Home Culture Twenty-Five Years of Hempfest: An Interview with Vivian McPeak

Twenty-Five Years of Hempfest: An Interview with Vivian McPeak

Susmita Tantubay Photography

Every summer, tens of thousands of cannabis lovers descend on the shores of Seattle’s Elliott Bay to celebrate the greatness of the cannabis plant and of the cannabis culture. They come to hear amazing speakers, fantastic musical acts and more!

When the masses descend on Seattle’s Hempfest this year, it will be for the 25th time. “Seattle HEMPFEST, the premier flagship event of the global cannabis culture, is celebrating its 25th anniversary,” it says on the Hempfest website. “Hempfest’s crown jewels of achievement include its designation as the largest annual cannabis policy reform event in the world. But that could change with a single event. What is less likely to change is the fact that the Seattle HEMPFEST is the most sophisticated and socially responsible cannabis rally in history, and perhaps the largest annual free speech event in the nation.”

What started out as a small gathering a quarter of a century ago has blossomed into a massive undertaking that involves over 1,000 volunteers, 6 stages and over 400 booths. And at the center of it all, just as he has been since the beginning, is Hempfest founder and Executive Director, Vivian McPeak. 

Image Courtesy of K Copeland

The Marijuana Times recently got a chance to converse with Vivian about the cannabis community, Hempfest and more!

The Marijuana Times: What were you told about cannabis growing up?

Vivian McPeak: I don’t recall my family ever discussing pot with me as a child, but I had “drug classes” in 5th grade. They showed us one film where some teenager smoked a joint and then went and looked at his face in the mirror. His image in the mirror kept changing from a skull to a monster and back. Then the teenage stoner jumped out a window to his death. A few years later I tried pot at a Grand Funk Railroad concert. I found pot to be much milder than alcohol, so I decided that the stuff about pot was all lies. My drug class teachers had lost all credibility, so I figured they probably also lied about heroin and cocaine. I went on to abuse both drugs almost to the point of death before cannabis saved me.

MT: How did you end up with the name Vivian?

VM: I played guitar for Def Leppard in a parallel universe.

MT: How did Hempfest get started?

VM: During the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq in 1990, at a free “Peace Concert” in Gasworks Park, Seattle, a band of about 100 activists decided to stay in the park as a protest. Calling the protest occupation “Peaceworks Park”, I and other activists there held teach-ins, rallies, and workshops, bringing as many as many as 5,000 people to the peace vigil at one time.

Timothy Leary visited the vigil, as did Allen Ginsberg. We occupied the park for 6 straight months. It was at a NORML chapter start-up meeting at the peace vigil that the idea to do a Hempfest came up.

I was working with a group called the Seattle Peace Heathens, and we provided most of the staff for the first Seattle HEMPFEST®.  

I get a lot of attention for founding HEMPFEST, but there are several other people who should share the credit, if not get more, for making the first one happen, especially Gary Cook and Christopher-I.

Hempfest Archives
Image Courtesy of Hempfest Archives

MT: Have you been surprised at the growth of Hempfest over the years? 

VM: Yes and no. During the first several years we were growing exponentially, and it seems that year after year we were surprised by the size of the turnout. We went from, like, 500 people to 50,000 in 5 or 6 years. So, as event producers we were certainly amazed by the rate at which our HEMPFEST was growing.

On the other hand, knowing of the nationwide support for reforming prohibition, it is not surprising that so many people would want to come down to the beautiful waterfront and participate in our rally with 120 great music acts, as many guest speakers, 400 arts, crafts, food, and informational vendors — all for free!

We want to see community values based cannabis events like Seattle HEMPFEST in every large community in America. In 2014 we commissioned an economic impact study which revealed that our “protestival” generates as much as $7 million in the region annually. We’ve registered over 6,000 people to vote over the past 5 years.

MT: What are some of the craziest things that have gone down at Hempfest?

VM: That I can publicly talk about? Lol. Woody Harrelson spoke at HEMPFEST in 2001, and there was a crowd of several hundred people standing at the back gate of the Main Stage waiting for him to come out. So we put a staff shirt, a floppy hat, and sunglasses on Woody and he strolled right through the crowd with 4 or 5 other staff members, got on a golf cart, and off we all went. Nobody noticed.

Then there is the year that a band on the Kevin Black Memorial Stage brought a confetti machine that blew confetti all over the grass. Then it rained. We spent days picking wet confetti out of the grass.

One year a 20 x 20 foot canopy tent was left unsecured and it blew into the Puget Sound and sank in about 25 feet of water. Fortunately, we had two navy seals divers on our Safety Patrol and after we secured the proper permissions they dove down, tied a line to the tent, and we pulled it up and out of the water. I recall that the cops were even applauding that one.

We once had a headline act on the Main Stage refuse to go on because he we did not have his “bottle of Jameson.” I was like, “there’s 30,000 people out there. You’re being paid $10,000, and you can’t bring your own freaking bottle with you?” We ended up having to rush someone to the store to buy the damned bottle so he would go on. I still have the empty bottle.

MT: What are you most proud of when it comes to Hempfest?

VM: Well, that’s an easy one. I am the most proud of our 118 crew volunteer staff that spends 11 days on site each year, sun-up to sun-down, building, operating, tearing down, and cleaning after the world’s largest annual protest rally. Nobody who is not directly involved will be able to comprehend the degree of commitment, sacrifice, and dedication that the Seattle HEMPFEST demands. It is equal parts labor of love, act of faith, and call to action.

This community of people who have all come together for 25 years to make sure that the event comes off without a hitch is partially responsible for Washington State being one of the first of 50 states to legalize. We have defied conventional wisdom by pulling off something everyone thought would be impossible, and we’ve been able to maintain it year after year.

MT: What have been some of your favorite acts at Hempfest?

VM: My favs would include The Zen Tricksters, Super Sonic Soul Pimps, Fishbone, The Herbivores, Pato Banton, Joanne Rand, Randy Hansen, The Accused, Kottonmouth Kings, Jah Levi, and Jim Page.

MT: What have been some of your more memorable run-ins with law enforcement?

VM: Well, there have not really been any “run-ins”. We have an amazingly positive relationship with the local police. However, one time in ’97 we were supposed to do a walk-through of the site with the Seattle Police. I grabbed a leather bag to bring with me and it had a quarter pound of strong smelling skunk weed in it. I pulled out the weed, threw it on the bed, and stuffed my papers into the bag and left. When we got to the park it started sprinkling so the cops decided it would be better to just drive the site. We all jumped into their police van and off we went. When I went to pull out the maps I brought from my bag the entire van filled up with the strong smell of skunk bud. My Hempfest partner started shifting around in his seat and I could see the cops looking at each other, frowning. But no words were ever exchanged between the police and us about the incident.

MT: Are you surprised by the advancement of the marijuana law reform movement over the last 4-6 years?

VM: No. I am surprised it has taken so long. It’s such a shocking, criminal no-brainer that prohibition is inherently evil that it is a sad testament to just how deeply many Americans are sleepwalking through their duty to demand justice and equality that it has taken so long. Anybody who is enjoying their legal weed in the 4 states and DC had better be working to end prohibition for the rest of Americans who are still being persecuted by this evil insanity. If we would all just stand up and demand it to end today it would be over. This is not the time to slow down, we are turning this thing around and we need to ramp it up to the next level. Prisoners and patients are suffering too much today to wait for the economics to defeat prohibition, we need victory even sooner than that.

MT: What does the future hold for Vivian Mcpeak, with Hempfest and beyond Hempfest?

VM: If I knew the answer I would not tell you. But since I do not know the answer, I will; I intend to burn brightly as long as I can and then fizzle out completely for the rest of eternity. But I’ll leave behind a gazillion skin cells to prove that I was here, and that my DNA needs THC.

The 25th anniversary of Hempfest kicks off in Seattle on August 19th, 2016! It is a can’t-miss event if you have the means and the opportunity; behold the wonder that Vivian and his volunteers produce!