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Burning Question: How Does an Evolving Pot Industry Approach 4/20?

As more states legalize cannabis, is Colorado's 4/20 fun heading east?EXPAND
As more states legalize cannabis, is Colorado's 4/20 fun heading east?
Jacqueline Collins
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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. In advance of 4/20 in 2021, we've been rolling out their stories in our Burning Question series, and have already shared Warren Edson's memories of 4/20's early connection to Denver, Miguel Lopez's account of hosting the 420 Rally and Jake Browne's experience going from a face in the crowd to the limelight. And now, Brett McDonald:

A sizable portion of the cannabis industry has pushed away from the stoner culture surrounding 4/20, preferring to chase newer consumer groups and gear marketing toward a more clean-cut user. But 4/20 is one of the biggest days for cannabis sales all year, and those same brands and stores pretending to be the Apple of weed are all too happy to slash prices and buy 4/20 ads to cash in. For Brent McDonald, though, the true pot shops never lose their roots.

McDonald, the marketing director for Apothecary Farms and the dispensary chain's extraction brand, Apothecary Extracts, is a fixture in Colorado's cannabis scenes; over the years, he's been seen regularly dispensing dabs of live resin at various parties across the state.

But now, as Apothecary expands into Oklahoma, a medical marijuana state with more liberal pot consumption laws, McDonald can't help but wonder if these new cannabis frontiers are where the old 4/20 fun has gone.

Westword: How have you seen Denver's relationship with 4/20 play out since 2014, the first year of recreational sales?

Brent McDonald: In my personal opinion, 4/20 has kind of taken a nosedive here. I don't know if you remember the days of the High Times Cannabis Cup in Denver, but, man, that was as good as it gets. Then you had those 4/20 in the Rocks events [at Red Rocks], too. But these last couple years with the pandemic, and even the years before that, there was this big crackdown on cannabis events. The Marijuana Enforcement Division reached out to licensed businesses and said if we were involved in any consumption events, we could potentially lose our license. So that scared away the social consumption aspects of these cannabis events, which obviously makes them more enjoyable. We only go to those events for one reason, and it's not for a T-shirt.

Those Cannabis Cups and dab lines were some wild times at the Denver Mart. Do you think that's what Denver should be trying to re-create?

There's definitely a middle ground here. We have a responsibility as providers of cannabis concentrates, especially in a social consumption setting, to educate. You can't give someone a huge dab on their first time. You need to to introduce them in a way that makes them enjoy it. People throwing these events have a responsibility to do it in a way to make it safer for everyone. Part of that is not allowing for over-consumption, just like running a bar. And now, with COVID playing a factor, we need to get even smarter — things like not sharing the same pieces, and using more of those little silicone mouthpieces that allow people to share bongs without cross-contaminating. It shouldn't go back to the days of one-gram dabs, but social consumption has a place in Colorado. I still feel like we're the number-one spot for cannabis tourism, but we're losing that lead a little.

Brent McDonald's 4/20 experiences span from Colorado Springs to Oklahoma City, with plenty of time in Denver in between.
Brent McDonald's 4/20 experiences span from Colorado Springs to Oklahoma City, with plenty of time in Denver in between.
Courtesy of Brent McDonald

There is a potential for revival, especially with this social consumption law in Colorado. It's over-regulated, but it does allow for some exciting things in the future. I can see something like a dispensary with social consumption being incredible for tourism.

A lot of the industry is trying to distance itself from stoner culture outside of 4/20, but this is still such a big day for sales. How do you approach it?

It's a huge day for us. We plan months ahead to ensure that we're prepared for it. Some dispensaries shy away from it and don't want to run a sale when everyone else is. It's such a busy day for everybody, though, and it's something we need to focus on, because 4/20 is still extremely important to our culture, and I'm always the guy pushing for more events and more things going on in Colorado. But I'm just not seeing that right now. In Oklahoma, it's full-steam ahead with cannabis events. We've got Chronic Palooza coming up, and they're expecting 25,000-plus people to show up.

Does Denver need to do something to get that gusto back on 4/20 after the pandemic is over?

Yes, 100 percent. It needs to relax its social consumption laws. There aren't any businesses willing to take a shot at it right now. We've seen a couple sad attempts, but it's tough for any business to truly make money right now. That also makes it harder for anyone to invest in it. It just doesn't make any sense in the Denver area right now.

I think the public is always excited and looking for events, but the overregulation has muzzled that. If we had some very large 4/20 event during a more normal time, we'd see a huge turnout. We still see that at Civic Center every year when the pandemic isn't going on. I think the public is hungrier than ever for this. It's not going to happen this year, but maybe we'll see something going on in July for 7/10. That will probably be under the private, invite-only model.

Where would you rank 4/20 in terms of holiday action?

I would say it's utmost important — the busiest holiday, by far. For us, 7/10 kind of rivals that, but that's because we really blow it up, and people know that we focus on concentrates.

I think we'll still have lots of tourists in town from other states. Maybe there's not a lot of events going on, but they still want to hang out with their friends in Denver and smoke really good Colorado weed and concentrates. It being on a Tuesday makes it a little more awkward, though, so all the big sales will be starting the weekend before.

Your roots go back to Colorado Springs. How much have you seen 4/20 down there?

The scene has died down a little bit there. The city clamped down on the social consumption clubs. At one point, there were more than eight of them throughout the city. They had these speakeasy vibes to them, and there was a real sense of community. Now there are only two still open, and that vibe is kind of gone. There's not many events going on in Colorado Springs currently. It being medical-only adds another difficult factor to that. If Colorado Springs went recreational, there'd be a booming social consumption scene, but staying medical keeps that at a standstill.

Do you still see the political connection to 4/20?

I don't see it as much. Maybe it's because I'm not in Denver, but I don't see much of a political side anymore. We definitely see some scary bills that politicians are trying to push through in Colorado, so there's still a sense of that there, and how we push back. But I don't see that attached to 4/20 as much anymore. It's more of a recreational cannabis celebration than it is a legalization push.

Read the other four installments in this series:

"Burning Question: Where Does 4/20 Go From Here?"
"Diving Into Denver's Early Connections With 4/20"
"Are the 4/20 Rally's Grassroots Coming Back?"
"From a Face in the Crowd to a Cannabis Career"

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