Hundreds of thousands of marijuana fans took to America's parks, squares, and campus quads to peacefully celebrate 4/20 last Sunday, the first such stoner holiday since recreational sales of pot began in Colorado on January 1. Dressed in pot-themed clothing and sporting plenty of sunscreen, cannabis aficionados lit up responsibly in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, Denver's downtown Civic Center, as well as at UC Berkeley's Memorial Glade and Oaksterdam's Student Union.
Originating in the North Bay a generation ago, "420" started out as a code for the time to go smoke weed. But this year presented an opportunity to heal the black eyes from 2013's 4/20 celebrations, in which one person opened fire at a Denver rally and visitors trashed Golden Gate Park.
Since marijuana remains a federally illegal drug, San Francisco and other cities in the state cannot issue official permits for 4/20 events, and there were no official organizers to hire security, rent toilets, or assign staff to pick up litter in the city last year. About 15,000 visitors from across the region and country snarled traffic near Golden Gate Park's Hippie Hill in 2013, leaving behind about 10,000 pounds of trash and creating at least $10,000 worth of cleanup.
This year, the City of San Francisco closed Haight Street and two other streets to mitigate traffic, and San Francisco dispensary The Green Cross hired 35 people at $20 per hour to pick up litter during and after the event. "If everyone would just be cool, it would be cool," said San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr at an April 16 press conference announcing heightened city efforts to control the weekend gathering.
By all appearances, everyone seemed cool, and it was astonishing to see the multitudes throw their own ad hoc, pot-focused festival. Vendors arrived at 9 a.m. and set up tables and canopies to sell bongs, brownies, beanies, grilled hot dogs, and water. Several entertainment stations blasted hip-hop and rap through the scenic Sharon Meadow all day.
The crowd was remarkably well behaved for how big it was. Thousands of event-goers ambled around shoulder-to-shoulder drinking in the sights, sounds, and smells. Picnickers basked in the sun on blankets or napped in tents amid the revelry.
At 4:20 p.m., the crowd roared and put up their hands, clutching lit joints and sending a white, psychoactive fog east toward Haight — the epicenter of a counterculture movement that first proposed pot legalization back in the Sixties.
Police presence seemed minimal on Sunday; we spotted zero uniformed officers in the throngs during the afternoon. Plainclothes officers were no doubt circulating, and federal park rangers held positions on the periphery.
With estimates placing Sunday's crowd as the annual celebration's biggest yet, SFPD Public Information Officer Albie Esparza said police arrested ten people Sunday: two for possession of a firearm; four for sales of marijuana; one for possession of opiates; as well as one person for malicious mischief and "various other things."
"As far as the event goes, we're glad that there wasn't any serious violence," Esparza said.
"People were pretty damn chill," said Kevin Reed, operator of The Green Cross dispensary. "That's what marijuana does to you — you just chill."
Green Cross volunteers filled 350 bags of garbage by 7 p.m. Sunday, and San Francisco Department of Public Works staff finished cleanup Monday morning. San Francisco's relaxed vibe contrasted sharply with Denver's Civic Center, where police erected a 30-foot-tall watchtower for the weekend.
After last year's gun incident, the city permitted organizers, security checkpoints, pat-downs, and bag checks this year. Police issued 47 tickets for public smoking, and arrested or cited 16 more people on related or other charges. High Times magazine threw a sold-out Cannabis Cup event, and Colorado's Red Rocks music venue hosted weed rap gods Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa.
All across the Bay Area, licensed medical pot dispensaries rang in the holiday with sales and promotions. Harborside Health Center in Oakland offered about 50 percent off regular prices on select items and Oakland Organics in downtown hosted a "High Art" contest as well as entertainment in the parking lot from The Coup's Pam the Funkstress. Students of the pot college Oaksterdam threw a moving party for their Student Union. San Jose again hosted thousands at HempCon, while The 420 Festival went down in the battleground of San Bernardino.
The war on weed seemed all but over in America on Sunday, as licensed Colorado stores reported selling $50 million worth of weed in January and crime rates fell across the board in Denver. The State of Washington will license its first cannabis shops this July and US Attorney General Eric Holder said last week at a public event that he was "cautiously optimistic" about the trend. Last week, Maryland became the 21st state to enact medical marijuana legislation and the 18th to decriminalize weed.
In California, arrests for marijuana remain at historic lows after then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger — facing the threat of legalization under Proposition 19 — signed state Senator Mark Leno's pot decriminalization bill in 2010. As a result, misdemeanor marijuana arrests plummeted from 54,829 in 2010, to 7,768 in 2012.
The war may be ending, but the battles rage on. About 750,000 Americans will be arrested this year in what the Associated Press calls a 44-year-old, trillion-dollar failed war on drugs. For example, activists report a Louisiana judge sentenced a 48 year-old New Orleans man this April to thirteen years in prison for possessing two joints.
And in Sacramento County, law enforcement groups are lobbying this spring for a total ban on the growing of even a single pot plant for medicinal use.