The mission statement above, the sign that greets all who enter this sacred space, speaks volumes to the sheer weight of our summertime frolic symbolized by the peach. This place is the single greatest romance I have ever known, an event that is the spiritual manifestation of a welcoming tune playing faintly in the distance- audible only to those careful enough to listen and follow the song. Musicians and artists from all over Oregon and the world are here, the wonders of nature and an invigorating buzz of beauty and possibility are here, art installations and amazing new sculptures created just for the event adorn the amazing and sweeping geography of the event known simply as The Eight to those who know the terrain. There is always a smile- either on the faces of the cherubic young and old who attend, or drifting in the air while the ecstatic floral notes of summer caress every sense. It is a world built on peace, acceptance, love, and revelry. The Oregon Country Fair (OCF), which recently enjoyed it’s 46th annual celebration in the silent woods sixteen miles outside of Eugene, went off without a hitch, enjoying record breaking attendance, new stages and pavilions, and a plethora of new stories for all attendees to cherish for a lifetime. However, this year was particularly interesting, for there had never been a time in the beautiful years of the ever growing kaleidoscopic tapestry being woven in the minds and hearts of all who have seen this place, where cannabis had been recreationally legalized in the state of Oregon.
The OCF itself was originally conceived of as a benefit for a local alternative school in 1969. As the years pressed on, and specific movements and distinctive celebrities reached their respective apexes in the fabled counterculture era of the late 60s and early 70s, the event began to gain momentum- Ken Kesey famously held readings in his particular corner of the fair on what is now revered as the Kesey Stage. The Grateful Dead got wind of the event as well in the early 70s, along with other authors and poets of the era, including Tom Wolfe. Soon, it became clear to the organizers and now ‘elders’ of the event, that the fair was quickly becoming more of a cultural lightning rod, far more than a mere summertime jamboree.
Fast forward a few decades, and the OCF now boasts a 501c3 non-profit status, active and palpable philanthropic endeavors, year round employees tending to the land, and thousands of volunteers, artists, and entertainers; all contributing in their own special way to help make the fair operate to the best of it’s abilities. I, myself, recently enjoyed working my 7th year on the OCF Sanitation Crew. Yes. It is what you think. Yet, as my own crew boss, fair elder, and OCF Board member, Lawrence Taylor, stated perfectly as per our role in the fair, “We keep this magical place livable for those that make it special.”
The public is allowed on the fair site only between the hours of 11am and 7 or 8 pm. This leaves two-thirds of each day where all of the entertainers and staff are essentially afforded a private staff party. Furthermore, as the event itself is held on privately owned land, that means that the staff and entertainers are allowed to enjoy themselves (within the confines of decency) as they would on their own property.
In late 2014, on Oregon’s midterm ballet, Measure 91 passed, permitting legally recognized recreational cannabis. It would be a falsification and a laughable premise to say that Oregonians, and with that, most West Coast residents have ever been too swayed by it’s illegality in the past. Cannabis use is so deeply embedded in our culture it’s practically become commonplace to many- the one time taboo of the substance now rightfully relegated to the past. It is a norm and a regularity.
The tenets of the measure are familiar to anyone who has ever peeked at our nationally standard alcohol laws. Ergo, it is illegal to be under the influence of cannabis while driving, one must be over 21 to acquire the substance, and it is not to be enjoyed publicly. Other laws permit Oregonians to have up to 4 plants on their property so long as it is out of public view, and to carry up to an ounce on their person. A trickier element of the law forbids the sale of cannabis until early 2016 as recreational dispensaries set up shop. However, it is perfectly legal to give someone else cannabis. On July 6th, I met with a friend outside a coffee shop, and proudly declared, “I have a few joints for you!” Just then, a police officer happened to be walking around the corner as I was handing my friend some of California’s finest, and naturally, based on cannabis’ stigmatized history, I recoiled momentarily before I remembered, “Oh yeah! I can do that now!”
This new feeling was paramount to this year’s OCF. The fair itself, unlike many of it’s summertime festival ilk, is held on land privately owned and operated by the OCF board of directors- as opposed to being property of the state or the national parks or other federal property. The rules for the public state that no drugs or alcohol are allowed. Yet, the fascinating grey area that the fair enjoyed this year was in the very rule itself. If cannabis is legalized, then can it rightly be considered a drug? Also, since the fair is held on private property, is one beholden to the general law of public use? I spoke with Security Crew members who gave different answers based on the person, time of day, and how close to the end of their shift they were. Some said that cannabis was not allowed publicly, while others said it was fine because of the aforementioned. Others stated that they were delighted with more sanctioned cannabis use at the fair because, “our food sales have been going through the roof!”
All of the benefits to the economy notwithstanding, the most fascinating ingredient in this year’s fair was not measurable in numbers, dollars, and cents. It came from a slight shift all attendee’s were able to undergo. The destigmatization of a common practice. The dead weight of years of fearful secretiveness was jettisoned off of the collective consciousness of fair goers as they liberally sparked their joints in relative plain sight or in the designated smoking areas as casually as any attendee with a pack of cigarettes. Even for the casual smoker the effect was contagious. It’s beautiful to see people so passionately, and en masse, truly feeling free. It was a year of liberation, certainly. With marriage legalized for all just a week or so before the recreational cannabis law came into effect, there was much cause for joy and celebration this year. Yet, it wasn’t so much what the fair had acquired this year that made it special, it was what it had shed. Gone were many petitioners for both of these causes stumping to see their dreams come to light. Gone were the light whispers and guilty hums of people trying to enjoy a smoke. It was elevating.
Aside from how much the OCF has long been the most reliable bastion of freedom and love that I can recall in my life thus far, this year spoke to a turn of the tide. A reaffirmation that the winds of progress always blow toward the side of peace, albeit slowly. The OCF is always there. The event is only three days a year, but it’s always there. So are we. I had never seen people so vividly as I had this year. Bereft of a few deep impact worries, the spirits of many could soar higher and higher, in more ways than one. There are a plethora of lessons to be learned from all of this. I have my own, you’ll formulate yours, and I’d be damned if I told you what to feel or think. However, as I gaze into my crystal orb, speculating rampantly into the future, I can attest that for the first time in as long as I can remember, it appears that the side that’s always ‘greener’ is no longer on the other side; it’s right under our feet.