British Columbia

In Seattle, a pot protest not unlike Vancouver's enjoys tolerance — and some support

As Vancouver's 420 and Seattle's Hempfest grew into large-scale occasions, the Canadian event has drawn scorn and opposition from elected officials while American politicians have tolerated and even supported the gathering.

Vancouver's 420 and Seattle's Hempfest both started small in the '90s, but face different obstacles today

People walk past the main stage at the first day of Hempfest on Aug. 16, 2013, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

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 420 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 420 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.

Vendors look over their display of glass bongs on the first day of Hempfest in Seattle on Aug. 16, 2013. (Elaine Thompso/Associated Press)

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 420 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 "protestival,'' 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.

Thousands cluster on the beach to smoke and relax on the final day of Hempfest, Seattle's annual gathering to advocate the decriminalization of marijuana, at Myrtle Edwards Park on the Seattle waterfront in Seattle on July 17, 2014. (Jordan Stead via the Associate Press)

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.''

Jodie Emery, a spokeswoman for 420 in Vancouver, 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 420, for example.

"In Vancouver, we've not really had this much vitriol in years,'' Emery said.

Vancouver 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 420 event. Those figures were down from previous events, the statement said.

A cloud of smoke hangs over the crowd as thousands of people smoke marijuana during the annual 420 marijuana celebration in Vancouver on April 20, 2018. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Emery said 420 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, 420 does not receive subsidies from the city, Emery added.

Jodie Emery addresses the crowd during the 420 in Vancouver on April 20, 2018. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

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.''

Brandon Bartelds smokes three joints at once while attending the 420 annual marijuana celebration, in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday April 20, 2018. In less than a month, Canada will become the first industrialized country to legalize recreational marijuana. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

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.

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