Denver 420 celebrates legal pot but not the ban on smoking in public

Denver 420 festival draws a massive crowd amid significant police presence. But critics question what happened to the law's ban on public consumption, which was widely ignored.

Brennan Linsley/AP
Partygoers listen to live music on the second of two days at the annual 420 marijuana festival in Denver, on April 20, 2014. The annual event is the first 420 marijuana celebration since retail marijuana stores began selling in January 2014.

Denver held its first 420 celebration since the sale of recreational marijuana became legal over the weekend, and it was bigger in every way than prior celebrations.

The annual rally – linked to the pot-smokers "holiday" of April 20 – used to be largely a protest against marijuana laws. Now recreational marijuana is legal in Colorado and Washington, but the day is still a day for both political advocacy and a celebration of cannabis for many marijuana users. This year, the 420 celebration took up two days of events and music in Denver's Civic Center park and included tens of thousands of attendees, far more than in prior years.

It also included, as might be expected, a fair amount of public marijuana consumption – a fact some critics are particularly unhappy about, given that under the new Colorado law such public consumption is still illegal, despite being legal in private.

"This is a huge bait and switch for the Colorado voters. We’ve never seen anything like this and we think voters should be outraged," says Rachel O'Bryan, an attorney and member of Smart Colorado, a group that advocates tighter regulation and is concerned with the impact of legalization on youth.

The amendment that was passed, she notes, specifically prohibited open consumption. "Yet we saw marijuana users and folks in the industry openly flouting those laws on Saturday and Sunday. We think getting high is being encouraged and celebrated and glorified. That's the message kids are getting."

Ms. O'Bryan is also concerned about the number of underage people at the festivities and says she hopes that, in the future, the event will be closed to people under 21.

The Denver Police Department did issue nearly 100 marijuana-related citations over the two days of the 420 event, mostly for public consumption, along with 30 other citations for various offenses. But when thousands of people lit up at 4:20 p.m. on Sunday, there was little police could do, says Denver Police spokesman Sonny Jackson.

"Our primary goal was public safety," says Mr. Jackson. "We said officers would exercise discretion as needed, and we did exercise discretion. At 4:20, there was a large group of people who chose to smoke, but overall we think things stayed relatively calm throughout the day. We tried to keep smoking to a minimum, and we cited people when we came upon it."

The number of citations issued was greater than in the past, though Jackson notes that it's hard to compare this year's with prior events, since it was so much bigger in every way. Last year's rally had about 15,000 people (some estimates for this year's are around 80,000), and two people were wounded during a shooting. This year, the Denver police increased their presence significantly, and were particularly alert for driving under the influence of drugs, though Jackson says few tickets were written for the offense.

Before the weekend, the Marijuana Industry Group, which represents the marijuana industry in Colorado and has been an advocate for sound regulation, increased its public education efforts, reminding Coloradans that while pot may now be legal in the state for those over 21, it's still illegal to consume it in public, give it to a minor, drive under the influence, take marijuana out of the state, or sell the drug.

But other legalization advocates say that concerns about the 420 rally – and public consumption being tolerated – are being blown out of proportion by groups like Smart Colorado

Civic Center Plaza "is the same park where we see countless major events that involve beer gardens and copious amounts of alcohol," says Mason Tvert, director of communication for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and a codirector of the campaign that got Colorado’s Amendment 64 passed.

"Every Denver Broncos game involves countless people getting drunk in the parking lot in view of fans of all ages, yet Smart Colorado doesn’t seem to have any concerns about that.... Banning adults from using marijuana virtually anywhere flies in the face of what voters intended."

The annual 420 celebration, says Mr. Tvert, seems to be turning into something akin to the Great American Beer festival – the craft brewing industry's largest beer tasting event, which is held every fall in Denver – or OktoberFest.

But, Tvert says, it still retains some political overtones as debate over marijuana laws and regulation continue both within Colorado and outside the state. Certainly, a current hot topic is how quickly – and where – legalization will spread. Maryland just recently became the 21st state to legalize medical marijuana, and Tvert says that Florida and Minnesota may follow suit this year.

Alaska will have a measure supporting full legalization on the ballot in November, and it's a possible 2014 ballot initiative for both Oregon and the District of Columbia, as well. The MPP is pursuing legalization in another half-dozen states - Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Montana – with an eye to 2016. And still another handful of states may legalize the drug through the legislature rather than ballot initiatives, says Tvert. He expects Rhode Island to be the first to do so, but says it's possible in the next few years in New Hampshire, Vermont, Delaware, Maryland, and Hawaii, as well.

The rollout process in Colorado and Washington – where marijuana has also been legalized and where a lottery is being held this week to issue the first 334 retail licenses – is being watched closely by many of those states to see how well it's succeeding. And, despite the public flouting of public consumption laws this past weekend, Tvert and other advocates say that, on the whole, they believe the regulations are working as intended.

"Coloradans have been buying marijuana every day for the past several decades," says Tvert. "The only difference now is that they’re buying it in licensed stores where the product is being controlled. If you didn't care about using marijuana yourself ... and you came into town, you wouldn't have any idea" about legalization.

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