The South Oval was filled with the sounds of live music and merchants on Sunday during Ohio Hempfest. The student organization that put on the event, For a Better Ohio, estimated that as many as 3,500 people attended throughout the course of the day.
Along with local bands and vendors showcasing hemp products and merchandise, the festival also featured several activist groups looking to garner more supporters and, in some cases, signatories.
For a Better Ohio organized the event as a platform for hemp, social and environmental activism.
Derek Koenig, the student organization’s president and a fifth-year in political science and public affairs, said that the size of student turnout at the event did not matter as much to him, but that those students who did turn out were engaged.
“What I really want from this event is for people to come out, come to the event, and turn into activists. Regardless of what it’s about, I hope it’s about something environmental, I hope it’s about something socially,” Koenig said.
Participants at the festival included representatives from two separate marijuana legalization ballot-initiative groups: ResponsibleOhio and Legalize Ohio 2016.
ResponsibleOhio advocated support for the Ohio Marijuana Legalization Initiative, an Ohio-initiated constitutional amendment that will be voted on this November. Independently, Legalize Ohio 2016 actively sought signatures to place a similar proposal on the ballot to coincide with the 2016 general election.
Neither of the groups, which both support legalization, enjoyed any official support from For a Better Ohio. The student organization takes a neutral stance on the ballot measure options, working to create an open platform for debate.
“I really think it’s great that Ohio is even talking about this issue,” Koenig said. “The main goal of Hempfest is just to create activism and create community involvement. We focus on social justice, environmental awareness — things of that nature, really just giving back to our planet and the Earth.”
The Ohio Hempfest has a history and has been running for about 25 years.
“Students for Sensible Drug Policy used to run Hempfest, but they discontinued that about six or seven years ago. I was approached about two years ago by one of the old founders, and they helped bring it back,” Koenig said.
In 2004, just a few years prior to that cancellation, the festival survived a lawsuit in which the university challenged the organization’s right to continue holding the festival. The same lawyer who represented the students in that U.S. District Court case, Bob Fitrakis, returned to the festival this year to speak. He offered his thoughts on many subjects, from hemp activism to the importance of reforming the criminal justice system.
For a Better Ohio independently coordinated and funded the festival, Koenig said.
The vice president of the organization, David Straka, a fourth-year in political science, said, “(Koenig) did the bulk of the work. We have a lot of other members that contributed small pieces, but (Koenig) is Hempfest.”
Koenig, however, was careful not to overstate his role.
“I don’t want to take too much credit,” he said. “We have so many volunteers that have done so many great things. Without the Columbus community, it wouldn’t be here. They’re a big part of why we’re here and even why we’re able to put it on.”