People walk past the main stage at the 2013 Hempfest in Seattle. The annual free pro-marijuana event has had varying policies for designated pot-smoking areas since Washington state marijuana legalization went into effect. (Elaine Thompson, Associated Press file)

Social pot use: It’s a riddle for Seattle as well as in Denver

Updated Aug. 20, 2015 at 5:25 p.m.

File this under odd trends in the legalization era: Rules for marijuana festivals are tightening up as pot laws loosen, it seems.

“Marijuana gardens” — areas designated for pot consumption — were not allowed at the 2015 Seattle Hempfest because of a new state law. This doesn’t mean marijuana smoking in Myrtle Edwards Park wasn’t happening this past weekend at the 24th annual “protestival,” it simply meant the 21-and-up, privacy-screened areas were not there like they were in 2014.

It’s another year for non-profit events, and the back-and-forth decisions between the city and the state governments highlight the inconsistency in setting policy regarding social use of marijuana.

For those unfamiliar, Seattle Hempfest is an annual and free weekend public event, with a mile-and-a-half worth of vendors selling hemp- and marijuana-related wares and a handful of stages for local and national speakers, bands and musicians to entertain an estimated 100,000 cannabis enthusiasts.

On Friday morning before a downpour of rain shut down the festival’s first day, I spoke with Vivian McPeak, the executive director of Seattle Hempfest, as he walked from the Hemposium tent to Main Stage. The smoking gardens were actually a new addition last year, something the city wanted for Hempfest in the first year of licensed recreational marijuana sales.

McPeak said the city of Seattle demanded an adult-use area at the 2014 Hempfest, and event organizers complied, spending $80,000 on fire-retardant siding for designated areas. Although a separate tented area for marijuana consumption is out of place at Hempfest, an event where consumption traditionally has happened nearly everywhere on site, McPeak said he thought it was a good model, a privately-screened area for adults 21 and over to safely smoke away from children. He believed the setup could be replicated for other public events and this is why he supported the idea.

Since then, the state legislature stepped in and said no to this suggested city model by passing HB 2136, a ban on all marijuana clubs, making it a Class C felony for providing a temporary or permanent space for marijuana consumption.

Seattle officials would prefer a different approach than the current state legislation. John Schochet, a deputy city attorney for the Seattle City Attorney’s office, offered this statement to The Cannabist about social marijuana use:

The City Attorney supports state legislation that would allow local jurisdictions to license and regulate locations that allow marijuana use by vaporizing or eating. These locations would have to be for adults ages 21 and over only. Independently of the language in HB 2136 banning “marijuana clubs” (which we’d like to change), state law also prohibits smoking in businesses open to the public and businesses that have employees. We are not seeking to change this law; regulated marijuana consumption lounges should prohibit smoking.

Within the legalization community, envisioning  policies for social use at events and everyday life varies among stakeholders.  On the festival grounds, Keith Stroup, founder of national pro-legalization group NORML, took a break Friday morning from managing the setup of the NORML booth to discuss social-use issues. Stroup said he thinks public marijuana consumption should be limited to political protests, or smoke-outs, and not allowed at general public events. Smoke-outs, like Seattle Hempfest, the Boston Freedom Rally and the High Times Cannabis Cups, he suggested, should allow participants to consume marijuana because these events are public acts of civil disobedience, protests against prohibition laws.

In terms of everyday social use, Stroup mentioned the decades of increased restrictions on public tobacco smoking and said pot smokers should not have more rights to public consumption than tobacco smokers. According to Stroup, what is needed for normalized social use are cannabis lounges.

“Marijuana smoking is a social activity and we need a place to do it,” said Stroup. “We shouldn’t fight for the right to smoke in existing bars, we need our own places.”

In Colorado, Denver voters will be considering a ballot initiative for limited social marijuana use at established private businesses that have designated 21-and-up areas, such as bars, with pot smoking allowed only outdoors away from public view.

For McPeak, “quality” should be considered when integrating ordinances on marijuana use into normal living. McPeak believes public smoking is non-invasive.

“When you are outside, the smoke blows away, it doesn’t stick around. If I can walk down the street smoking a cigarette, I should be able to walk down the street smoking a joint,” said McPeak. “If I can drink alcohol outside on a patio at a bar, I should be able to smoke a joint on the patio too.

“I’m a hippie, I’d like to light up herb anywhere, but I don’t expect that to happen.”

Ben Livingston, a Seattle-based activist and fellow Cannabist freelancer, spoke with me backstage while he cared for his content and energetic toddler. In 2013, Livingston was actually given a city permit for outdoor marijuana consumption to hold a legalization pot party at Seattle Center, home of the Space Needle. This permit was granted after months of wrangling with the city and after being denied in 2014, likely was a one-time deal.

Livingston was motivated to hold an event because of the lack of public space for people to legally consume marijuana.  Livingston said that even if the cultural norm is “Dude, you can smoke it anywhere,” it’s not good advice for tourists to violate local laws. But there is no place for them to go that is legal. If someone can get an event permit for alcohol consumption, then there should be one for marijuana use, said Livingston. For the future, he said: “Treat it like alcohol. It’s cool, don’t make a big deal out of it.”

In the five years I’ve attended Seattle Hempfest, marijuana consumption and smoking have continued unabated in the face of changing city and state laws, although there was a noticeably smaller crowd this year. “People are doing the same things they did before legalization, said McPeak.

Local law enforcement historically has had a light approach for issuing public-use citations during Hempfest. This year, police were stationed in the park on bicycles. Seattle Police spokeswoman Lauren Lovanhill said via email, “No citations were issued at Hempfest last weekend and no ‘enforcement’ action was taken at the event as it relates to marijuana smoking.”