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Cops dealing Doritos at post-legalization Hempfest

Thursday - 8/15/2013, 7:58am  ET

FILE -- In this Aug. 19, 2011, file photo, a participant holds up a bag of marijuana during the first day of Hempfest, a gathering of thousands of people at Myrtle Edwards Park in Seattle. Has Seattle’s huge, annual pot party become irrelevant? Tens of thousands are expected to attend Hempfest this weekend, even though marijuana is newly legal in Washington state. Some wonder if the festival is becoming irrelevant, but organizers argue they still need to change minds nationally, and the festival is a good place to start. (AP Photo/seattlepi.com, Joshua Trujillo, File)

GENE JOHNSON
Associated Press

SEATTLE (AP) -- A few things will be different at this year's Hempfest, the 22-year-old summer "protestival" on Seattle's waterfront where tens of thousands of revelers gather to use dope openly, listen to music and gaze at the Olympic Mountains in the distance.

The haze of pot smoke might smell a little more like victory, after Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize marijuana use by adults over 21. Having won at the state level, speakers will concentrate on the reform of federal marijuana laws.

Oh, and the Seattle police -- who have long turned a lenient eye on Hempfest tokers -- don't plan to be writing tickets or making arrests. They'll be busy handing out Doritos.

"I think it's going to be a lot of fun," said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, department spokesman and junk-food-dispenser-in-chief. "It's meant to be ironic. The idea of police passing out Doritos at a festival that celebrates pot, we're sure, is going to generate some buzz."

The idea isn't just to satisfy some munchies. The department has affixed labels to 1,000 bags of Doritos urging people to check out a question-and-answer post on its website, titled "Marijwhatnow? A Guide to Legal Marijuana Use In Seattle." It explains some of the nuances of Washington's law: that adults can possess up to an ounce but can't sell it or give it away, that driving under the influence of pot is illegal, and that -- festivals aside -- public use is illegal.

Organizers are expecting as many as 85,000 people each day of the three-day event, which begins Friday and is the first Hempfest since voters passed Initiative 502 last fall.

The vote legalized possession of marijuana and set up a system of state-licensed marijuana growers, processors and stores to sell taxed and regulated weed. Officials are still writing rules for the new pot industry, with sales scheduled to begin next year.

Hempfest executive director Vivian McPeak said that despite the state-level legalization, work remains as long as pot is illegal under federal law. The event is free, but McPeak is asking attendees to contribute $10 to offset the $800,000 cost of Hempfest so it can continue next year.

"It's going to be the most interesting Hempfest we've ever had because it's going to be part victory celebration," McPeak said. "That said, we feel it's very important to remind everyone that as long as it's still a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act, it's not legal anywhere. The job's not done yet."

The event will feature 117 musical acts on six stages and more than 100 speakers, not to mention 400 vendors offering informational pamphlets, colorful glass bongs, food and art.

McPeak said that to encourage the responsible use of pot, Hempfest this year will be handing out cards with marijuana "gut checks" prepared by Roger Roffman, a University of Washington School of Social Work professor and marijuana dependence expert. The cards note that while marijuana is used safely by many people, it can cause short-term memory loss, affect your ability to drive and cause dependence.

"We hope people will take it more seriously coming from us than from a traditional messenger," McPeak said.

And although police won't be ticketing people for smoking in public, officers will be ensuring public safety and keeping a close eye out for intoxicated drivers leaving the event, Whitcomb said.

Brett Laoruangroch is hoping to use Hempfest to promote his fledgling business, Prohibition Brands, by rolling a joint of at least 2 pounds -- an effort Hempfest's organizers have frowned upon as not compliant with Initiative 502. Prohibition Brands hopes to obtain a marijuana processing license under the state's new law.

"This is a big moment for me," he said. As a pot smoker, "You kind of get an image that's cast upon you in a negative way. For a lot of people, this is a you-don't-have-to-hide-in-the-shadows-any-more kind of thing. You can be out in the open."

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Online:

-- Hempfest: http://www.hempfest.org

-- Seattle police pot law Q&A: http://is.gd/GiMe5I

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Follow Johnson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle


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