Gainesville Hempfest

Gainesville Hempfest

Gainesville, FL • November 5, 1999

From a distance, the Hempfest in Gainesville on November 5 looked like a fairly benign gathering of attractive coeds, some of whom might be pot smokers themselves, lounging on grass, walking around tables stacked with pamphlets, flyers, brochures, arts and crafts. But the Florida Cannabis Action Network, who coordinate these events statewide (including two in Jacksonville) have a natural affinity for the organizational arts, which means effecting a nice, emotional balance. Bands, speakers, and a surprising variety of talking points made for a rally less steeped in boring polemic and more intent on showing how their cause is in fact related to the ideals that most rational people are drawn to support.

These gatherings are something of a social phenomenon, to say nothing of the legislation it generates. The med-mj ballot initiative passed a few days ago in Maine, and more states are preparing to continue what has become a veritable national trend. Activists I talked to on Saturday said that about 40% of the necessary signatures have been gathered in Florida. It would take some serious upward momentum to get the 800,000 names needed for placement on the 2000 ballot, but 2002 is all but certain. The systematized tendencies apparent in the general establishment stance on unorthodox treatments for whatever ails the nation (physically, financially, socially) have made it difficult to exact proper consideration of the medical marijuana question. Official, above-the-board research is legally verboten, though this has never really stopped a steady stream of unofficial data supporting the validity of the proponents’ ideas.

A writer for Cannabis Culture magazine spoke of being severely injured while breaking up a fight in the school he once taught at. Bedridden for months, in constant pain, doped out from the regimen of licensed narcotics, he was literally ready to kill himself before discovering marijuana, which lifted him from his bed like Benny Hinn on housecall. Soon he was back to being a productive citizen, until the fuzz bum-rushed his crib and threatened to make him the star of Dostoevsky’s next novel. Voila! An activist is born. He spoke of snorkeling the waters surrounding Jamaica, seeing US helicopters violating the sovereign airspace of that peaceful country to run down smugglers escaping in boats. Another speaker, 20 years absorbed in the Rastafarian faith, talked about the religious uses of pot, equating it with the Indians’ peyote and the Catholics’ wine. A new plank in CAN’s platform assails the bogus drug war as part of the prison-industrial complex; activists have taken to camping out in front of regional prisons to protest the treatment of prisoners. (See Scott Bledsoe’s “Big House of Horrors” in the Oct./Nov. issue of Impact Press , available somewhere.)

The police presence was greatly decreased from previous years, and I wanted to know if that symbolized grudging recognition of CAN’s legal rights, or if it was a concession to the UF Homecoming festivities going on a mile away. I also wondered how they felt about having to “provide security” for a Hempfest right next to the courthouse. But I didn’t want to be seen consorting with the police, especially while holding the same tape recorder I’d used to interview their opposition earlier.

Legal difficulties are a common problem for hemp activists. CAN has already sued to maintain their First Amendment right to free assembly here and in Gainesville, winning both times. They related to me an incident at the Greyhound bus terminal downtown, where CAN and cops argued over their voter-registration set-up across the street, which is probably a more important part of CAN’s offense than the Hempfests. Achieving their goal requires ensuring that anyone who gets a content-high from the oral exposition is legally certified to pass judgment on the referendum. Also, petition signatures are not valid unless the signatory is registered to vote. The law is on their side, in theory if not in fact, regarding these activities, and CAN members have meticulously researched the relevant materials. Activists now carry video cameras with them to record their roustabouts with the tensioned grip of constabulatory power. (This is begging for a VHS compilation.)

The role of citizens in a democracy is to serve as catalysts for the evolution of policy in this country and our sphere of influence. But must people don’t have the time, money or all-consuming drive to do the job, so people like the Cannabis Action Network pick up our slack, stretch tight the motel-room sheets of our interactive society, so we can all sleep in unwrinkled comfort.

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