Marijuana festival has its day at the park
By MAUREEN BYRNE AHERN
SEMINOLE -- It's not quite what they had in mind.
After renovating Seminole City Park last year, city leaders had hoped the new bandshell, pretty landscaping and colorful playground equipment would attract events.
You know, the family-oriented kind that Seminole would be proud to lend its 10-acre park.
But a hemp festival?
Why not, thought event organizer Joe Betz, a member of the Melbourne-based Florida Cannabis Action Network, a nonprofit organization that supports the legalization of marijuana.
"This is a nice park," he said Saturday as he watched members of Uncle John's Band set up their equipment. "Look at it."
As families celebrated children's birthdays under picnic pavilions, a few people relaxed on the grass listening to a recording of the benefits of the legalization of marijuana. Two sheriff's deputies watched from the parking lot. Although the festival's turnout was low and the atmosphere was mellow, it was this clash of cultures that the city wanted to avoid.
City policy says noncity special events at the park should be limited to a monthly or bimonthly basis and be hosted by Seminole-based, nonprofit organizations. Betz's event didn't qualify.
But when a CAN attorney accused the city of violating the First Amendment's free speech rights by preventing the "flow of ideas and opinions," the city changed its tune. The pot festival was okay.
"I'm sure the city would like to limit the park to family events, but they're going to have to react to each request in accordance with the law," said City Attorney John Elias.
Only a handful of people sat on the grass early Saturday afternoon waiting for the music to start. Betz also was waiting. The food was supposed to have arrived an hour ago and he wondered if it was ever going to show up.
Betz, 37, had bigger concerns last December, when his request to use the park for a marijuana rally was met with a less than enthusiastic response. He said Recreation Director Jim Sheets told him the city didn't want his event at the 10-acre park.
That's not what Sheets recalls. He said he explained to Betz the city's policy for special events. He said he suggested to Betz to write a formal request to City Manager Frank Edmunds.
Betz said he did, but he never heard back from anyone. Edmunds is on vacation and was unavailable for comment.
"They tried to discourage us at every step, which made me want to do it even more," Betz said.
A CAN attorney then wrote Edmunds a letter stating the city would be violating free speech if it prevented the group from assembling in the park. Edmunds forwarded the letter to Elias, who advised Edmunds the city couldn't stop the group from using the park.
Betz, a resident of Seminole and a self-employed roadside vendor, says the purpose of the hemp fest was to promote the legalization of marijuana for both recreational and medicinal uses. "We're not encouraging any illegal activity (here)," he said Saturday. "Freedom of speech, that's what it's all about."
Nearby, Linda Krupnick of Seminole was celebrating her daughter's second birthday. The stay-at-home mom said the CAN event was peaceful and the members had the right to meet in the park.
"It's not like they're sitting there smoking it in front of you," said Mrs. Krupnick, who is 25.
Seminole resident Angela Jolley, who handles the billing at a medical office, didn't think the rally was such a good idea.
"It was kind of sprung on us," said Ms. Jolley as she helped her 1-year-old daughter open birthday presents. "I definitely don't think they should have done it in a children's park."
Nine-year-old Kayla Stamborski came to the park to hear Uncle John's, a local group that plays Grateful Dead music. Her mother, Dorothy Baptiste of Largo, said it was ridiculous that people had concerns about the event.
"It's a good crowd," said Ms. Baptiste, who works in real estate. "You will see nothing but peace here."
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