of Liberalized Marijuana Laws
By JESSE McKINLEY
Photograph – Matthew Staver
Antidrug groups have lambasted 4/20 celebrations as gateway events to illegal drug use, but enthusiasts celebrated their high holiday on Friday in all the traditional ways.
Despite a buzz-killing backdrop of federal raids and local crackdowns, marijuana fans celebrated their high holiday on Friday in all the traditional ways: smoking, speaking out and — no doubt — snacking.
Known as 4/20, the annual April 20th pot party has been celebrated for decades at lazy, hazy rock shows, pungent backyard barbecues and untold numbers of air freshener-challenged dorm rooms. But this year, 4/20 comes at a time both pleasant and paranoia-inducing in the pro-marijuana movement, a good-news, bad-news mindbender that mirrors some people’s experience of being on the drug.
On one hand, see, sometimes it seems as if the American people want to embrace marijuana, with some polls suggesting a growing acceptance of the drug’s use — medically and otherwise — and voters in Colorado and Washington scheduled to vote on legalization in the fall. All of which could be really cool, supporters say.
Unless, of course, it’s not. Antidrug groups have lambasted 4/20 as a gateway event to illegal drug use, and several declared Friday as a day to “Take Back 4/20,” which has its roots in a foggy 1970s ritual involving a group of Northern California teenagers who liked to smoke marijuana at 4:20 p.m.
Opponents have also lately been cheered by an increased enforcement effort by federal officials, who still view marijuana as illegal despite more than a dozen states allowing medical use of the drug.
Nowhere has that pushback been stronger than in Oakland, Calif., where federal drug agents recently raided Oaksterdam University, a cannabis industry training school that had been at the forefront of failed ballot effort in 2010 to legalize in California. Earlier this week, its founder, Richard Lee, announced his retirement, and officials say they are “on life support.”
Still, on Friday, many there were also on something else.
“Today is like being Irish on St. Patrick’s Day,” said Wade O’Connor, an activist and Oaksterdam alumnus who took ample tokes from a blown-glass pipe in the school’s student union.
At the University of Colorado, Boulder, which boasts one of the largest pro-marijuana celebrations in the country, school officials decided to close the campus to outsiders for the day, amid concerns that 4/20 crowds — which have numbered in the thousands in the past — would get disruptive.
“We’ve had complaints from people with respiratory issues, pregnant women, students who are simply trying to get to class, faculty who are trying to teach,” said Bronson Hilliard, a university spokesman.
Going one step further, officials also decided to coat the Norlin Quad on Friday, where 4/20 gatherings have unfolded in the past, with a fish-based fertilizer, resulting in a briny stench. All of which had seemingly had a deterrent effect on students like Tom Ronat, though a handful were arrested for crossing roped-off areas.
“It just seems way too extreme,” Mr. Ronat said.
Like all holidays, 4/20 has taken on a distinctly commercial feel in some quarters. Concerts by pot-friendly musicians like Willie Nelson and the group Cypress Hill were planned for April 20, as was the opening of a documentary on Bob Marley, considered a patron saint of cannabis aficionados. At Harborside Health Center in Oakland, a popular marijuana dispensary, salespeople were offering deals on ounces of the drug, as well as free mugs and T-shirts for buyers.
Others had brought their own costumes. Steve DeAngelo, the dispensary’s founder and executive director, said he dressed as a sailor for the holiday because “we’re sailing through troubled waters,” adding that recent federal raids had transformed “a day of celebration into a day of resistance.”
For all that bummed-out rhetoric, Stephen Gutwillig, the deputy executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which lobbies for more liberal drug laws, said they would eventually carry the day, especially as younger voters make their voices heard.
“That’s what’s taking more and more people into the streets every 4/20,” he said.
Which is just fine by David Evans, a special adviser to the Drug Free America Foundation, which opposes legalization.
“If a bunch of dopers want to sit around getting high, that’s fine,” Mr. Evans said. “It only makes our case that that is what it’s all about.”
That said, groups in favor of legalization seem to have made strides over the years in distancing themselves from the movement’s sometimes grungy past. In Richmond, Va., for example, about 300 people came to the city’s Monroe Park for a rally organized by a local chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. And while there was a fair share of sandals and shorts, the event also attracted people like Kirby Myers, a contractor for the Federal Aviation Administration and one of many gray-haired attendees.
He drove about 95 miles from his home in Springfield, Va., because he believes “the drug war is a misguided program and an inappropriate use of taxpayers’ money.”
But would he partake?
“I’m a beer drinker,” he said.
Lisa A. Bacon, Dan Frosch and Carol Pogash contributed reporting.