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Group Efforts: the return of the pot fest 

In the early 90s, Caren Thomas started volunteering at the free festivals held every summer on Cricket Hill in Lincoln Park. "It was kind of my return to politics," says Thomas, who'd been active in protests against the Vietnam war. The Glencoe resident joined the Illinois Marijuana Initiative, a nonprofit set up in the early 80s by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "I think the drug war is very unjust, especially the laws against marijuana, which hurt so many people," she says. "We've lost a lot of our civil rights to this so-called war on drugs."

While raising a son and working as a CPA, Thomas did office work for three festivals--Free Fest, Peace Fest, and the Windy City Weed Festival--which were organized by three different groups. That's how she met "Genral" Jim Patton, whose Berwyn company, Rok-Steady Productions, had been doing sound for all the festivals since the mid-80s. His band, Genral Patton and His Privates, also played at them.

Now Thomas and Patton are the organizers of May's Hemp Fest (which replaced the Windy City Weed Festival), and after a six-year hiatus Peace Fest was resurrected by Patton last summer. This weekend the pair will stage the Lost Harvest Festival, named for the hemp Americans could be growing but aren't. They lose money on all three events, they say, because times have changed dramatically since 1995, when each festival drew crowds in the tens of thousands. "After that, the Park District started telling us with a straight face that they needed Cricket Hill to play soccer on and we could have a field behind the hill," says Thomas. "I think it's because we were too visible from Lake Shore Drive. We had 50,000 people at Weed Fest and a huge leaf on top of the hill. It was pretty hard to miss."

"They planted trees where we used to put the stage," says Patton.

In 1996, the Park District claimed the crowds had grown too large, and the Illinois Marijuana Initiative moved Weed Fest to the Soldier Field parking lot. At the higher-profile location the group was able to charge $5 admission, which was earmarked to publicize its cause and lobby legislators in Springfield. The IMI reportedly raised about $50,000, the first time it had ever made money on an event. "It was quite a commercial venture, and the city sold beer at it," Thomas says. "Even Mancow advertised it."

But the city faced harsh criticism for allowing the festival to take place on Park District property. Park District counsel Joan Fencik responded in a letter to the Tribune: "The First Amendment does not allow the Park District to deny a permit because it disagrees with a group's political agenda . . . [but] it does not require us to reissue next year's permit if the allegations of illegal drug use are verified."

With profits a new factor, the IMI split over whether members should be paid for their work. "I don't think I should be paid," Thomas says. "I think [IMI] was about changing the law." Thomas and her allies took over the board in the group's '96 election, but the old board sued, seeking to void the vote. IMI funds have been tied up in court ever since, and the organization, which had 400 members, stalled. In 1997 Thomas and her cohorts started the Windy City Hemp Development Board. "We felt like someone had to do the festivals and keep the protests alive," she says.

They held their first festival in Butler Field, near the Petrillo bandshell in Grant Park. "We were advised that we shouldn't use [the name] Windy City Weed Fest because the IMI was in court," says Thomas, and Hemp Fest was born. "I liked the idea that there's more to marijuana than just smoking it." She points out that hemp can be used to make such diverse products as clothing and biodiesel fuel.

While the Park District wouldn't issue the WCHDB a permit, one member of the group, activist Rob MacDonald, had secured one for a "Stop the Drug War" march that same weekend. MacDonald had been sent to Chicago from New York by NORML and Cures Not Wars, a group advocating drug decriminalization and treatment for addiction on demand. MacDonald was perhaps best known as one of the Chicago Five, who were charged with (but found not guilty of) felony mob action during the 1996 Democratic National Convention. The march against the drug war drew more than a thousand people to the Metropolitan Correctional Center, but about 50 pot-related arrests occurred later in Grant Park.

MacDonald subsequently had a hard time getting permits. When the WCHDB decided to stage another festival in the summer of '97, he went straight to a federal judge. U.S. District Court magistrate Arlander Keys granted him an injunction, calling the Park District's policy "riddled with opportunities for subjectivity and abuse.... Such subjective stifling of any person's speech cannot be permitted under the First Amendment, for any reason, least of all because the permit seeker has in the past caused minor civil unrest. In fact, that is exactly what the First Amendment seeks to prevent."

Yet court orders are one-time remedies. WCHDB still faced years of problems with the Park District. "They wouldn't say yes, they wouldn't say no, and they would not put anything in writing," says Thomas. "They did things that, in the language of the First Amendment, are prior restraint on free speech.

MacDonald filed another suit against the Park District, but lost. After he moved back to New York--where he died of an overdose in 1999--Thomas took over the appeal, claiming the Park District's foot dragging in effect made its decisions exempt from timely judicial review. Thomas's lawyers will give oral arguments to the U.S. Supreme Court on December 3.

Recently Thomas has had an easier time getting permits, and for the past few years Hemp Fest has taken place on the east side of Cricket Hill, where it's attracted a small but growing crowd. But Patton says it's still hard to get permission for vendors or food. "If we could get food, we get people to stay all day long," he says. "We could get sponsors and make money instead of losing money."

"They don't understand we're not just a smoke-in," says Thomas. "We're a serious gathering with a serious message."

This weekend's Lost Harvest Festival will be visible from Lake Shore Drive. The free event takes place from noon to 9 this Saturday and Sunday in Lincoln Park, north of North Avenue, west of Lake Shore Drive. Speakers include Thomas, Hemp activist and cook Chef Ra, and representatives from the Greens and NORML. Bands include Old No. 8, Wolcott, and Los Marijuanos. Genral Patton and His Privates play Sunday at 6. Call 708-795-1146.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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