For the second year in a row, there won't be a cloud of smoke hanging over Civic Center Park on April 20.
Big celebrations for 4/20, that unofficial stoner holiday that's been a mainstay in Denver for more than two decades, are off the calendar again this year as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers. But as more states legalize recreational cannabis (New York and New Mexico just joined the club last month), there's a chance that those big 4/20 bashes will never come back to the Mile High City, even after Denver clears activities returning to its parks.
While some newer members of the local cannabis industry think there's a chance for Denver's 4/20 celebration to return in all its smoky, stoner glory, more seasoned veterans of the scene say that the holiday peaked years ago.
The 4/20 celebration didn't start in Denver. Its origin story dates back to 1971 in Marin County, California, when a group of high school friends used 4:20 as their regular meetup time for after-school weed sessions. Like any inside joke born from high teenage minds, the timestamp turned into code and the lingo spread, with Grateful Dead fans using the phrase "4/20" on a 1990 flier to invite fellow Deadheads and other stoners to smoke weed at 4:20 on that day. The association between cannabis and 4/20 became so strong that April 20 was eventually deemed the day of all days for potheads, and the public displays of cannabis use followed.
Before Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational weed, Denver cannabis activist Ken Gorman and his disciples had already linked 4/20 to Denver, hosting monthly "smoke-in" protests at Civic Center Park before eventually bringing an annual rally there on April 20. From there, it grew into a pot party that drew thousands of cannabis users to downtown Denver every year, as well as international attention.
And then came COVID-19, with the city closing Civic Center Park to the public before April 20, 2020. Although it has reopened for events "with capacity restrictions and mitigation requirements," according to Denver Department of Parks and Recreation spokesperson Cyndi Karvaski, no event applications have been submitted for Tuesday, April 20, 2021, or even the weekend before.
Years before the pandemic hit, though, the boisterous bash and the related events it attracted were changing. The High Times Cannabis Cup, famous for a wild display of dabs and joint smoking, hasn't returned in a public fashion since 2015, after failing to find a Colorado town or county that would allow the event to take place. Also gone are the days of smaller, freewheeling weed parties, as Colorado's cannabis industry and event organizers become more concerned with financial growth than sticking it to authority.
Despite being home not just to a legendary 4/20 celebration but now to over 150 recreational dispensaries, Denver has a complicated relationship with pot use — and it extends far beyond annual parties. Almost nine years after Colorado voters approved legalizing marijuana, and more than seven years after the first retail sales were allowed, there's just one licensed cannabis lounge in town that operates under a very restrictive set of rules. The free 4/20 rallies and festivals at Civic Center, although permitted by Parks & Recreation, were never licensed for public pot use, and police handed out a hefty number of citations to stoners straggling too far from the herd.
Yet there is some cause for optimism. Colorado now has a state permitting system for cannabis hospitality businesses, allowing dispensaries, restaurants, hotels, mobile lounges and other businesses to apply for social pot-use permits (as long as they don't have an active liquor license). If Denver opts into that system, not only would cannabis consumers have more options throughout the year, but the city could see more outward, legal celebrations of 4/20.
What form might they take? Even before the pandemic, 4/20 was already suffering an identity crisis. The old guard would rather it be a day of civil disobedience, activism and remembrance for those who fell victim to the War on Drugs, while the cannabis industry favors a day of celebration and holiday shopping. In a city with such a long history with the plant, the answer isn't so simple.
To see where Denver could be headed for 4/20 in 2022 and beyond, we checked in with four people who've played an integral role in how this city views and celebrates cannabis. We'll roll out their stories over the next four days, in advance of 2021's 4/20, link them below.
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