however, notes that the DEA is trying to criminalize the import of hemp products and says that legalizing industrial hemp cultivation will be an uphill battle that can be summarized in one word: dollars. With 85 percent of all drug busts involving marijuana, "Anything beneficial about hemp would mean the disintegration of the prohibition of hemp. . . . It would be very difficult to justify the $40-$50 billion a year [spent] on the drug war."

A similar rationale seems to be stymieing efforts to allow medical uses for marijuana. Medical marijuana legalization efforts are relatively recent, beginning with anecdotal discovery in the mid- to late '80s that pot brought enormous relief to many AIDS, glaucoma, and cancer patients. Nine states (including Washington), some with overwhelming majorities, have voted to allow such use, but the federal government remains implacably opposed. For the time being, says Edwards, the buyers' clubs distributing pot for medical uses—such as West Seattle's Green Cross—are at risk, especially after the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that essentially allowed Congress to determine (without any evidence) that pot has no medical benefits. While a few unfortunate souls in California have been busted more or less on their deathbeds, individual users have mostly been left alone. Edwards says, while "Theoretically, the feds can bust anybody . . . [they] don't have manpower to go after individual users."

Leaving individual users alone is the goal of this year's big recreational users' push: Initiative 73. Hempfest organizers are hoping to collect the 20,000 signatures needed to put the "Sensible Seattle Initiative" on the city ballot over the weekend of Aug. 18-19. It would require the police and city attorney to make possession of 40 grams or less of marijuana their "lowest enforcement priority." Holden thinks it's a slam dunk to get it on the ballot, with many times that number of people attending the festival. And he thinks it will resonate with the general public, too.

"I think the primary thing people have noticed is that the drug war has failed. . . . Nobody knows what to replace it with, but everyone agrees that it's failed." Suddenly, after 11 years of Hempfest, condemning that failure has become a mainstream event.

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