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Hempstalk and the Coming End of Prohibition


Another Portland Hempstalk  has come and gone.  This free annual weekend after Labor Day celebration of Cannabis Culture, billed as “Two Days of Hemp and Music,” has grown into quite the cultural event since its start in 2005; despite its being moved by the city from downtown’s easily accessible, highly-used for civic events Riverfront Park – first to a parking lot under a freeway and for the last three years at Kelley Point Park, a beautiful, but hard-to-access, with serious parking problems, no camping allowed peninsula at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers.

The Columbia is the largest river in the Northwest; the Willamette, the third. The Columbia is over a mile wide here and tidal, as is the Willamette, with huge ships traveling and at anchor. The park is surrounded by industrial, mostly import, docks and numerous wetlands, including the largest urban freshwater wetland in the US – the 2000-acre Smith-Bybee Lakes Wetlands.

The wide sandy beaches between the rivers and the park are quite striking for an urban area. Numerous attendees come by boat. A row of cottonwood trees with paved pathways lines an area between the beach and the large interior lawn that holds the stage, vendor and information booths and, drawn by an eclectic assembly of performers, a large, mostly young, quite racially-diverse (especially for Portland) crowd. Despite the access difficulties, I’d estimate 15,000 peaceful people showed up over the two-day event this Sept. 8th and 9th.

The focus of the event is “decriminalization of marijuana for medicinal, industrial, and recreational use.” It is sponsored by The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation (THCF) an organization of many skilled, good-hearted people that has helped thousands of patients in ten states and the District of Columbia gain legal access to medical marijuana. This year, also billed as “2012: The End of the Drug War – The Year of Reform,” the focus was on Oregon’s Measure 80, a legalization Initiative that is on this November’s ballot.

Between the many acts and humorous interludes with Comedian/MC Ngaio Bealum, numerous speakers addressed the crowd on the science and politics of medical and recreational cannabis and agricultural/industrial hemp.  (Many of the speeches are available here http://www.hempstalk.org/festival/ )


I picked my Flint homeboy and counterculture ringleader John Sinclair up at the airport Thursday night. Back in the 60s, John was our Midwest Bill Graham, Abbie Hoffman and Wavy Gravy combined.  We spent a leisurely Friday around NW Portland before heading to the studio where John  appeared along with fellow poet, actor and the American Indian Movement’s  (AIM) only chairman  John Trudell on the TV show Cannabis Common Sense.

The show is co-hosted by Paul Stanford, head of THCF, and Casper Leitch. The politics of Prohibition and the efforts to end it and reestablish agricultural/industrial Hemp were mixed in with music, an endorsement of Measure 80 from Willie Nelson and acknowledgement of the Right to our own consciousness with Sinclair, who, if anyone does, knows a thing or two about it, noting, “I just want to get high in peace.”

After the show, we all went to the World Famous Cannabis Cafe, the country’s first such safe gathering place for medical marijuana patients. Sinclair, who is the Poet in Residence at Amsterdam’s 420 Cafe, was impressed with the place run by Madeline Martinez, a former Prison Guard and a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).  Dozens gathered peacefully; enjoying their medicine, camaraderie and some live music. Many came up and paid respects to both Johns, as people did all weekend long – both of them noted sources of inspiration in addition to having done so much and suffered much for their activism.

At the Confluence

Saturday, the opening day of Hempstalk, we drove through the industrial area on the way to the event. Organizers had an agreement with the city to use two of the four lanes of the road for parking (by Sunday, the cops ignored the agreement and starting maliciously ticketing and towing cars).

Dozens of staffers directed traffic with thousands of people hiking in the last half-mile or so. Shuttle buses ran from designated parking areas and small golf-cart-style shuttles ran back and forth all day – a godsend for older and infirm attendees.

Once at the site, the colors, sights and sounds reminded Sinclair and I of the many such pro-Legalization cultural gatherings that John and his communal partners set up in Michigan back in the day – starting in 1964! After the government cracked back and gave John a 10-year Maximum Security prison sentence for giving two marijuana joints to an undercover policewoman, the events continued and became Free John Now rallies, culminating with the legendary John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, Phil Ochs and many others John Sinclair Freedom Rally  which resulted in Sinclair’s release less than three days later after 29 hard months in prison.

Between the music, Jill Stein, presidential candidate from the Green Party addressed the crowd, as did Judge Jim Gray, the vice-presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party. Dan Rush of Local 555 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW – Oregon’s largest private sector union) gave a rousing speech. The Union sees potential for many living-wage jobs from industrial hemp and has also begun organizing efforts with medical marijuana employees – with the full blessing of the owners of these enterprises. Paul Stanford explained Measure 80 and exhorted all to register to vote, as did many other speakers. A Hemp Fashion show was held. Much has changed since 1964, but the combination of music, culture and education still works.

In addition to John Sinclair providing some historical context and doing some of his poems, there were many musical highlights; from the fabulous Pony Boy and Los Marijuanos  to NW Folk legend Jim Page to John Trudell and Bad Dog’s superlative set. It was so great to see my brother Quiltman, who is recovering from a serious illness, standing strong and singing powerfully throughout the set, while the multitude sat mesmerized by Trudell’s moving poetry.

What’s Next

2012 is a landmark year. Legalization Initiatives are on the ballots of California, Washington and Colorado, as well as Oregon. Even Arkansas has Medical Marijuana up for vote – the first Southern state to do so.  Sinclair’s and my hometown of Flint and Detroit also have legalization initiatives that are winning in the polls.

However, Oregon’s Measure 80 lags well behind the other states in funds received. Polls show it’s a dead heat and increased funds could tip the scales. Anyone wishing to contribute money or time to the effort should contact the tireless organizers. All help is greatly appreciated.

Once the law is passed, despite the usual blather about States’ Rights, the Federal Government is certain to sue, as it did in 1994 over Oregon’s voter-passed Death With Dignity Act. The Oregon Attorney General, Ellen Rosenblum, who is surprisingly supportive  would then have to defend the law. It took two years before Death with Dignity won out and became the law of the State of Oregon.

Passing the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act (Measure 80) is the first critical step. Back when we finally got John Sinclair out of prison, we naively thought that Legalization was just around the corner. Here it is 41 years later and Oregon and other states have the opportunity to end the madness. 850,000 Americans were arrested for simple marijuana possession last year. Jailed and/or fined for using a plant that has many beneficial health applications and unlike legal drugs like alcohol, tobacco and numerous medicinal concoctions, has never killed anyone. Despite the Prison/Industrial Complex, Big Pharma, Big Alcohol, Big Oil, Big Cotton, Big Timber/Paper and others’ self-serving opposition, the end of Prohibition is now clearly just around the corner.

As the cultural hero John Lennon once sang about War, Prohibition is over…if you want it.

MICHAEL DONNELLY has great respect for those who have carried on and have fought long and hard. After Hempstalk, he and Sinclair visited with a rejuvenated Quiltman at his Warm Springs Nation home before John headed for the Medical Cannabis Cup festivities in Seattle. He can be reached at pahtoo@aol.com

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