It's a testament to how strong the marijuana movement is in Madison that its annual Great Midwest Marijuana Harvest Festival is now in its 41st year.
Despite reaching that milestone, this year's harvest is notable for a sadder reason. It marks the first year that it will be held without long-time activist Ben Masel, who died of cancer in April at 56.
"It'll definitely be strange not having Ben there," says Gary Storck, president of Wisconsin NORML, the state branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "But movements go on. And Ben's legacy is that more and more activists are getting involved."
This year's festival is dedicated to Masel. It begins at 5 p.m. Friday on the UW Library Mall and culminates with a march to the Capitol on Sunday afternoon, followed by speakers and music. Bands will play throughout the festival, and there will be speakers, a fashion show, food and other items for sale.
Organizers are also taking advantage of Saturday's football game between the Wisconsin Badgers and Nebraska Cornhuskers. "This is a clash of two historically hemp producing states," Storck says. "Both Nebraska and Wisconsin had thriving hemp industries."
Wisconsin's last legal hemp crop was harvested in 1957, he says. Both states continue to have wild hemp fields -- remnants from the days when it was farmed. In Nebraska, these fields are protected because they provide habitat for pheasants, Storck says.
Lots of people have helped organize Harvest fests over the past four decades, but Masel has long been the most prominent face involved. Does Storck see any activists rising up to take his place?
While he doesn't name any names, he points to the growth of NORML around the state, including meetings in Berlin and Eau Claire. "A number of people have basically stepped up. There are more people doing things around the state," Storck says. "It's not like there's a job opening. Nobody can replace him, but there are other leaders who are working on this. He would be proud of that."
But marijuana activists face tougher challenges than the passing of a beloved leader. For one, the political climate isn't exactly warming to the idea of legalizing marijuana. Though the Jacki Rickert Medical Marijuana Bill will be reintroduced this year after being rejected in the last session, Storck doesn't have much hope it will pass the Republican Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker.
But Storck does take comfort in seeing public opinion turn in favor of legalization. Last November, voters in Dane County approved by 75% a non-binding referendum in favor of allowing marijuana for medical use. It was the same election that brought Walker to power.
"The state wants it," Storck says. "But then the political landscape completely flipped. There really isn't much hope of a bill progressing anywhere right now."
"We have to adjust," he says of the new climate. "We're considering doing more advisory or even binding referendums. There are still ways we can affect policy and implement change throughout the state."