4/20 in Denver speaker, NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre, says Colorado has no peer when it comes to accepting cannabis

As the executive director of NORML, the nation's best-known marijuana-reform advocacy organization, Allen St. Pierre could spend 4/20 anywhere in the U.S. So why's he coming to Denver for next week's spectacle at Civic Center Park? Two main reasons:

"This is the biggest political rally being done under the guise of 4/20," St. Pierre says from NORML's Washington, D.C. offices. "And it is being held in the part of the country that has no peer when it comes to the acceptance of medical cannabis and, I think, cannabis as a whole."

St. Pierre, who's slated to give the "invocation" for the rally at 2:55 p.m. on the 20th (click here for a full schedule), is no stranger to 4/20 in Colorado.

"Last year, I was at the rather organic and non-political rally in Boulder, which is more like an orgasm of cannabis consumption," he says. "But I was very impressed by the number of people who came out in Denver for a more political rally populated more by tax-paying adults than by stoned college students."

Not that St. Pierre looks down on the latter. "We love them both," he emphasizes. But he believes that more Americans than ever are willing to entertain the idea of legalizing marijuana, and in many ways, he sees Colorado as ground zero for that effort.

This may come as a surprise to many marijuana-scene observers -- particularly those on the left coast. After all, a cannabis-legalization initiative will be on the California ballot this November.

As for Colorado, two ballot measures could pop up -- one assembled by Sensible Colorado's Brian Vicente that would focus on medical marijuana, and a measure put together by SAFER's Mason Tvert concerning wide-ranging legalization. But Vicente says he will only file if the state legislature's bill to regulate the medical marijuana industry is unacceptable, while Tvert has characterized his paperwork to date as "precautionary."

Would St. Pierre urge Vicente and/or Tvert to move forward? "It's always best to let locals decide their own political fate," he says -- but he adds, "2012 is going to be a very momentous year for marijuana legalization efforts as a whole whether or not California passes their legalization initiative this year or not -- and I would say it's a wobbler right now."

If the California measure fails, however, "it will absolutely get on the ballot in 2012," he continues. "And at that juncture, there should be a couple of other states that will have marijuana legalization measures in front of them."

He includes Colorado among that number.

"Colorado has already vetted this issue more than most states have, not only by passing an amendment about medical marijuana [in 2000], but also with the statewide initiative a few years ago" -- a reference to a 2006 amendment supported by Vicente, Tvert and other advocates. That proposal "would have decriminalized cannabis," St. Pierre notes. "It didn't legalize it, but it so de-emphasized it that it was hard to imagine that law enforcement would have made it any kind of priority."

The 2006 amendment failed by a 60/40 margin -- but opinions about cannabis in Colorado and beyond have shifted significantly since then, St. Pierre believes.

"It stands to reason that Colorado will probably be ahead of the rest of the nation in the per capita percentage increase in those who favor marijuana legalization," he says. "The country's right now at around 44 percent, and Colorado is probably around 50-52 percent. We don't usually like to launch before we reach the 58th percentile, but Colorado is definitely in play in so many respects. And as politically vetted as cannabis is in California, there's no singular place there where you can capture the full attention of the state -- and the state's media -- as you can in Denver."

In St. Pierre's view, the growing acceptance of marijuana legalization, at least from a conceptual standpoint, is generational in nature.

"We've been able to track changes over the past forty years through focus groups and polling groups and surveys," he allows. "Traditionally, 18-to-25-year olds have been in favor of legalization. But now, as the baby-boomer generation takes the reins of governmental power, there's been a shift in other demographics.

"Look at the people who are working on this issue in Colorado -- Mr. Romer and company. They're baby boomers. Their fathers and grandfathers weren't willing to address this issue, but they are. And that same kind of change has taken place in the media and academia. Twenty years ago, I can't imagine CU-Boulder allowing the amazing twenty-minute orgy of marijuana smoking that took place on 4/20 a year ago, but the baby boomers who are running the university today allowed it because back then, a lot of them would have been in that crowd themselves."

The invocation St. Pierre is set to deliver next week will be more of "a rant" than a speech, he jokes -- "but it will certainly be a two-fold message. One will be a major congratulations to everyone there who has advanced this issue so quickly and so affirmatively on the Front Range of Colorado. The idea that a cannabis expo a week or so ago recently displaced the Great American Beer Festival -- well, if that doesn't speak to the changes afoot, I don't know what does. But it also serves to remind individuals as they go into their ganja eateries and the hundreds and hundreds of dispensaries to get their clones, their brownies and their pipes that this country is still wrapped up in the extremes of marijuana prohibition.

"Every 37 seconds, somebody is arrested for cannabis in the United States -- 850,000 to 870,000 people based on last year's figures, with 90 percent of them being arrested for simple possession. And at the federal level, we're spending $10-$12 billion a year arresting people, trying people, imprisoning people, propagandizing against marijuana and trying to interdict cannabis when that method has pretty self-evidently failed.

"So while the people at the rally are enjoying the freedoms they've voted on and are vigilant to maintain through their advocacy and political support, I want to remind them that in other places, people are having their children taken away, students are losing their loans, people are being denied their drivers licenses. Here in D.C., security clearances galore are being denied, and you can have your home seized. For the four or five cannabis plants somebody in Colorado is growing in their closet that make them feel independent and increases their well being, those same plants somewhere else can literally destroy another person's life at an enormous cost to tax payers.

"And the political whims in this country can change very quickly. I'll remind them that while Mr. Obama and company have taken their hands off the scale, no federal laws have been changed, and if the next election brings us a social conservative, and the congresses and state houses move in that direction, all these gains will be arrested and retarded immediately. They need to realize that they really need to institutionalize and codify these changes into law, so they're defensible against an otherwise encroaching federal government. Metaphorically, they cannot whistle by the graveyard."

Not even on 4/20.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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