Pot Activists, Attorneys and Politicians Look at Past and Future of 4/20 in Denver

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There are many different versions of how 4/20 originated, but one thing is clear: Denver’s gathering on April 20 has become the nation’s largest pot party.

The celebration got started in the early 1990s, when a loud, brash activist named Ken Gorman smoked a joint on the steps of the State Capitol. Gorman had become an activist after reading cannabis legend Jack Herer’s book, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, and he starting holding monthly smoke-ins at the Capitol on the last Saturday of every month — a tradition that lasted for more than ten years. Sometimes it was just Gorman and a few others, sometimes the event drew large crowds. But they fired up not at 4:20 — that trend hadn’t caught on yet — but at “high noon.”

As the popularity of 4/20 became more widespread, April 20 gradually became a focal point of cannabis culture nationwide. In Denver in the early 2000s, the annual observation merged with Gorman’s smoke-out. And while college towns across America saw it as a day to get high as a kite (especially in Boulder, where a massive pot tradition of taking over Norlin Quad began about the same time), Denver activists considered it a time to protest publicly about the injustices connected to the War on Drugs. They regarded these as political events, complete with speeches, rallying cries and, yes, the civil disobedience of using cannabis in public.

Anyone who’s been to a 4/20 rally at Civic Center Park lately realizes that there’s not much politicking going on these days — just a lot of bong hits, concerts and pot parties. A Westword writer at the 2009 event reported that any activism had been lost in the party atmosphere: “What I didn’t see was anything resembling a clear message — a focused intensity on one shared purpose and the practical, determined vision of how and why we needed to attain it.”

And that party kept growing. As many as 15,000 people showed up in Civic Center in 2011 to puff tough in public. Organizer Miguel Lopez, who took over as organizer after Gorman was murdered in 2007 (his killing remains unsolved), continued to book music and other entertainment that washed out any speeches. Then High Times added its Cannabis Cup to the 4/20 weekend mix — solidifying Colorado’s reputation as the place for people from across the country to come smoke pot in peace. That became official in November 2012 with the passage of Amendment 64.

By April 2013, April 20 had become the center of the stoner’s calendar year, and everyone was looking to Colorado, the first state to “legalize it,” as the center of the action. And Civic Center didn’t disappoint: Organizers planned a massive event with booths set up for vendors throughout the park, and tens of thousands showed up for the fun. But not long after 4:20 p.m., shots rang out in the park, and what had been a peaceful pot party instantly became the focus of scrutiny across the country. It had grown too big too fast. The potheads talking politics had been taken over by the party — and the party had gotten out of hand.

Last year the increase in security bordered on overbearing. Cops patrolled the crowds; fences kept everyone inside the park for the first time; and pat-downs were required to get inside the venue. Inside, it was just another People’s Fair or Taste of Colorado — with many of the same vendors that set up shop at those events on hand to sell their wares to stoners. The music overtook the activism completely, with rap artist B.O.B. headlining the main stage while speakers in the Greek Amphitheater tried (and largely failed) to be heard over the P.A. system and crowd. National news crews were everywhere, recording reels of shots of people getting high but none of anyone saying or doing anything meaningful. It was like reporting on Times Square at New Year’s, or downtown Boston on St. Patrick’s Day. It was no longer a rally. As we summed it up: “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.”

And what should it be? We asked pot proponents, politicians and others around Denver for their thoughts regarding the future of 4/20 — and their favorite memory of a past event.

Jessica LeRoux (activist)

Now that Amendment 64 has passed, how do you think 4/20 should be observed?

While it is a holiday, I would hate to see the newbies party so hearty that they forget all the millions of drug warriors who made the party legal through fighting incarceration — or, worse yet, the good folks who are still serving drug-war sentences handed down decades ago…. I’d like to see at least some discussion, activism and demonstrations about amnesty for those in jail solely on cannabis charges.

I used to go to the Capitol with Ken [Gorman], when the event was still kind of small, but the commercialized current event is a turn-off to me as an adult (musically, all the kids, and the greed-based rhetoric of the speakers). I think perhaps it may be time for the pendulum to swing back to a more respectful celebration. After all, the best cannabis is about mature females, not some dab-whore derby.

What is your most vivid memory of a 4/20 event?

I’ve been to dozens of great 4/20 events all around the country, from Humboldt to Chicago; probably my favorite was in San Francisco’s civic center in 2007. It is handy that the biggest party in the country — the High Times Cannabis Cup — now comes to me so I don’t have to travel anymore. You can always be sure of running into old activist friends from far-flung places at the Cup. Denver can be proud that we offer a variety of options for visitors of all ages (over 21, of course!).

Mason Tvert (director of communications, Marijuana Policy Project)

Now that Amendment 64 has passed, how do you think 4/20 should be observed?

For many, 4/20 has been the one day each year in which they feel comfortable being open about consuming or discussing marijuana. Now that using marijuana is legal for adults and more widely accepted as just something some adults enjoy doing, much like having a drink, I think it will be viewed more along the lines of a celebration of marijuana, much like beer and wine festivals are celebrations of alcohol. Of course, given the tradition of 4/20 in Colorado and our state’s leading role in reforming marijuana laws, it will also be a celebration of the end of marijuana prohibition.

What is your most vivid memory of a 4/20 event?

I have always been amused by the University of Colorado administration’s follies surrounding 4/20. In their efforts to prevent the university from being associated with the event, they have gone out of their way to turn this one-day event into a months-long, attention-grabbing news story. At some point they will have to accept the fact that this one day of open marijuana use is not even remotely as problematic as the school-sanctioned alcohol use that takes place at any given CU football-game tailgate party.

Warren Edson (attorney)

Now that Amendment 64 has passed, how do you think 4/20 should be observed?

While there have been some tremendous victories, there is still a long way to go, and there are many issues that remain unresolved and problematic. I think, for whatever it’s worth, that 4/20 should be observed as both a recognition of how far we have come, but also an opportunity to inform and educate the public that there continue to be issues, both for the consumer and the businesses, that still need to be addressed if the goal is, as was stated, to regulate cannabis like alcohol.

What is your most vivid memory of a 4/20 event?

I think it was 2000: I had cases set throughout the day in a Denver courtroom that overlooked the park. I spent the day running back and forth between court and Ken Gorman and the rally, with a large part of the day spent watching the event from the magistrate’s chamber.

Charlie Brown (Denver City Councilman)

Now that Amendment 64 has passed, how do you think 4/20 should be observed?

I side with the business folks involved in this new industry: 4/20 should be observed with dignity and respect for all of our laws, especially public consumption.

What is your most vivid memory of a 4/20 event?

The visual TV footage of observers fleeing Civic Center after shots were fired in 2013. We were very fortunate no one was killed.

Kayvan Khalatbari (owner of Denver Relief, at-large Denver City Council candidate)

Now that Amendment 64 has passed, how do you think 4/20 should be observed?

I think it needs to be toned down, matured a bit and moved away from the subculture tone that has persisted here even after legalization. What we have developed here in Colorado is a public, legitimate and legal culture. Period. 4/20 should be a responsible celebration of what we have accomplished and what we have yet to work on, and there is a lot of work to do still. It should exist to educate people about the failures of the drug war and the social, business and policy advancements being made in the cannabis and hemp industries — not to see how big of a joint we can roll or dab we can take. That does nothing for the positive perception of cannabis and is akin to getting hammered on St. Patrick’s Day, without the potential for overdose, of course. I just don’t see the point in being so egregious with all of it. We still need to fight for extended operating hours for dispensaries and the right to legally consume cannabis in a public establishment or space.

Perpetuating stereotypes isn’t going to make that progress happen, but responsible advocacy will. I think we’re starting to see so many more positive events come online every year, but I’ll be happy when celebrating cannabis doesn’t involve sexualizing women or dabbing yourself into unconsciousness.

What is your most vivid memory of a 4/20 event?

Probably in 2010, when we did our first Denver Relief Green Team trash cleanup event at the Civic Center Park rally. We always viewed the rally as something of a detriment to the progress of the cannabis industry and wanted to do what we could, with the help of other similarly minded cannabis businesses, to counteract that. So we went down there with a couple dozen volunteers from these various businesses and some biodegradable trash bags and picked up trash all day that was being thrown on the ground by attendees. We did this for three more years, with the group getting larger every year until we had almost fifty volunteers and collected almost 400 bags of trash in 2013.

Unfortunately, last year the sponsor of the rally insisted on its name being the title sponsor of the Green Team or we couldn’t help out, so we declined to participate. As much as I wish some of the subculture and negative stereotypes would subside, I also don’t want this industry to become dominated by greedy corporate entities that try to monetize and market everything, because cannabis is a movement of and for the people.

Larisa Bolivar (director of the Cannabis Consumers Coalition)

Now that Amendment 64 has passed, how do you think 4/20 should be observed?

I would love to see 4/20 celebrated like other special events held in Denver, such as the Taste of Colorado. It would be fantastic if the Denver City Council would permit the event to allow public consumption. I also envision a day when there are bar-like facilities where locals and tourists can go to celebrate, much like St. Patrick’s Day. Cannabis is a revenue windfall, and we should embrace it. Plus, as we all know, it is safer than alcohol, so why wouldn’t we promote events that show pride in the forward thinking of Coloradans? We were the first to legalize recreational use, so we should be setting an example of what a responsible celebration looks like, and I think as a community, we should have a good time doing so.

What is your most vivid memory of a 4/20 event?

Oh, that’s a funny memory! Being kissed by an admirer on the stage of the Denver 4/20 rally.

Rico Colibri Garcia (Cannabis Alliance)

Now that Amendment 64 has passed, how do you think 4/20 should be observed?

I think it should be observed as a licensed event that permits on-premise consumption, much the same way Oktoberfest allows responsible adult alcohol consumption.

I think turning the 4/20 rally into a permitted festival and widening the scope of its focus now that marijuana has been regulated (not legalized) is in order. Denver could benefit from a more adult-oriented event like Seattle Hempfest. But it appears it will be yet another youth-oriented smoking mosh pit with gangsta-rap headliners such as Rick Ross, who’s named after the infamous crack dealer – yet he himself used to be law enforcement.

I find this stagnation in the community a bit disappointing. Cannabis isn’t just for party-goers and twenty-somethings rebelling against the “man.” It’s one of the most significant and arguably most sacred plants in human history. Colorado needs to move past stoner stereotypes and ghetto-weed events. Both the community and, frankly, the plant deserve better. There are plenty of professionals who consume, and an event that welcomes them and their families is long overdue.

What is your most vivid memory of a 4/20 event?

My most vivid 4/20 rally event would probably be the shooting that took place right after I was speaking on stage — another reason these events should be licensed and better controlled. If we regulated marijuana like alcohol, then a marijuana special-event license makes sense.

Laura Kriho (Cannabis Therapy Institute)

Now that Amendment 64 has passed, how do you think 4/20 should be observed?

Contrary to popular belief, marijuana has not been “legalized” in Colorado. A64 did not remove a single Colorado revised statute prohibiting marijuana. You can still lose your job, your children, your house and your freedom for cannabis use. Legalization means repealing the laws prohibiting cannabis. What A64 did was create even more rules regulating cannabis. We went from three pages of marijuana law in Colorado to over 600 pages of cannabis law. Our job of achieving real legalization is not going to be done until all of those pages of law restricting cannabis use are repealed. A64 just made real legalization a lot more difficult.

Under A64, consumption of cannabis in public is still illegal. In the old days of 4/20, you might get busted for possession of less than an ounce, which has been a $100 fine in Colorado for decades. Now you’ll get busted for smoking in public, a $160-plus fine. How is this “legalization”?

The reason behind 4/20 has always been civil disobedience, and that still stands true today. There is just as much reason to get out and smoke in public as there was before — to show the government our numbers, and to feel the strength in our numbers, to come out of the closet for one day and taste the freedom that might come with real legalization.

A64 has only made the job of real cannabis-legalization activists harder, by lulling the public into a false sense of security that cannabis is legal and no one can be harmed by cannabis laws. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The battle to have cannabis treated like it deserves to be treated — as the safest therapeutic substance known to man — continues to this day. We need to repeal cannabis prohibitions, not create new ones. We need to open cannabis up to all adult users, not restrict them. Cannabis commerce should be for all adults, not just for the wealthy cartels that currently control the “legal” cannabis market in Colorado.

We hope that people continue to come out on 4/20 at 4:20 at the Colorado Capitol and once again send a message that we want real legalization for all adults for all uses.

Rob Corry (attorney)

Now that Amendment 64 has passed, how do you think 4/20 should be observed?

4/20 is, and has always been, and always will be, a hybrid political rally and fun celebration. That will never change. 4/20 has become a holiday much like St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo and Independence Day. Cannabis people like to celebrate. And we have made many gains. We have earned the right to celebrate those gains after suffering and bleeding on the battlefield. Freedom is breaking out all over. Colorado’s economy is booming thanks to cannabis, and the antiquated Prohibition Industrial Complex has no real answer, and never has. But your question seems to imply that Amendment 64 somehow changes the nature of the 4/20 rally from a civil-rights/political event. It doesn’t. The struggle continues, as long as the state seeks to use cops, prosecutors, jails and prisons to deal with cannabis, which the state still does. As long as people can lose their kids due to cannabis use. As long as people can be fired from their jobs for cannabis use. As long as the City and County of Denver contends that Amendment 64, somehow, allows police to cite people for actually using cannabis at the Denver 4/20 event, an overtly and unapologetically pro-cannabis event that has existed as such for over a decade.

Amendment 64, though a significant and important step in the right direction, was necessarily imperfect, designed as a moderate measure to capture majority voter approval, but [it] did not “legalize” marijuana. Not even under Colorado state law, and definitely not under federal law. And the state does not even treat marijuana like alcohol, unfortunately. Attorneys from our law firm still go to state courts multiple times a week to defend people charged with marijuana “crimes.” Although our cases are typically resolved in a favorable manner, the fact that there is even a criminal case at all means we have not yet arrived at the end of marijuana prohibition. And the federal U.S. Justice Department is currently actively prosecuting individuals for marijuana-related activity that was legal — and even licensed — under Colorado state law.

So 4/20 should still be observed as a civil-rights/political event, because marijuana prohibition is not over, not even in Colorado, and certainly not in the rest of the world. Unfortunately, some elements of our movement like to claim total “victory” for their own financial purposes. Some elements of the “movement” have left the movement altogether and have joined the state-regulated chorus that there are “good” cannabis farmers and “bad” cannabis farmers, although the cannabis plant remains the same whether it emanates from a government-approved garden or a constitutionally approved garden. Some elements of this industry I helped create now have discovered a newfound support of the use of the criminal-justice system, police, guns, courts, jails and prisons to conveniently eliminate their competition, even though every single one of them commits a knowing federal crime while sanctimoniously singing about their own “ethics.” This “corporate welfare” attitude is selfish, hurts people, and is counterproductive to the long-term viability of this industry.

That said, 4/20 is, and has always has been, a positive celebratory event. That should and will continue. 4/20 is about the cannabis plant, and the people who enjoy it, and the numerous benefits that the plant brings — medically, spiritually, recreationally, industrially and otherwise. For me, 4/20 is about more than that. It is about freedom. It should be observed by people exercising our freedom.
What is your most vivid memory of a 4/20 event?

There are so many memories over the years. My best recurring memory is being on the stage and helping the assembled throng count down the seconds until 4:20 p.m., and looking out to see a massive “cloud of freedom” coalescing over the people pursuing their happiness and exercising their freedom. I wish everyone could see what I see, could feel what I feel, and could smell what I smell in that moment. 

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