4/20 at CU-Boulder: University expects quiet day but will be ready for anything

Earlier this week, we chatted with CU-Boulder Police's Ryan Huff about the school's preparations to close campus on 4/20 for the second consecutive year. He said many of the 100 or so people who'd requested visitor passes for tomorrow seemed more focused on attending tonight's Macklemore concert than protesting the university's actions. CU-Boulder spokesman Bronson Hilliard agrees that criticism has been muted thus far. But even though the school expects a quiet day tomorrow, personnel will be ready just in case problems erupt.

"I think we've only gotten about thirty e-mails to the chancellor's office" complaining about the closure decision, says Hilliard (disclosure: a longtime friend of yours truly). "And by the time the announcement had gone out last year, I'm pretty certain the e-mail response had been in the hundreds."

To what does Hilliard attribute the griping shrinkage? "I think people recognize that we won a court case last year that basically said there is no unbridled, unlimited First Amendment right to go onto a college campus and smoke pot. The university has a right to manage its physical grounds around its mission, which is research and teaching."

Another possible factor, he adds, "might be the bigness of what's going to be happening in Denver -- two days of events, plus the Red Rocks show, plus the Snoop Lion show, plus all the other things in Denver. It seems to be shaping up to be a festival atmosphere, and I think that's going to draw a lot of people" who might have otherwise stayed in Boulder.

Thus far, Hilliard says CU officials "haven't seen anything that would indicate a large-scale protest" against the university. "There have been a few Facebook sites where somebody will post, 'Let's reclaim the campus,' but then no one posts underneath it, or it only gets fifteen or sixteen likes. So we're not seeing anything that looks like an organized effort.

"That doesn't mean there won't be one," he hastens to add. "One thing about the current digital environment is that protests and demonstrations and flash mobs and things like that can be organized on fairly short notice, and we're aware of that."

Even if the day goes as smoothly as anticipated, Hilliard emphasizes that afterward, "we'll do what we have done following 4/20 every year, which is convene as an administration and look at what worked and what didn't work, and talk about the process for next year -- look at the landscape and see what special conditions there might be for next year."

The most obvious example of the latter? April 20 will fall on a Sunday, when a closure might be expected to cause even less of a fuss than Saturday, as is the case this year. Still, Hilliard says, "there's no way to automatically read what that means. We need to go through the same process we always do to see what this gathering means to various organizations and what direction those groups are moving in -- take it on a year-by-year basis."

Continue for more about 4/20 at CU-Boulder, including photos from last year's event. Until last year, CU-Boulder tried assorted smaller measures in an effort to shrink 4/20 before resorting to a closure -- a controversial action that unleashed accusations of fascism by some critics. If the closure does the trick again, will administrators wonder why they waited so long to take stronger action?

"The only backward-looking people at a college campus these days are in the history department," Hilliard maintains. "You're right to note that we tried various things, but what really motivated the decision [to close campus] was what happened in 2011, when we felt we'd reached the maximum ability of the campus to keep enduring 10,000 to 12,000 people gathering in the quad. There was a critical groundswell of input from the faculty saying, 'We don't want this here.'

"I remember standing and watching with [then]-vice chancellor Frank Bruno and a guy climbed one of the cottonwood trees that line Norlin Quad -- they're eighty to 100 feet tall. And an EMT guy said, 'If that person had fallen into the crowd, I'm not sure we would have been able to wade through them and get him medical care in time to save his life.' And there was this realization that it had gotten too big, and it was potentially dangerous in terms of the size of the crowd in a relatively small space. It was really a turning point."

Now, he feels external events are contributing to make the CU-Boulder 4/20 event obsolete.

"Supporters of marijuana legalization won a ballot election with Amendment 64," he points out, "and now, the challenges that have come about as a result are how state and municipal governments are going to deal with marijuana. So, to an extent, the environment has changed, and I'm hoping people will recognize not only that they've gotten most of what they wanted, but that a college campus isn't the place to make a statement about what they want from here on out. The laws are made by either city or state government, and Civic Center Park sits in the shadow of both.

"I'm also hoping people will at some point this year take us at face value when we say, 'For us, this isn't about drugs, drug policy, drug use.' We don't make those laws. The university was a site of convenience for the 4/20 rally, but now, Denver has become the place to go for this."

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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