Marijuana

No Walk in the Park: Denver Gets Ready for Another 4/20

The annual 4/20 celebration at Civic Center Park will return in 2022, but it'll be the last year the festival is open to all ages.
The annual 4/20 celebration at Civic Center Park will return in 2022, but it'll be the last year the festival is open to all ages. Jacqueline Collins
As April 20 approaches, conflicting messages from the city, a petition for a last-minute change to a Civic Center Park event, and speculation about police presence have all clouded the air.

In other words: The annual 4/20 celebrations are about to land in Denver.

The Mile High 420 Festival, formerly the Fly Hi 420 Festival, is set to take place starting at noon Wednesday, April 20, at Civic Center Park. For decades, people who support legalized marijuana have gathered in the park for 4/20 events both unofficial and sanctioned. Since the passage of Amendment 64, the free-to-attend festival has officially evolved into more of a party than a political rally, complete with national music acts and food, beer and vendor tents. But unsanctioned pot consumption has remained a constant.

The Civic Center Park gathering took the last two years off because of the pandemic, and Denver seems to have forgotten some protocol during the hiatus.

On April 18, the City and County of Denver Twitter account sent this message: "'​Sup Denverites! The Mile High 420 Fest is back at Civic Center Park on Wednesday, April 20, 12 p.m. – 8 p.m.! Fight the stigma surrounding marijuana use and celebrate the booming cannabis industry here in Colorado! But don't roll up without a ticket!"

Isn't that hip? For possibly the first time, the city was actually telling people to fight the stigma of marijuana use, which is banned in public in Colorado.

But less than thirty minutes later, the Denver Office of Marijuana Policy sent out an email blast making sure people knew that city government wasn't that cool, and sprinkled in the threat of prison — a bit of an overreach, considering that public marijuana consumption is a minor offense and carries a citation in Colorado.

"The consumption of marijuana at the Mile High 420 Festival is strictly prohibited," warned bolded words in the email, which went on to note that "penalties can range from a fine to possible jail or prison sentence, depending on the type of offense."

The Denver Police Department also tweeted regarding the 4/20 event, but only to announce that streets on the north and west ends of Civic Center would be closed through April 21 for the festival. In a statement emailed to Westword, the DPD said it has been working with Mile High 420 Festival organizers to ensure a safe event, and "will have officers in the area to address any potential safety concerns or unlawful activity," but wouldn't provide how many officers would be at the park that day.

Organized by Denver-based dispensary Euflora and Fly Hi delivery service, the festival reminds attendees that public marijuana use is banned in Colorado, and some members of the cannabis community worry that the city's warning indicates that police will be out in force to stop pot smoking. The warning only cited Colorado laws, though, and not a specific festival policy.

While there will be security at the event, FlyHi Chief Operating Officer Ashley Chubin says that organizers plan on observing the same enforcement level they did in 2019, when beer sales were also allowed — and lots of unsanctioned marijuana use took place among the thousands of attendees. In 2018, DPD officers issued 72 citations for marijuana use at Civic Center; in 2019, the last year the 4/20 festival was held, DPD officers issued approximately 33 citations.

No marijuana products are to be sold or handed out as samples by festival vendors, Chubin adds.
click to enlarge A group effort take places at the 2019 Mile High 420 Fest in Civc Center Park. - JACQUELINE COLLINS
A group effort take places at the 2019 Mile High 420 Fest in Civc Center Park.
Jacqueline Collins
On April 18, there was another stink bomb was thrown into the mix: a petition calling on the festival to ban people under 21. One Chance to Grow Up, an organization that pushes for commercial marijuana guardrails, and 5280 High School, a charter school geared to students recovering from substance abuse, are heading the campaign, arguing that marijuana products are too easily accessible for teenagers at the fest, which has always been an all-ages event.

“Despite claims by the marijuana industry that their products are not widely available to minors, the reality in Colorado is that marijuana is ubiquitous and easily accessed by those under 21 years old,” 5280 High School founder Melissa Mouton says in a statement. “Easy access to marijuana by minors, partially fueled by advertising and promotional events like 420 that target youth, has catalyzed illicit drug use among teenagers in Colorado. The industry should bear more responsibility to prevent it, such as restricting access to the 420 festival to those who are 21 or older."

The petition urges festival organizers to scan IDs and restrict those under 21 from entry. Chubin says that while she agrees with the concept, event planners had been advised by their lawyer that free events at city parks can't have age restrictions. But it turns out that restriction only applies to free assemblies, according to Denver Parks and Recreation.

"A few years ago our lawyers told us that if we have a free event, it must be for all ages. We've now found out we can now apply to the city for a free 21-plus event," Chubin says. "Now that we know we can do this for future events, we will 100 percent be doing that. We agree that kids under 21 should not be consuming cannabis."

The previous incarnation of the 4/20 event at Civic Center, the Denver 420 Rally, registered as a free assembly and didn't offer beer or licensed food sales. More politically focused than its successor, the Denver 420 Rally operated as a free festival and concert event from 2007 to 2017. Euflora, a Denver-based dispensary chain, took over the April 20 Civic Center event permit in 2018, after previous organizers were suspended from reapplying following operating and cleanup issues after the 2017 event.

Euflora and Fly Hi want to have a more adult 4/20 celebration, Chubin says, and on the Mile High 420 website, organizers are suggesting that those under 21 stay away from the festival. Any marijuana-related vendor tents have been told to check IDs and bar anyone under 21 from entering, she adds, and marijuana-related coupons are age-restricted, too.

However, at this point, the 420 festival will wait until next year to limit attendees to 21 and older.

"We hear the petitioners. We stand with it. Unfortunately, we don't have the ability to get ID scanners two days before the event. What we are trying to provide is a safe event, though, and we've spent $125,000 for security," Chubin says. "We don't want to advertise to children, either. Our event tents are purposefully not branded on any sides, they're just blank, and there will be 21-plus signage and ID checkers."

Has all that cleared the air?

With a sunny forecast for April 20 and Big Boi, Lil Jon and Talib Kweli set to begin taking the stage just twenty minutes before the big moment at 4:20 p.m., we'll certainly be there to find out.
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Thomas Mitchell has written about all things cannabis for Westword since 2014, covering sports, real estate and general news along the way for publications such as the Arizona Republic, Inman and Fox Sports. He's currently the cannabis editor for westword.com.
Contact: Thomas Mitchell