Police Move From Undercover Busts To Serving The People At Seattle Hempfest

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Above: New role of police at the Seattle Hempfest, unloading boxes of Doritos to give to attendees.  It is a big improvement over the old days when they were going undercover into the crowd to arrest people.

I spoke at the Seattle Hempfest for multiple years more than a decade ago.  It was always a great event. Hundreds of thousands attended over the course of the event in a peaceful and joyous celebration of cannabis and hemp, challenging the fear campaigns of the marijuana war and developing a positive cannabis culture. The fantastic group of organizers were making change by being the change they wanted to see.

Relations with the police were a matter of negotiation, a negotiation that evolved over the years.  In those days, there were always a few incidents of undercover cops going into the crowd and making arrests.  They never were able to stop the use of cannabis but they still made a few arrests, letting people know marijuana was still illegal and reminding all of us why we were working to end the war on marijuana.  The undercover role of police in marijuana enforcement is one of the tactics of enforcement that makes the marijuana war so despicable.  It undermines relations between police and the people who they are supposed to protect and serve.  No doubt one of the benefits of legalization will be an end to this practice.

Hempfest doritosThis year the police are in an new environment.  It has been a gradual process. In November 1998, Washington State voted to legalize the medical use of marijuana voting for Initiative 692 by 59%.  California was the first state to allow medical use with a vote in 1996. In 2003, the people of Seattle voted by 58% to make marijuana enforcement the lowest police priority.  People said after the law was passed, if the police saw someone jaywalking and someone with marijuana, they would focus their attention on the jaywalker. In 2012, the state voted on Initiative 502 and by 56% voted for legalization and regulation of marijuana.  Throughout this time the Seattle Hempfest continued to work to change the culture and put a new face on cannabis culture. They always worked as respectfully and professionally with the police as they could.  The hempfest is 22 years old in 2013.

Now, the police rather than being undercover cops threatening the people they are supposed to be protecting, they are working with them.  Theyno longer make arrests, and as far as we know, no longer go undercover.  In fact, the big news this year was the policy of handing out Doritos as part of Operation Orange Fingers.  The police brought boxes of free Doritos to hand out to attendees at the festival.  While they only handed out one thousand, they got their point across.  A little humor about munchies went a long way in changing police-community relations and the police role of “serving” the people gained new meaning.

Hempfest doritos label

The Doritos were a tool to get out information about the new law.  The bags provided the URL for Seattle PD’s guide to the state’s laws, see Seattle.gov/police/marijwhatnow.  And, each package of snacks contained some informational tips for attendees at the largest marijuana festival in the world. “Don’t drive while high,” they say, adding, “Don’t give, sell, or shotgun weed to people under 21.” Do, they write, “listen to Dark Side of the Moon at a Reasonable Volume.”  [For those not part of the pot culture, a shotgun is blowing marijuana smoke into someone else's mouth from yours.] The message ended urging respect for “your fellow voters” and a loving sign-off: a heart, SPD.

In addition to handing out Doritos, the Seattle Police participated in the event. A Seattle Police Department spokesperson, Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, was a speaker at this year’s Hempfest.

Isn’t it interesting to see how well freedom can work, bring communities together and allow police to do their responsibility, no doubt what most always wanted to do: to protect and serve their community.