There was a moment in August 1994 when Don Christen realized his idea for a big outdoor party to celebrate marijuana was really catching on.

“I woke up on Saturday and the field was just covered with blankets and tents from people who slept there overnight,” said Christen, 64, recalling that year’s Hempstock festival in Starks. “We recorded 12,500 people through our gates. The issue back then was so important to people that they just had to be there.”

By drawing crowds of 10,000 or more pot smokers and activists, Hempstock helped this rural town of 640 people become known as an epicenter of marijuana advocacy in Maine. Though the names have changed and crowds have grown smaller over the years, cannabis-friendly festivals have been held on Harry Brown’s 70-acre farm every year since the first Hempstock in 1991. The next one, Harry’s Hoe Down, takes place Friday through June 25.

So it may seem ironic that, with marijuana now legal in Maine, Starks voters approved an ordinance in March making their town one of only a handful of marijuana-dry towns in the state, banning any marijuana-related retail business by a vote of 61-39. A majority of Starks voters also opposed the new state law allowing marijuana use, when it was on the ballot in November, 185-167.

But people in Starks say the twist is not so surprising. Residents have long been split over the festivals, which are held on private land and have become tightly regulated by the town. Some residents support the festival’s cause and say the area, where making a living isn’t easy, has a history of people putting food on the table by growing and selling cannabis. But many didn’t like the traffic jams, the noise and the headlines about drug arrests in their town. Many in Starks, founded in 1795, have come to resent the town’s reputation as a pot haven.

“From my perspective the festivals have had an overall negative impact on the town, and I think a lot of people in town feel that way. That’s why they voted the way they did when they got the chance to weigh in,” said Paul Frederic, 74, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, whose family goes back more than 200 years in Starks. “I know some people in town support (the festivals) but so many find it an irritant, to have this reputation, to have our town known as a hotbed of marijuana.”

‘SOMETIMES PERFECT IS THE ENEMY OF GOOD’

Christen and Brown, the two Starks residents most responsible for Hempstock’s reputation and the town’s notoriety, no longer work together. With Christen as the main organizer and Brown as the landowner and host, the two collaborated on festivals that were essentially rallies for marijuana-related causes for about 17 years. They parted ways in 2008 over money and the direction of the festival.

Both men have been jailed over the years for marijuana-related charges, and both say they are still committed to the cause of educating the public on cannabis products and broadening existing laws. But neither supported the successful campaign to legalize marijuana in Maine last fall. They both feel the state law doesn’t go far enough and that personal possession should not be limited to 2½ ounces.

“It seems ironic to me that this was a bill to legalize marijuana, with some regulation, and that these guys couldn’t support it. Sometimes perfect is the enemy of good, and from an activist standpoint this was a good initiative,” said David Boyer, Maine political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, who managed the pro-legalization campaign. “But I certainly respect what these guys have done over the years and the groundwork they laid. They helped change attitudes.”

So the festivals in Starks, begun when marijuana was not legal in Maine, will continue even with the new law in effect. Harry’s Hoe Down will be the first of three scheduled for this season in Starks. Brown’s farm also will host Green Love Renaissance Aug. 18-20 and Harvest Ball Oct. 6-9. Each festival includes a mix of bands, people speaking about marijuana laws and ongoing efforts to broaden them, as well as nonprofits giving out information on medical marijuana and cannabis-related businesses. Bands scheduled to perform this year include Max Creek, Bella’s Bartok, Wobblesauce and Roots of Creation. No alcohol is sold.

Selling marijuana anywhere in Maine is not yet legal, as state lawmakers work to set up a regulatory system to oversee the industry.

Brown and other organizers say the Starks festivals are about “peaceful social change” of all kinds.

“The reasons for celebrating our freedoms are more now, not less,” said Brown, 68, standing on the porch of his small home. “The law needs to be broader; there is still too much ignorance of the herb.”

The Starks prohibition on marijuana sales, which both Christen and Brown opposed, was approved by town voters March 10. It bans “retail marijuana establishments,” which include stores, testing facilities, manufacturing facilities, social clubs and commercial growing operations.

The town ordinance did not address personal use of marijuana, though the state law allows people to grow six plants for that purpose. Since the state law went into effect in January, many towns have considered temporary moratoriums.

But only a handful, including Oakland, Skowehgan, Norway, York and Lebanon, have bans similar to the one in Starks, said Ted Kelleher, an attorney with Drummond Woodsum in Portland whose practice focuses on regulated substance issues. Others are considering bans and moratoriums. Kelleher said some town officials have considered bans because their voters strongly rejected the state legalization.

The ban on marijuana businesses was proposed by the town planning board. Board chairman Kerry Hebert declined to comment for this story. In a message to residents on the town website, board members said the ban was proposed partly because town voters rejected the state marijuana law and partly because voters at the 2016 town meeting had voted for a 180-day moratorium on marijuana businesses.

Shane Sours, 42, whose family once ran the only store in town, opposed the ban.

“We’re already known for marijuana, so what would it hurt if we had a dispensary or a business selling it?” he said. “It might bring jobs. I think the people who voted for (the ban) want to change this town’s image.”

Not everyone saw the vote as a referendum on the town’s reputation. Ernest Hilton, a 66-year-old lawyer and member of the Board of Selectmen, said he voted for the ban because he could not “see very much positive” about allowing marijuana businesses in town. But he said he could have accepted a rejection of the ban as well.

“It could have gone either way for me,” Hilton said. “It was not an issue that raised a huge emotional response with everyone.”

The history of marijuana festivals in town wasn’t a factor for him, he said: “Those festivals will continue whether this ban was voted on or not, so to me they’re not related.”

FROM ONE HEMPSTOCK COME MANY

Starks is about 20 miles east of Farmington, in rolling hills near the western mountains. It was named for Revolutionary War hero Gen. John Stark of New Hampshire and has a history of attracting independent-minded people.

Brown grew up in Connecticut and moved to Starks in the late 1970s for a freer lifestyle, closer to nature. He sells his artwork at a store in Farmington, H. Brown Fine Art, and has been involved in protests against war, nuclear power and Wall Street. As a user of marijuana, he has long found it “a lot of nonsense” that the federal government “can classify it as a dangerous drug and incarcerate its citizens because of it.”

Christen grew up in the nearby paper mill town of Madison and has been advocating for the “abolition” of legal restrictions on marijuana most of his adult life. His father was a health inspector and town official in Madison and Anson, and Christen has worked various skilled labor jobs, including in paper mills. He says he grew up with friends and neighbors who grew marijuana to make ends meet, to cobble together a living along with whatever else they could manage.

“The reason I started doing this is because I’ve never felt like I was a criminal for smoking pot and growing pot. There are so many people around here who have grown it for years, to put food on the table,” said Christen. “One day when I was young, I was sitting around with some friends at the kitchen table, complaining (about marijuana being illegal), my father said, ‘Why don’t you do something about it instead of just bitchin’ about it?’ “

Christen started Maine Vocals, a group working to promote the legalization of marijuana and was looking for like-minded people to help when he met Brown. So when Christen wanted to start a festival to push his cause, he asked Brown for use of his 70-acre farm.

Out-of-work carpenters in the area helped quickly build a stage for the first festival, in 1991, Brown remembers. About 400 to 500 people showed up that year, and throughout the 1990s the festival grew markedly. Starks residents themselves helped promote the town’s reputation as a center of cannabis advocacy in 1992 when they approved a resolution asking the state to legalize the growing of marijuana and possession of small amounts. The vote was 45-42, but the gesture, at a time when police helicopters were buzzing central Maine fields looking for marijuana farms, got national attention.

PARTNERSHIP ENDED IN 2008

There were sometimes arrests during festivals, including for people selling marijuana or paraphernalia. In June 2016, a New Hampshire man was arrested after leaving an event at Harry Brown’s Farm and charged with possession of hashish, a marijuana derivative, and refusing to submit to arrest. Police said they stopped him after he was seen speeding on Starks Road.

The partnership between Christen and Brown ended about 2008, around differences over the direction of the festival and financial matters. Christen says Brown and his family wanted more money than what he was willing to pay to rent the land. Brown said he didn’t get paid for some years of the festival, that very little money was used to maintain the festival site, and that the crowds were getting “edgier” and “drunker and more intoxicated” as years went by. He says that in the years Christen organized Hempstock, letting the music get too loud upset townspeople.

Christen says he paid as much as $18,000 a year in rent for three festivals and that Brown wanted more. He called the festivals orderly, with “less trouble than you’d see in a bar in Waterville on a Friday night.” Town officials did not agree, and shortly after the 1994 Hempstock they began crafting a 15-page mass gatherings ordinance that requires a public hearing to be held before each festival is approved, with very specific requirements about all facets of the festivals, from toilets and water supplies to the number of parking spaces and the location of all parking supervisors.

Over the years the crowds at Starks festivals have been much smaller, though Brown and the people who help him organize the festivals now say they don’t keep an exact count.

Christen kept the Hempstock name and moved his festivals to a piece of land he owns in Harmony, another very rural town about 25 miles east. He holds about six a year, under various names, including Hempstock, Freedom Fest and Heads in Harmony. The three-day Freedom Fest was to be held this weekend and to wrap up Sunday. His next festival, Somerset County Jam Fest, is scheduled July 14-16. His festivals have bands, speakers and vendors, too, and attract a few hundred people, he said. No alcohol is sold.

Christen has been jailed in Maine three times, including stints in 2007 and 2008 that totaled about 10 months, after being charged with aggravated cultivating of marijuana.

Brown served more than four months in Maine jails after being arrested just a month after the first Hempstock and charged with drug trafficking. Police found 10 pounds of marijuana, which he says was not his, at his farm. Four other men were arrested as well, including two from Starks and one from Anson, one town over.

SOMETHING IN THE WATER?

The reasons Starks become known as a flash point in the fight to legalize marijuana go beyond Christen and Brown. The town, and the wider area of Somerset County near the western mountains, has long attracted back-to-the-landers and people seeking more personal freedom. The hardscrabble nature of getting by in such a rural area seems to make people a little more independent-minded, said Gerry Boyle, a former Maine newspaper reporter who based his 1997 novel “Potshot” loosely on Starks-area people and events.

“When I was covering that area, it wasn’t drug cartels up there. It was a lot of old bikers and old hippies and people growing marijuana on their farms,” Boyle said. “It was people who felt their rights were being trampled on.”

Boyle covered marijuana-related issues in Maine in the 1980s and 1990s, around the time Hempstock started and police were targeting marijuana farming and retail operations in the area. He researched “Potshot” by talking to Brown and many others in the area. Those conversations inspired characters in the book, like a father who publicly stumps for marijuana so zealously that he embarrasses his children, Boyle said. But he says no one in the book is a real-life Starks resident.

He wanted to write the book because he was intrigued by the area, its people and their struggle as they saw it.

“There is something otherworldly about their connection to the outside world,” Boyle said. “There are a lot of people who are tough, self-sufficient and want to be left alone.”



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