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At Seattle pot fest, police to protect -- and serve tortilla chips

SEATTLE — At the marijuana festival called Hempfest that has been held here annually for more than two decades, enforcing pot smoking laws was traditionally a low priority. Police say they wanted to keep people safe and ensure that property wasn't damaged or stolen.

But this weekend, at the first gathering since Washington state voters approved decriminalizing marijuana use, police will take a different approach to protecting and serving: Instead of having handcuffs and citations at the ready, a group of officers will be passing out tortilla chips.

The hope is that munchies-stricken revelers will read the stickers on the bags that explain what has and hasn't changed under the new law.

The gathering, which began in Seattle in 1991, has grown to include thousands of "hempsters," according to organizers. It includes six stages of music and vendors hawking food, art and marijuana-related merchandise.

"We wanted to make sure we could share information, share our expectations, and do it in a way that would resonate," said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, a Seattle police spokesman. 

The idea, he said, came about as members of the department's public information division were "spitballing" on a way to approach the upcoming festival. They worked with Pepsico, Doritos' parent company, and came up with a plan.

The police department has tried to take a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek approach to informing the public about the marijuana law. After the initiative passed in November, the department published "Marijwhatnow? A Guide to Legal Marijuana Use in Seattle," which went viral. (One question: "SPD seized a bunch of my marijuana before I-502 passed. Can I have it back?" Answer: "No.")

Colorado voters also approved a ballot measure last November that legalized marijuana possession and use. It remains against federal law, however. 

"We're putting out content that people can relate to," Whitcomb said. "It's produced by police, but it's written for the public. The idea is we want to engage the community that we serve."

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Twitter: @rar

rick.rojas@latimes.com

 

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