Legalisation row splits marijuana users at Hempfest

As thousands hit the world's largest cannabis rally, support for a law change is not unanimous

Tens of thousands of people have descended on a waterfront park in Seattle for what's billed as possibly the world's largest marijuana rally – an event that has a pressing political edge this year as voters in this state join others in considering whether to legalise the recreational use of cannabis for adults.

The organisers of Hempfest expect at least 150,000 people at the three-day event. Thousands milled along the 1.5-mile long park under a blazing sun on Friday afternoon, stopping at booths advertising colourful glass pipes, hemp clothing and medical marijuana dispensaries. Young women shouted at passers-by to encourage them to obtain medical marijuana authorisations – "Are you legal yet?" – while other festival-goers rested on logs, lighting joints and pipes.

Colorado, Oregon and Washington already have medical marijuana laws. And all three also have legalisation measures on the November ballot. Washington's would allow sales of up to an ounce of dried marijuana at state-licensed stores and could bring the state nearly $2bn (£1.3bn) in tax revenue over the next five years – if the federal government doesn't try to block the law from taking effect. Cannabis remains illegal under federal law.

Washington's measure, Initiative 502, would also prevent nearly 10,000 marijuana possession arrests in the state every year, proponents say. "It looks like we're finally reaching a critical mass to end this mess," the Hempfest director Vivian McPeak said as the festival began. "If I-502 passes, it'll be a historic moment."

Despite the pot-tolerant crowd, there was no consensus as to whether I-502 is the right thing for Washington's marijuana smokers.

The measure has garnered opposition from the medical cannabis community, and some say its driving-under-the-influence provisions are so strict that it could prevent them from driving at all.

Others say the measure doesn't go far enough because it wouldn't allow people to grow their own pot for recreational use, although medical patients still could; it doesn't contemplate the industrial growing of hemp; and it would not allow recreational use for those between 18 and 21. Because of the split, Hempfest – now in its 21st year of advocating legalisation – is taking no official position on the measure.

Both sides of the debate were aired at the festival, as supporters and opponents set up tents and vied for the attention of potential voters.

At the "No on I-502" tent, Arthur West, an activist, said he's been attending Hempfest since the late 1990s and never imagined that he'd oppose a legalisation measure. But then, he and his fellow activist Poppy Sidhu said they don't consider I-502 legalisation at all. "Legalisation, for me, is being able to grow as much as I want and being able to walk down the street to Starbucks smoking my joint," Ms Sidhu said.

Cindy Denny, 52, a breast cancer survivor, and her husband, Kerry Denny, had a different view as they surveyed the largely younger crowd. She said that she is still taking oral chemotherapy, and the marijuana helps her feel better.

But when she first tried to obtain an authorisation as required by state law, her doctor wouldn't give her one because it remains illegal under federal law.