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)

Seattle targets HempFest, then drops it

SEATTLE — A giant summertime festival celebrating all things marijuana has drawn support or at least toleration over the years from officials in Seattle, the largest city in one of the first states to legalize recreational pot.

Police have handed out bags of chips and looked the other way as thousands lit up at HempFest. Mayor Ed Murray has addressed the gathering, as has City Attorney Pete Holmes, a sponsor of Washington’s legal pot law.

But in a skirmish that highlights the often confusing nature of legal marijuana laws, city regulators have taken an interest in some much smaller events put on by Seattle Events, the nonprofit that runs HempFest — going as far as to issue a $1,000 fine accusing it of operating a marijuana business without a license.

The June citation stemmed from a party of about 75 people that the organization held at a home with private event space on April 20, the holiday celebrating marijuana culture. The party was for HempFest members only, but memberships could be purchased at the door.
A city inspector said he observed attendees using marijuana. However, his declaration in support of the citation did not explain how the group had operated a marijuana business in violation of city law.

“It’s a head-scratcher to us,” Seattle Events President Vivian McPeak said. “It’s a private gathering with a small amount of people. They’re all adults. They brought their own cannabis. We don’t sell marijuana or anything like that.”

The city dropped the citation and the fine Tuesday after The Associated Press questioned whether the group had actually violated the law.

Recreational marijuana is legal in Washington state for people 21 and over. Under city law, a “marijuana business” is any person or entity that grows, processes, sells or transports marijuana for gain or which “allows for consumption on their premises.” It defines “premises” as the site of a marijuana producer, processor or retailer.

The Department of Finance and Administrative Services dropped the citation after further review and consultation with prosecutors, spokeswoman Julie Moore said in an emailed statement.

“We do not have sufficient evidence that the location where the conduct occurred meets the definition of ‘premises’ as currently defined in the Seattle Municipal Code,” Moore wrote.

She added: “Consumption on any business premises is considered a felony under state law. As such, FAS inspectors keep abreast of any event for which consumption of marijuana is advertised as a feature of an event.”

Inspectors have attended seven “cannabis-centric” events this year and issued citations at three of them, she said.
They showed up at a HempFest party in June and bought two memberships so they could check it out undercover, organizers said. They left after finding no violations, McPeak said.

In contesting the citation, HempFest attorney Fred Diamondstone suggested that because marijuana is legal for adults, they have a right to gather on private property and partake together.

State law bans using marijuana in public. It also makes it a felony to operate a “marijuana club” — defined as a group that “conducts or maintains a premises for the primary or incidental purpose of providing a location where members or other persons may keep or consume marijuana.”

For McPeak, the notion that his group might be cited for hosting a small party where people smoked pot while it freely attracts more than 100,000 people to HempFest every summer highlights a key paradox of Washington’s legal marijuana law.

“Washington is a state where cannabis is called legal,” he said. “If you’re homeless, if you’re in public housing or you’re a tourist, you can buy cannabis, but there’s no place to imbibe it.”

This year’s HempFest is Aug. 18-20.

Follow Gene Johnson at Twitter: @GeneAPseattle