"I remember when this was, like, a hundred white kids out here smoking weed under the trees here on 4/20 protesting the government. Now look at this. We're waiting in line for twenty minutes just to get patted down by security just to get in the park. This is awesome, man."
The guy behind me in the twenty-minute-plus line to get into Civic Center Park on Sunday summed up my thousands of (hazy) thoughts pretty well. As awesome as it was to see so many people in the park for 4/20, the days of it being an actual rally are gone.
On the way to the event, I walked from Westword's offices, at 10th and Broadway, and headed through the walkway in front of the Denver Art Museum, only to find out there was no entrance just south of the Greek amphitheater anymore. Instead, the entire event was fenced in and people were queued up in two lines, with about 75 people in each one stretching down 14th near the Denver City and County Building. A group of three bicycle cops rode through, keeping any line toking in check.
Inside, the park was packed almost shoulder-to-shoulder, not unlike a day out at a huge music festival. It was a far cry from just five years ago, when the event was a much smaller affair and people mostly just sat in groups and passed pipes in circles. Back then, you could enter the park from any direction, just like any other day. But this year, security staffers blocked off the entire area, as they do for the People's Fair, only with fewer entrances. The idea, I guess, was to enhance safety and crowd control. But my first thought was that if these barriers had been up last year when a shooting took place, a lot more people would have been trampled as they tried to get over the gates.
That's what happens when you get this big, though -- and most people in line were actually in favor of the pat-downs and fences. (Nobody got turned away for having weed on him.) And also like the People's Fair, 14th Street was lined with food stands and people vending tie-dye T-shirts, hammock chairs and other crap you only buy at street fairs. Continue for more about why Denver's 4/20 rally isn't a rally anymore, including more photos.
The police presence was noticeably higher than in the past, both outside and inside the venue. There have always been cops around, sure, but this year, they were actively patrolling through the crowd. Cars were roaming the area, too, and I even spotted a couple of unmarked DPD vehicles during my walk over. Apparently there were 130 citations or arrests, but I'm not sure why or how any one person could have been singled out for toking above anyone else. In fact, that number seems high from my limited vantage point, as most of the cops couldn't have given two shits about the tens of thousands of people getting silly-stoned around them. I didn't see a single police interaction in my more than two hours of meandering around the venue.
But clearly, some people were getting hassled, and though it is illegal to light up in public, the number of tickets and busts can't possibly justify the increased police presence and Easter Sunday overtime.
After making my way through the crowd and checking out the booths selling pot-related products (from year to year, they all seem to look the same), I stopped by the amphitheater to find pot attorney Rob Corry rambling into the microphone as he tried to kill time between 4:05 and 4:20. When I walked up, he was talking about how the bill that he "helped author" (Amendment 64) ended the drug war, and opined how the state still hadn't released people convicted of marijuana crimes in the past. Continue for more about why Denver's 4/20 rally isn't a rally anymore, including more photos.
"We're not yet free," he said. "We're not as free as we should be." He also spoke of 4:20 p.m. as constituting a "minute of freedom" in the park -- all but telling people it was okay to light up at that time. He then noted that doing so was still illegal, but added that his law firm would willingly represent anyone who was arrested.
Corry then complained about the fact that alcohol was being served in the park for the festival but marijuana wasn't. Organizer Miguel Lopez sat nearby, nodding in agreement -- which was mildly ironic considering that Lopez himself signed off on the application allowing alcohol at the event in the first place.
In the larger view, the legal, promoter-sanctioned alcohol sales summed up the 2014 Denver 4/20 rally.
To call the 4/20 event a rally is incorrect at this point, I think. It was a concert. It was a festival. It was a commercial event. But it wasn't a rally. The few hundred people half-listening to people like Rob Corry talk paled in comparison to the tens of thousands who were there to see B.o.B. or simply toke weed with their friends and be a part of the biggest event in the city. In fact, most of the people near the amphitheater during the speeches seemed to be there mainly because the open space was good for hacky-sack. Continue for more about why Denver's 4/20 rally isn't a rally anymore, including more photos.
I'm not trying to be a downer here. It was cool to see so many people smoking cannabis (legally or illegally) and wearing dazed, happy smiles on a beautiful, violence-free Colorado day. Lopez and his fellow promoters should be happy about that. But for them to say the event remains a rally is disingenuous.
They were the ones who signed the alcohol-sales permits -- and I don't think they did so to allow them to make a larger political statement about injustice and hypocrisy. They are the ones making the celebration bigger and increasing the amount of vending and food permits. It was no mistake.
All of that hit me in the two minutes before 4:20, as I walked away from Corry toward the center of the park, where the much larger countdown was going on from the main stage. A CNN reporter about to go live was being mobbed by seven or eight dudes around her. They weren't yelling, "Legalize it!" They weren't demanding national drug law changes. They were just dudes trying to show off their blunts and joints on national cable news. Continue for more about why Denver's 4/20 rally isn't a rally anymore, including more photos.
And that's what 4/20 in Denver is now. It's no longer about politics; it's about a party. It's about the cannabis paraphernalia industry holding court all over town, like a giant, weed-themed South by Southwest festival. (The comparison is appropriate, considering how many old-time Austinites view the now-commercialized SXSW.) But judging by the thousands of people having a good time at Civic Center over the weekend just for the sake of having a good time and enjoying cannabis, that's okay.
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Next year, though, the promoters (and the media reporting it -- including Westword) need to own it. Get more, larger acts. Sell tickets. Take the activism to another day of the year, when it won't be drowned out by the massive party taking place a few hundred yards away. Or better yet, stage an actual political rally on the steps under the Capitol on 4/20, where legislators can hear what's being said over the boom-boom-bap of hip-hop and tens of thousands of partiers across the park.
More from our Marijuana archive: "Photos: High Times 2014 Cannabis Cup winners -- and William Breathes's take."