A giant banner adorned in rainbow cannabis leaves hung above the stage at Bo Diddley Plaza, with bold text reading “It’s a plant, not a crime.” Navy blue cabanas full of meditation books, hemp-themed clothing, crystals and CBD products surrounded the lawn.
Nearly three decades since the festival first took place, Gainesville HempFest returned to downtown Saturday, featuring a wide array of bands, vendors, food trucks and speakers all advocating for the legalization of cannabis. Hundreds of attendees gathered in support.
Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson, a former Alachua County commissioner of 12 years, attended HempFest as both a speaker and keyboard player for the band “Weeds of Eden,” which performed at the festival.
In 2012, Hutchinson said he ran on a platform of reforming drug laws. He said he personally saw the effects of low-level marijuana possession arrests on the community — with residents losing their licenses, being denied a position at work or military and being incarcerated, he said.
“It should be legalized because the harm of keeping it illegal is a greater risk to people than the harm of actually using it,” he said.
This year, HempFest was sponsored by local and state organizations including the Florida Cannabis Action Network, Depot Village, VidaCann, Bad Fish Smoke Shop and Aesthetic Print and Design.
The festival also celebrated the 30-year anniversary of the nationally recognized “doobie toss.”
The doobie toss first took place at HempFest in 1994 and was organized by activist Dennis “Murli” Watkins, according to a 1996 Associated Press report. Local illegal cannabis growers provided thousands of hand-rolled joints, and dozens of people tossed them in the air to the HempFest crowd.
Watkins was arrested and sentenced to four months of jail time for organizing the event, the Associated Press reported. Following his release, he continued to fight for cannabis to be legalized recreationally, insisting it was a human right.
Watkins attended this year’s HempFest, settling into Bo Diddley Plaza in his specially constructed makeshift living room. The set up, which was shielded from the sun by a cabana, featured a large couch and wooden coffee table placed on top of a rug.
HempFest is important because it brings activists together to connect, plan strategies and share information, Hutchinson said.
“It demonstrates to elected officials, the police, prosecutors and judges that there are people of all walks of life who don't believe this should be illegal,” Hutchinson said. “It sort of normalizes the fact that cannabis is part of our culture, and shouldn't be something where there is criminality and stigma associated with it.”
Tom Miller, a 56-year-old artist, hosted several HempFests in the past — returning this year as both the host and a speaker at the festival.
Beyond activism, Miller said the right to use cannabis recreationally is a First Amendment right activists will continue to fight for until changes are made. The Florida Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act of 2014 legalized non-smoked marijuana, but it wasn’t until 2019 that the smokable medical marijuana bill was put into law.
HempFest is more than just a celebration of hemp, he said.
“If you tell us we can't have a free speech event, we're gonna remind you we live in America and have it anyway,” Miller said. “I think everybody feels that we're beginning to see the value of this plant — the socioeconomic value and for stress, for food, fuel, fiber and medicine.”
The Gainesville HempFest is known for bringing the community together in a singular spirit, Miller said. It’s an educational and enlightening experience, he said, encouraging the community to put down their cell phones, listen to music and have some fun.
Kyree Dion, 30, is the owner of Kyria’s Crystals and Curiosities — one of many vendors at the festival. She participated in HempFest because she said she believes all cannabis should be legalized.
“The plant alone can be used in many different ways to help reduce waste, and it helps with pain,” she said. “I think it honestly would get rid of a little bit of Big Pharma, medicine and things like that.”
Speakers at the festival included former and current politicians such as Florida House Rep. Yvonne Hinson and attorney Gary Wainwright.
Jodi James, the 55-year-old president of the Florida Cannabis Action Network, said cannabis is federally classified as a schedule one drug in the U.S., meaning it’s deemed as highly addictive and having no medical value. While medical marijuana is legal under Florida law, Florida recognizes any cannabis containing more than 0.3% THC non-exempt for medical use as a schedule one drug.
A concern for the Florida Cannabis Action Network and many cannabis activists is arrests for simple possession of marijuana, James said. In Florida, simple possession of marijuana for personal use — meaning the user possesses no more than 20 grams — is punishable by up to a year in jail and up to $1,000 in fines.
“We don't ever want to see anyone go to jail or lose their freedom, their property or their children over simple possession of cannabis,” James said. “We’re less interested in how it gets sold than we are in who uses it and how we protect them.”
Contact Luna Boales at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @LunaBoales.
Luna Boales is a third-year journalism major and avenue staff reporter. When she's not reporting, you'll find her writing poetry, meditating or reading.