SEATTLE — Tens of thousands of people descended on a waterfront park in Seattle on Friday for what's billed as the nation's largest marijuana rally — an event that has a political edge this year as Washington state's voters consider whether to legalize the recreational use of pot for adults.
Colorado, Oregon and Washington already have medical marijuana laws. And all three also have legalization measures on the November ballot.
Washington's would allow sales of up to an ounce of dried marijuana at state-licensed stores and could bring the state nearly $2 billion in tax revenue over the next five years — if the federal government doesn't try to block the law from taking effect. Pot remains illegal under federal law.
Washington's measure, Initiative 502, also would prevent nearly 10,000 arrests for marijuana possession every year in the state, proponents say.
"It looks like we're finally reaching a critical mass to end this critical mess," Hempfest director Vivian McPeak said as the festival began. "If I-502 passes, it'll be a historic moment."
Organizers expected at least 150,000 people at the three-day event. Thousands milled along the 1.5-mile-long park under a blazing sun Friday afternoon, stopping at booths advertising colorful glass pipes, hemp clothing and medical marijuana dispensaries. Young women shouted at passers-by to encourage them to obtain medical marijuana authorizations — "Are you legal yet?" — while other festivalgoers rested on driftwood logs, lighting joints and pipes.
Vendors hawked $2 bottles of water, but not just for hydration: "Ice water here! Get some ice water for your bong!"
Despite the pot-tolerant crowd, there was no consensus as to whether I-502 is the right thing for Washington's marijuana smokers.
The measure has garnered opposition from the medical cannabis community, and some say its driving-under-the-influence provisions are so strict that it could prevent them from driving at all.
Others say the measure doesn't go far enough because it wouldn't allow people to grow their own pot for recreational use, although medical patients still could; it doesn't contemplate the industrial growing of hemp; and it would not allow recreational use for those between 18 and 21.
Because of the split, Hempfest — now in its 21st year of advocating legalization — is taking no official position on the measure, something McPeak called "very painful and very awkward."
Supporters and opponents both set up tents at the festival.