This year, when Hempstalk applied for use of Tom McCall Waterfront Park, in the middle of town, the parks bureau rejected the application—a rare rejection of a previously approved event. Hempstalk appealed, and, on Jan. 9, a hearing was held before the City Council.
"Hearing" is sort of the wrong word to describe the proceedings, which began with a listing of the lawless behavior common at Hempstalk and ended with a balanced decision from a dispassionate Mayor Charlie Hales. At the close of the meeting, it seemed Hempstalk may yet happen this year and perhaps even at Waterfront Park. It won't be on the day originally planned and, organizers promised, there won't be any open use of marijuana.
You might expect the author of a cannabis column to bristle at this. But after watching the scene at City Hall, I'm actually OK with the city's cautious approach to hosting Hempstalk.
Here are my collected observations from what may have been the most entertaining City Council meeting in recent memory:
Near the entrance to City Council chambers, I notice a sign-in sheet for speakers. I wonder how many stoned people accidentally signed up. The answer—as far as I could tell—was two, though it's possible others were more prepared to ad-lib.
At 2 pm, as the session starts, the lower level of the chambers is mostly filled. I'm disappointed the balcony isn't packed and that it's not a hot August day in the Deep South. Hales and City Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Steve Novick are arrayed in front of us. A few people wear suits. Most people are not in suits. One man is wearing a homemade shirt with "Gutless Council!" written on it.
Fritz explains we aren't here to discuss marijuana legalization or the morality of cannabis use, a valid point I'm absolutely sure is falling on deaf and stupid ears.
Two suits from the parks bureau take seats across from the council. The first has a radio announcer's voice, and he dramatically recalls how the bureau has dealt with rules violations in the past—by working with event planners to make sure violations don't occur in the future. Over the last nine years, Hempstalk has failed to respond to those requests. Dramatic Radio Guy hands control over to an egghead, who reads a list of rules. I start wishing I'd brought some edibles.
A scrawny young man with a huge black beard, hemp clothes and what appears to be a large jug ambles in 15 minutes late.
There are some light questions from the commissioners and Hales. The Hempstalk folks are called up. Paul Stanford, Hempstalk's founder, is teamed with a tall lawyer with a red beard who looks like a first-year law student at Lewis & Clark. Stanford and Redbeard Babyface spell out Hempstalk's main points: Can we have more time to think about this? Nuh-uh, we didn't do those violations! Even if they did happen, don't they happen all over society all the time? Come on, man, be cool about this!
At one point, marijuana legalization is mentioned, prompting a smattering of tentative applause. This will become a theme. Redbeard Babyface murmurs his way through some watery arguments.
Fritz grills the Hempstalk folks for a bit, and the gallery buzzes angrily. Freedoms are being impinged on! Stanford responds that there weren't any knifings or muggings, and Hempstalk is a peaceful protest. The gallery erupts in loud applause, particularly an energetic young woman with pink hair. A flustered Redbeard Babyface again reiterates Hempstalk's main point: They need more time to assemble an argument.
The second wave of speakers takes the stand. A man in a green hat starts speaking in a reasonable tone, but things escalate quickly. Choice quote regarding the festival: "There was nothing but happiness going on, and why wouldn't you want happiness in your city? It's crazy!" He ends by asking for the mayor's resignation.
A man with a Mohawk and neck tattoo begins his allotted time with "I'm a wrestler..." then testifies that police patrolling the festival grounds on ATVs didn't make any arrests, and instead spent their time watching the wrestling matches he'd organized. This was a major point from the Hempstalk folk: No arrests were made. But can we really fault ATV cops for watching wrestling? Isn't that exactly what you'd expect from ATV cops?
One of my favorite lines of the night comes from a middle-aged African-American gentleman: "Can't line people up and search 'em. Guy tried that 40 years ago. Didn't work for him." I still have no idea who he's talking about, and I have now researched this.
"My family is very proud of everything I do." This dubious and irrelevant claim comes from a woman with a Level 14 smoker's voice.
"[Attendees] will go to the mall! They'll buy shoes!" This is one of many closing lines intended to rile the crowd. Every speaker, a few minutes in, experiences the rush of addressing the City Council, and nearly everyone ends with an attempt to whip the gallery into impassioned applause.
A fervent community organizer testifies, as does an overearnest father. And then, finally, there is Lightning. "My name is Lightning, and I don't smoke marijuana," he says. Huh. Regardless, Lightning is here to weigh in simply because he feels some freedoms are being impinged on. It's possible Lightning is a superhero.
Dustin, a lanky 19-year-old street kid, takes the stage and goes on for at least six minutes. At times, he seems to be arguing the city's side, and every point is framed in a cool/not-cool paradigm.
Then it's time for Joe Walsh, who introduces himself as a representative of Individuals for Justice. He's the one with the "Gutless Council!" T-shirt, and I get the impression he's a familiar face in these halls. Walsh also doesn't smoke marijuana. He's annoyed with Fritz, who he believes has already made up her mind on the matter. He asks her point-blank if that's true. She replies, "Yes." And then it feels like the climax of every legal drama in recorded history. Walsh is shouting articles of the Constitution. Fritz is explaining that, yes, she knows about the Constitution, because she had to take a test in order to become a citizen. Pink Hair Lady is on her feet, rushing to the front and screaming backup like a hype man. Fists are slamming into tables. Then, in a rapturous wail, Walsh cries: "I'm out of order? You're a disgrace. You're out of order!"
An employee of the security company hired to patrol Hempstalk's grounds last year claims pot was being sold everywhere, and festival organizers continuously told her to ignore law-breaking. "The integrity of the security company was on the line," she says. The private security industry: society's last bastion of reasoned thought and action.
A few other random speakers take the stand to paint-dry results. Finally, a pro-cannabis advocate says exactly what I've been thinking through this whole hearing: Paul Stanford shouldn't be the face of cannabis legalization in this town.
Finally, the last speaker is called, and I'm pleased to see it's Bearded Jug Guy. "Oh, man, I thought I just signed up to watch," he mutters to those around him. "OK, I'll do it." His argument centers on families. The families of the City Council members. The families of Bearded Jug Guy. We should support each other's families, Bearded Jug Guy implores. "Empathize with where we're at as a species on this planet," he says. "I'd like you guys to have your input on pot. Let's get excited about it! Get on our team!" There is minor applause. Smoker-Voice Lady nods in solemn assent.
Hales needs some recognition here. Even when Pink Hair Lady was on a rampage and Bearded Jug Guy was inferring all the families should get together and have a barbecue, Hales was like an ice sculpture intently listening.
I don't know how Hempstalk happens without people being high. The festival doesn't make much sense otherwise. Cannabis is on its way to legalization, but after this meeting it was clear that new, more reasoned voices are needed to take herb mainstream.