Can Madison’s annual marijuana celebration confront its own lack of equity?
Editor’s note: We’ve responded to some reader criticism of this story here.
As a freshman at UW-Madison in 2013, I was somewhat startled to smell marijuana smoke on Library Mall in the middle of the day. This was when Library Mall still had an ungainly cement podium, on which I watched an activist megaphone his way through a speech about marijuana legalization. Surrounding me, people smoked weed in public and the cops watched. Participants weren’t freely handing around joints so much as most people seemed to have brought their own, but the vibe was such that if you asked someone for a hit you’d get it. I forget the specifics, but there was an obligatory reggae band.
I browsed shops selling bongs, pipes, posters and T-shirts, saw hippies hanging out with libertarians, and formed a negative opinion about white people with dreads. After the speech, the crowd turned around, and I suddenly participated in a march to the capitol that was trailed by a visible cloud of smoke. That cloud marked the boundaries of the Great Midwest Marijuana Harvest Festival, and within it smoking marijuana was effectively legal. People smoked a schedule 1 banned substance on the steps of their capital, with impunity.
But something bugged me about the now nearly 50-year-old event. Someone smoking a pipe on their porch on the south side of Madison, far from the festival, was probably going to be arrested and face life-destroying consequences, while all of these protestors were free to break the law. And I have a friend from Racine, who I won’t name, whose life-plan was ruined when he was caught with a little baggie of marijuana. He wasn’t allowed to join the army, his life-long dream, because he smoked a plant, when some of the most outstanding military men and women I know are raging alcoholics. Only an hour and a half drive away, lives are ruined for what these people did in the street.
Organizers of the festival insist that while the public smoking is fundamentally illegal, it’s inarguably safer to participants’ bodies and the city than FreakFest or the Mifflin St. Block Party. The post-apocalyptic scenes that are the morning after these events, along with the stabbings, justifies the scaling back of these carnivals. In comparison, someone smashing glass and doing something reminiscent of aggressive school spirit at Harvest Fest, save the stoned-Bucky logo, would’ve killed the vibe and been booed.
“I think the last arrest was 3 or 4 years ago. Someone brought a six-foot bong. Not recommended,” says Erik Riedasch, a longtime Harvest Fest crew member. When I ask him how he feels about the hypothetical south-side arrest, he seems to understand the strange legal ground his festival rests on.
“I do not blame the police for enforcing laws whether bad or good, as that is their sworn duty,” he says. ” I don’t see this as hypocrisy. The hypocrisy is from the state legislators, specifically those preventing new laws from being passed that would allow medical and recreational cannabis.”
So why do the police tolerate this flagrant public display of illegality? According to Central District Lieutenant Brian Chaney-Austin, it’s because “we’ve heard a resounding message from the city council. Marijuana consumption is not a high priority.” Chaney-Austin also cites the fact that a marijuana possession ticket is the cheapest infraction a citizen can get. In addition to marijuana already being a low priority for his department, Chaney Austin “applauds the organizers for going about it the correct way,” by applying for the proper permits for blocking traffic and such, something he criticizes the January Women’s March for overlooking, which surprised officers who would’ve redirected buses.
Another answer to why the city allows a marijuana festival might be the aforementioned market. The money exchange that justifies the festival seems to follow the national argument going on, in which battling the dehumanization of people who smoked a plant is contingent on tax revenues and business opportunities. Despite these consumerist leanings, this act of civil disobedience highlights the absurdity of the gross number of people locked up for this drug, which the average American believes should be legal. People don’t stab each other at Harvest Fest—at worst they’re just a little goofy. And no one should be afraid of losing their job for being a little goofy.
In Madison, while it’s legal to possess a small amount of marijuana “in a private place,” it’s illegal to smoke in public, with a fine after court fees of $124. This decriminalization technically conflicts with state and federal law, but under the Obama administration, this wasn’t as big a deal. That administration’s 2013 Cole Memo recommended that states and cities that legalize marijuana can do so as long as nothing serious happened alongside de-prohibition like increased access to minors or spreading the drug to other states, and basically implied that the federal government wouldn’t waste resources fighting something a state’s citizens wanted regulated.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, now in charge of the department that sent out the memo, is well-known to be anti-marijuana, even as his boss has said he’d leave the issue up to the states. And the Cole Memo is flexible enough to allow for enforcement of federal law when the Department of Justice decides that a given state or city is not properly regulating the substance. Sessions has already sent letters to states with recreational marijuana laws, suggesting this non-compliance with their own laws.
Despite tepid approval for recreational marijuana from the reality-television president, we’re dealing with an attorney general who once supported the death penalty for dealers, so speculation on a upcoming marijuana crackdown, even in a country with popular support for legalization, isn’t absurd. This anti-marijuana attitude is a big part of Sessions justification of a racist police state that locks up African-Americans at more than three times the rate it does white people, even as both races admit to using marijuana at roughly equal rates. Leaving marijuana arrests up to the discretion of local authorities—who are themselves at least unconsciously biased and focus on black neighborhoods—allowed for the continuation of a drug war that clearly targets people of color. Now that drug war is being led by a man who once joked that he didn’t think the KKK were bad until he heard they smoked marijuana.
Under the Trump administration, this year’s Harvest Festival march to the Capitol, which took place on October 1, took on an urgency less celebratory and more focused on civil disobedience than the Obama days, when legalization seemed certain. This is a chance for people to “come out,” as marijuana activist Tammy Wood puts it, and show that “we’re your neighbors. We’re your friends.”
The “coming out” nature of the festival is tempered by the fact that it’s much more likely that black people will face consequences for publicly admitting they smoke. Wood admits that being a marijuana activist can be scary, as you’re basically admitting that you do something illegal, but that that fear is mitigated by being middle-class and white.
“To even ask someone of color to come out is harder because I have a privilege that they don’t,” says Wood, who also organizes the vendors. And this seems to be the limit of the festival. A crowd of mostly white people openly celebrates well-planned civil disobedience, while appropriating reggae music, dreads—Rastafarian culture in general—and making money off a marijuana industry. Meanwhile, ridiculous numbers of black people who’ve done the same remain locked up.
This year, as in years past, around 1,000 people marched down State Street, many smoking joints, holding signs with slogans like “I was stoned and missed it,” or “Medical marijuana is healthcare.” They were flanked by police in front and back. Tourists and students stopped to complain and fake a cough, comment on how liberal Madison is, or wonder why the Libertarian Party of Wisconsin chose Fred Flintstone to symbolically incarcerate in their green-jail-cell-float. Many people gawked, and others laughed at the audacity of the stoners.
A marijuana-focused travel website lists Madison as having the quality of “virtual legality,” which is a good way to describe how the law and the average, white weed smoker in Madison interact with marijuana. I know people who smoke in public, but I hesitate to name them or their methods. That last sentence should go a long way as an example of “virtual legality.” We live in a country where everyone knows that everyone knows that weed should be legal, and yet it’s not. Even our law enforcement knows that weed should be legal, yet officers are sworn to make arrests. People can laugh at the silliness of red-eyed protesters in rasta-colors carrying huge plushie blunts. But the war on drugs drags on, and these flawed acts of resistance might still be the best opposition we have on the streets.