(Published 12:01AM, August 24th, 2004)

ERNEST A. JASMIN; The News Tribune

Blustery winds and chilly raindrops thinned the crowd that flocked to Seattle Hempfest on Saturday and made it difficult to flick their Bics. But the gloomy weather didn't stop the hundreds gathered at the main stage at Myrtle Edwards Park from engaging in a ceremonial toke at 4:20 p.m.

Vivian McPeak, one of Hempfest's directors, stood below a large "Seattle Hempfest" banner and large pot leaf cutouts in the moments leading up to the most universally recognized toke time.

"Let's do it right now," the animated McPeak said before leading the soggy throng in a countdown and in spelling out the festival's namesake. "Gimme an H!"

Presently, a thin haze wafted above the crowd, lingering for several moments as the rich, pungent aroma of cannabis filled the air.

It was a sparse crowd compared with those of previous years of Hempfest, which bills itself as "a kaleidoscope of pot politics, music, speakers, culture and crafts," but a respectable turnout for a Seattle festival none-the-less. Co-director Dominic Holden estimated on Sunday that 50,000 people attended the first day of the two-day festival, and people in the crowd who had been to Hempfest in previous years estimated that it was half the usual crowd. (Things picked up Sunday as the weather cleared and main stage acts included Seattle rap legend Sir Mix-A-Lot.)

Holden blamed the rain for driving off revelers and preventing several of Saturday's bands from playing. With no cover for the main stage, the afternoon downpour presented the risk of electrocution for any band with a lot of gear to plug in. But even with less equipment, rap acts such as Tilo kept heads bobbing.

Several Hempfest speakers underscored the benefits of medicinal marijuana for cancer and AIDS patients between songs with personal stories.

A short walk in either direction and hempophiles also found drum circles and tents where folk singers strummed halcyon melodies and disc jockeys spun records as steady, throbbing bass of house music belched from tarp-covered speakers.

A diverse array of supporters flocked to the park, representing virtually every racial and age demographic - from toddlers being pushed in strollers to tattooed teens and middle-age Rastafarians. Many wore leis and boas of fake pot leaves they had bought from a vendor near the park entrance.

Eric Viking, 39, of Seattle had been toting his acoustic guitar around the park before he paused to roll a tobacco cigarette near the main stage.

A veteran of several Hemfests, Viking noted, "Everybody's a lot younger this year, and all the familiar

faces are all working in the booths now."

He said he was glad to be back in Seattle after recently being busted for marijuana. "Watch out for Montana," he said. "They'll throw in jail for a little pot."

Political and voter registration booths were also on site. Fred Miller, 46, of Seattle wore a military jacket and hat as he manned a booth called "Incredible Feats of Stupidity," where he used props to illustrate waste in government and military spending.

"Hempfest brings out an amazing array of people," Miller said. "If you go to street fairs, it's usually the same street fair crowd at each one of 'em. Hempfest is a different group of people."

Miller, who also volunteered for overnight security, noted the relative lack of violence and arrests at the past few years of Hemp Fest. "Dealing with people who are stoned is a whole lot different than dealing with people who are drunk," he said.

Greg Logan, 46, of Shoreline was returning. "Last year was good," he said. "I went to both days last year, and it was great."

He was among those who emphasized that the event was about more than just recreational use of marijuana.

"Beyond legalization of marijuana, what's it about?" Logan said. "It's about freedom. We want our freedom, and we want our peace."

"Who came up with the idea of punishment for nonviolent crime?" he asked. "Me going out and smoking a joint isn't going to hurt anybody."

"The vast majority of responsible marijuana smokers are like a lot of people," Holden said. "They raise families, they have jobs, they pay taxes. They don't deserve to be treated as criminals."

This was the first Hempfest since Initiative 75 passed in Seattle last fall, which made the possession of small amounts of marijuana the Seattle Police Department's lowest priority.

"There was a lot more pot here than last year. I could smell it," Logan said. "People just felt a little bit more relaxed. It's positive."

At one point, McPeak took a moment to shout out to the police who patrolled the event. "They are not our enemies," he told the crowd. "They are our brothers and sisters. They're allowing us to do this and respecting I-75. Thank you, Seattle PD."

Neither the Port of Seattle Police Department nor the Seattle Police Department, which worked in conjunction at the festival, reported making arrests at Myrtle Edwards Park.

"Traditionally, there have not been a lot of problems associated with Hempfest from a law enforcement perspective," Seattle PD spokesman Sean Whitcomb said the day before the festival. "People are going there to have a good time, enjoy themselves, enjoy the waterfront. But of course we'll be there ... as a presence that can ensure everyone's safety."

Holden said I-75 added another dimension to this year's Hempfest celebration.

"I think it gives an extra special feeling of excitement and accomplishment and also gives people at Hempfest confidence that they can make change by taking a stance in the voting booth," he said.

Holden foresees similar legislation being passed at the state level. "There is already support for it," he said. "It is not a question of if ... but when."

Ernest Jasmin: 253-274-7389