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Burning Question: Diving Into Denver's Early Connection With 4/20

The roots of Denver's 4/20 celebration at Civic Center Park stretch back to the '90s.EXPAND
The roots of Denver's 4/20 celebration at Civic Center Park stretch back to the '90s.
Brandon Marshall
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As the first major U.S. city with retail cannabis, Denver's connection with 4/20 is well established, but the unofficial pot holiday's future in the Mile High is uncertain post-COVID. 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. 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 few days, in advance of 4/20, 2021. Read the introductory installment of "Burning Questions" here.


Denver's reputation as a pot hot spot can largely be traced to one man: Ken Gorman. Considered the grandfather of the 4/20 rally, he held monthly "smoke-in" events with joints and bullhorns in front of the Colorado Capitol in the mid-’90s. These became so big that Gorman started applying for event permits at Civic Center Park, where hundreds of people would gather to smoke weed as a form of protest against cannabis prohibition and listen to punk bands and pot celebrities.

Unafraid of the consequences of being a cannabis user in the ’90s, Gorman was regularly ticketed by the police on small possession or paraphernalia charges, but he continued his upfront campaign with ads on the back page of Westword and an automated answering machine advertising the cannabis he was selling. Still, his campaign was political, not pecuniary: Gorman was an activist, fighting for cannabis users' rights.

Fresh out of law school in 1995, Warren Edson represented Gorman during his many legal bouts with the city, helping him secure various event permits, fight cannabis citations and push for Amendment 20, which legalized medical marijuana in Colorado in 2000. After Gorman was murdered in 2007 (the case remains open and unsolved), his friends continued the tradition of gathering at the park, hosting what became the 4/20 Rally in Denver at Civic Center Park from 2007 to 2017. And Edson continued his work, defending medical marijuana patients and cannabis users.

Today Edson says he focuses more on family treatment court and social service issues, having stepped back from cannabis as commercialization takes over the legal landscape. And while the spirit behind those early 4/20 celebrations has definitely changed, Edson says that we should have seen it coming.

Westword: What did 4/20 mean to you when you first got into the cannabis space?

Warren Edson: I graduated from law school in 1995, and somehow immediately became Ken Gorman's attorney. Granted, I was in a constant state of getting hired and fired, but that was just life with Ken. I can't remember the first time he did a 4/20 in the park — it was around 1995 and on — but one of my first jobs for him was the start of this monthly protest. We'd have a smoke-in on the lawn in front of the Capitol, and sometimes it gravitated to the Greek Theater at Civic Center, but it was usually in front of the Capitol. We'd have a stage and band sometimes. I met Jack Herer at one of our events. It was a true weed protest.

At first the city nailed him for not having an event permit, so we went through that bullshit permitting process every month. There were other crazy things he'd do to get in trouble, and various ways we'd try to avoid it. We'd fill bongs with wax so they weren't technically usable. These were the days when they were all "water pipes" and "for tobacco use only." Eventually, all of this turned into the 4/20 event.

How were you able to pull these off every month in the ’90s without constantly getting arrested?

This was before social media and before the internet had taken off, so that sucker was getting hundreds of people to come down there every month based on word of mouth and posters. There were punk-rock bands that would come, too. Ken also had this infamous answering machine, where you could call and find out about his next smoke-in protest, who the "asshole of the week" was according to Ken, and what pot he had [for sale], and what the prices were.

Attorney Warren Edson fought some of 4/20's early battles at City Hall.
Attorney Warren Edson fought some of 4/20's early battles at City Hall.
Courtesy of Warren Edson

This probably isn't the proper term, but it was sort of a thing of beauty. I'm just coming out of the Reagan years, and this guy in his forties is organizing all these events, telling everyone to fuck off, and successfully creating this scene every month. In the beginning it was him and his buddies having a smoke-in, to actually events with stages, production assistants, bands, lecturers and permits. He picked up a lot of possession and distribution-of-paraphernalia tickets, but he never carried enough on him to make a super issue.

Did Denver need someone like Ken to become the 4/20 hub it did?

Undoubtedly. I think it would be fascinating to see how many folks in the industry or activists were part of this group of "Ken's kids" — teenagers and twenty-somethings who always showed up for the stuff he did. Miguel Lopez is a the self-proclaimed Ken kid, and took over the 4/20 event for a period of time. Ken never commercialized it like it eventually became, though, and there were never any booths or things like that at Civic Center Park under Ken.

How do you feel seeing 4/20 celebrations and events over twenty years later? Do you view the most recent incarnation of 4/20 at Civic Center as progress?

Overall, it's amazing to see how far things have changed from the mid-’90s to currently. Granted, I'm old and that's a long period of time, but nothing had changed since the ’30s to when I started at this, and now there's been these huge changes legally, and within social acceptance. It's impressive to see that these events can take place. Have they been incredibly commercialized? Yes. Is that to be expected? Yes. But is that a little disappointing? Yes. Part of it is just the growth of an industry.

Back when we started, everyone was on the same side of the table, besides law enforcement. For the 4/20 event, it was all weed people with a sprinkling of civil liberties people back then. Now we have business, consumer and social inequity interests, and there's all this other stuff in play, too. In the old days, it was weed people and weed activists. When Ken pulled together the formal 4/20 event, it was very much activist-oriented. This was prior to Amendment 20 passing, so these were the really bad old days.

But I was doing work in truancy court in Denver County years later, and I remember going into the judge's chambers on a 4/20, because his office looked out on the park. This was the early 2000s, and we were both surprised at how big the crowd had grown. It was something.

Denver's 4/20 father, Ken Gorman, at Civic Center Park on April 20, 2006.
Denver's 4/20 father, Ken Gorman, at Civic Center Park on April 20, 2006.
kengorman.org

Do you think recreational legalization's passing in Colorado led to a decline in activism on 4/20?

A little bit, but that's also part of a misconception, because Colorado's weed laws are as bad as they've ever been. People are still going to jail for marijuana. We have a state-legal outlet to purchase it, consume it and distribute it, but it didn't result in no penalty for the plant. Back in the day, the argument was about folks going to jail for a plant, and how stupid that was. Now it's about a whole lot of other things. Washington State passed a law banning home grows, and Oregon is cracking down on them right now. We got mauled in Colorado for home growing, where it went from the amount of plants recommended by your doctor to twelve plants. I've already beaten that dead horse enough, but that came from the industry, not the moral majority. Medical marijuana caregivers and patients who misinterpreted the law are now, unfortunately, my criminal clientele. Now that the sun's out, I'm about to start my annual soapbox of "Don't plant your weed outdoors in Denver, or you might have your house seized or filed against."

I can't say 4/20 didn't always have a celebratory feel to it, either. Ken also had a really good time, so it wasn't just someone standing up there harping politics and lecturing folks. That was part of his charm. It'd be really hard to have a 4/20 with a guest speaker who won't stop bitching about laws that stripped our growing rights away. That usually doesn't go over big.

Should cannabis have a day of pure celebration? Should that day be 4/20?

Ah, man. Maybe it's because I'm old, but I don't really care. There should be some recognition that what's going on with marijuana still isn't right, but 4/20 stopped being that a long time ago. If people want to have this St. Patrick's Day-type celebration, then more power to them, but it looks a lot more like St. Patrick's Day than Earth Day.

Did Ken's 4/20 rally and Denver's political past with cannabis create an attitude in the city that can survive commercialization and competition from other states?

No. I just don't see it. In part, what's going on in other states, legally, is so much worse. As much as I complain about Colorado, the laws in other states are even worse, so I'm sure most of the good activists are working elsewhere now. Then you see states surprising you, like Oklahoma, which has an incredibly liberal medical marijuana program, with lots of opportunities for things to happen. There are some pretty hard-core attempts to crack down out there, but there are certainly lots of events and other things going on out there. I can't say Missouri isn't far behind, as well.

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