Since its inception in 2005, the Hempstalk Harvest Festival has served as a rallying point for Portland cannabis culture—a low-key affair offering stoners, activists and anyone else with a taste for the kush a chance to hang out by the Willamette and burn one down in the name of pallid solidarity.
Considering the illegality of marijuana is the defining element of this and other hemp fests across the country, one can't help but wonder what function Hempstalk has served since Measure 91 legalized recreational marijuana in 2014.
On Sept. 25, I consumed some edibles and swung by the 12th annual installment of the event at Tom McCall Waterfront Park to assess the remains of a counterculture that doesn't have much left to counter.
Despite clear directives from organizers to refrain from publicly partaking, I recall Hempstalks as recent as 2014 to have been hazy affairs that put the 311 summer tour (which I've regrettably attended six times) to shame in terms of cloud density and the brazenness of its instigators. But legality has brought that to an end.
Thanks to a mob of security guards in blue Crowd Management Services polos—the same bunch you'd find at metal shows to keep fistfighting and vaping to a minimum—the only smoke to be seen at the festival was from charred lamb wafting from one of the carnival-caliber food carts. With the exception of some overused porta potties under the Hawthorne Bridge, very few spots for clandestine consumption were to be found inside the fest's footprint, which extended about 100 yards in either direction of the bridge.
The only official option for onsite consumption was a $35 pass that granted access to the Lyon Pride Music VIP Bus, a neon-green-and-black rolling party zone that looked a lot like what Kottonmouth Kings would submit in a "Design Your Own War Rig" contest for the sequel to Mad Max: Fury Road.
Security for the bus was lax—I never figured out who was responsible for checking badges on my way in, and everyone inside the bus was too busy attending to their own pipes and devices to assert any air of authority. Ironically, no effort was made to prevent illicit public consumption of cannabis outside the event's perimeter. One could "leave" by walking 20 feet from the roving security guards in golf carts and light up with the encampment of loiterers on the grassy banks of the Willamette. I approached this rogues gallery of wooks and crustafarians gathered around a "NEED WEED" cardboard sign in hopes of obtaining a deeper insight into the public perception of the event.
"There's nothin' goin' on there besides dudes in Phish T-shirts looking at ponchos and listening to shitty music," said Max, a 26-year-old who said he came up from Springfield for the weekend to visit friends. "I guarantee this shit right here [waves joint violently] will put any of those rich dudes from Tacoma or whatever on their ass."
While the proprietors of the VIP bus were indeed from Tacoma, the "rich dudes" and their out-of-state investors that compose New Canna were otherwise scarce. Besides Wikileaf—the "Priceline.com of weed," according to a rep—and a few dealers hawking seeds and grow lights, the majority of the stalls at Hempstalk were decidedly old school. Enough drug rugs and corduroy pants to clothe half of Boulder were available for purchase, while modern amenities like dab rigs and loose-leaf vape apparati were hard to find. If it weren't for a handful of teenagers loping by on hoverboards, it would've been tough for an errant time traveler to determine if he'd been transported to 2006 or even 1996.
There was an undercurrent of activism if you looked for it. The event was put on by the Hemp and Cannabis Foundation and the Campaign for the Restoration and Regulation of Hemp after all, and although legalization has sucked a great deal of wind from its sails, Hempstalk remains a logical place for offbeat ideals and liberal politics to take seed.
One attendee hoping to plant a few was Cliff Thomason, a hemp farmer from Grants Pass. His visit to Hempstalk had two goals. First, he was promoting AntiDope, an as-yet-unreleased herbal serum that he claims will cure you of being "too high." Second, he was engaged in a little electioneering for his gubernatorial campaign. As with many vendors and annual attendees I spoke with, Thomason was disappointed with this year's turnout.
"I go to a lot of these things," Thomason said. "This year, it seems like interest is really waning. You don't get the turnout you used to ever since Measure 91 passed. Most of these things were like a counter-protest to get the public involved in making the change, which [finally] occurred with Measure 91."
If one was to search Hempstalk for someone truly excited about something, perhaps the area surrounding the southernmost of the two stages was the best place. Music is a vital component of most countercultures, and a wide variety of it was free to enjoy throughout the weekend. As throwback rap trio Bad Habitat took the stage in matching "Top Grade Medical" T-shirts, I encountered a stylish young couple who appeared to be having much more fun than anyone else.
"We did some edibles before we came in because we knew it'd be a police state," said Tara, a 24-year-old from Tigard, as she tossed an orange disc at a lonely disc-golf receptacle about 50 yards south of the stage. She laughed as the disc caught a gust of wind and missed its mark by a wide margin. I asked her and her boyfriend, a 27-year-old from Forest Grove named Nate, if they thought legalization had put a damper on the day's festivities.
"Are you kidding?" Nate exclaimed. "This is great! Free music, sunshine, a tight setup for disc golf. This is the first time I've even heard of this event, and I'll definitely be back next year. This band is dope!"