4/20 at CU-Boulder: Is it dead yet?

Yesterday, CU-Boulder Police spokesman Ryan Huff called 4/20 on the campus, which was closed for the second consecutive year, a "non-event," and the description is apt. As a huge crowd gathered at Denver's Civic Center Park for a rally marred by a shooting, CU-Boulder, which once drew 10,000-revelers-plus on 4/20, saw zero protests or arrests and just two pot citations.

But the university's official spokesman isn't ready to declare the event dead yet.


"The nothing that was going on was just the regular something that happens on a springtime Saturday," says CU-Boulder's Bronson Hilliard (disclosure: a longtime friend of yours truly). "People were going in and out of the library and there was the normal amount of foot traffic in and out of area buildings on the quad" -- meaning Norlin Quad, the traditional home of the 4/20 event. In addition, he goes on, "we had some recreational things going on in the rec center, some cheerleader tryouts in the Coors Events Center -- and it all came off without incident."

This normalcy didn't come cheap. Five law-enforcement agencies assisted the CU-Boulder Police Department in making certain that only authorized students, staffers or visitors had access to the campus grounds. And while total costs for these efforts won't be determined for between four and eight weeks, the effort was similar to the one last year, when the price tag was a little under $125,000.

Is the university ready to spend a similar amount to close the campus next year, too, even though this year's shutdown prompted no demonstrations and April 20 of 2014 falls on Easter Sunday? At this point, Hilliard is noncommittal -- and he declines to read the event its last rites.

"All we can say with certainty is that it was dead this year," he points out. "We don't know what next year is going to hold. We don't know what movements there might be to return the event to the campus, and we certainly need to debrief. So we'll be sitting down in the coming days -- looking at the results of this year and do an initial calculus on next year. And that could take some time."

After all, he continues, "there are lots of things that can change quickly in the digital age. It doesn't take much to start up a crowd, whether it's a small flash mob or a larger crowd. Social media can form a crowd very quickly."

If another closure is announced, does Hilliard anticipate complaints about the six-figure expense?

"Some might be tempted to make that argument," he concedes, "but there are counter-arguments."

Continue for more about 4/20 at CU-Boulder. In Hilliard's view, it would have been fiscally irresponsible "to have continued to have let the crowd get bigger and bigger on the campus grounds, to risk a lawsuit from an injury that could have been in the millions, to continue to spend what we were spending to accommodate that crowd, which was in the $50,000 to $60,000 range and would probably have grown as the crowd grew."

In addition, he goes on, the money for the closure "comes from insurance rebates to the campus, so no one's tuition goes up as a result of it. It's in the campus safety budget, and it would have been reinvested in the safety mission of the campus anyway; it's not money we would spend on academics. And strictly speaking, if we have to spend that kind of money in the future -- if it's deemed necessary -- we're able to do it if it means the event stays off-campus for some time to come. So there are lots of things to think about as we move into next year. And I don't have a sense of what direction we'll go in."

Did the gunshot wounds suffered by three attendees of the Denver rally offer more reasons why CU needs to take whatever measures it can to make sure the 4/20 event never returns to campus? After expressing sympathy for the victims of the shooting, Hilliard notes that the university has long said "a crowd of ten-to-twelve thousand people in a confined space is not conducive to safety, and all kinds of things can happen -- and that was certainly demonstrated in Denver. When you get a large, mixed crowd like that, the assumption that everyone who is there has good intentions is just that -- an assumption.

"We've been more concerned about someone being hit by a car crossing Broadway, or someone falling out of a tree, or someone stoned or drunk slipping and falling down some stairs. But within any population of people, there are some bad eggs, and given the right set of circumstances, bad things can happen. And it's very, very unfortunate that they happened in Denver."

In contrast, CU-Boulder made news on Saturday for making no news at all.

Continue to see images of 4/20 at CU-Boulder last year by photographer Britt Chester. Continue to see more of Britt Chester's photos from 4/20 at CU-Boulder last year. Continue to see more of Britt Chester's photos from 4/20 at CU-Boulder last year.

More from our Education archive: "4/20 at CU-Boulder: Rob Corry explains why he won't challenge campus closure."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts