A new 420 meaning: time for pro-marijuana forces to get serious

In the past, the meaning of 420 – April 20, 'National Weed Day' – has been clear: 'Have a great time.' But this year, with the pro-marijuana movement making headway in several states, some 420 rallies are taking on a more serious goal: advocacy and education.

Steve DeAngelo tends to marijuana plants at Harborside Health Center in Oakland, Calif., which is billed as the largest medical marijuana dispensary in the world. With California set to vote on legalizing marijuana for recreational use – and other states close to following suit – some advocates are trying to change the meaning of 420, 'National Weed Day' to something more serious.

The live music at the pro-marijuana 420 Rally in Denver was, perhaps, not much a surprise – with acts such as Tha Docta, Juba Juba, and Hypnautic on the playbill.

But the meaning of Denver's 420 event was calculated for a purpose beyond the “get high and party” occasion that "National Weed Day" – April 20 – has traditionally been.

Speakers included a former judge, who is now the speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), as well as Warren Edson, author of a legislative amendment regarding marijuana use. Moreover, the event was to be conducted as a formal public assembly, with a benediction, keynote speaker, and closing.

The push to legalize marijuana is gaining steam, with California voting in November on a measure that would be the nation's first to approve the plant for recreational use, and Oregon and Washington State are attempting to qualify initiatives.

It is becoming a pivotal moment in the countrywide acceptance of marijuana use, say both supporters and detractors, and many pro-marijuana advocates are hoping that 420 can become a moment of more serious public advocacy and education.

“This is usually a moment that marijuana users treat like a national holiday – where they can come out of the closet, stop hiding, and have a great time,” says Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “This year, they are trying to harness the event to win the hearts and minds of Americans to advance the cause of legalization for both recreational and medical reasons.”

Trying to change the marijuana stigma

Even though polls show that 80 percent of Americans support the idea of marijuana for medical uses, public officials are reluctant to shepherd marijuana legislation for fear of being called “soft on drugs” by political opponents, says Mr. Stroup.

These 420 events, if held properly, can help further the cause by legitimizing the movement, he says.

To that end, a 30-member “Green Team” will wear green shirts and carry green trash bags to clean up during the festivities in Denver. Kayvan Khalatbari, the owner of a marijuana dispensary told the Daily Denver News that “they are making it known that it’s not just stoners and kids that are using marijuana.”

Anti-marijuana groups say the change in tone doesn't change the facts.

“It’s hard to legitimate something that is illegitimate,” says Calvina Faye, Executive Director Drug Free America Foundation. Her organization has joined others, such as Nip It In the Bud 2010, to counter pro-marijuana messages.

“Getting together to get high and dance obscures the fact that this is a very serious issue with serious consequences, in which lives are destroyed and people are killed on highways because of it,” she says. “That is not a lighthearted thing.”

She points out that, no matter what medical marijuana advocates say, the US Food and Drug Administration has said that smoking marijuana is not a safe delivery system for the substance THC, which eases the pain of patients, according to medical research.

Legitimate medical use?

Marijuana use – now legal medically in 13 states – was sold to the public as a substance to ease the severe pain of certain severe illnesses, Ms. Faye says, but statistics show that 90 percent of those who use it do so for minor reasons such as insomnia, arthritis, and back- and headaches.

“You don’t take a legitimate medication, roll it up in paper, and smoke it,” she says. “That’s not modern science.”

Stroup and other pro-marijuana advocates suggest that the public acceptance of marijuana use has increased as the baby boomer generation – much of which experimented with marijuana in college – has grown up.

“They’ve realized it’s not the evil weed they were told about in the movie, “Reefer Madness,” Stroup says.

Another selling point has become the need for public funds. Taxing and regulating marijuana would bring an estimated $4 billion to California state coffers annually, he says. And no longer having to pay the costs of arresting, trying, and jailing pot users will save millions.

“The biggest argument opponents throw at us is that marijuana is a gateway drug to worse things,” he says.

“But 9 of 10 marijuana users don’t use anything else," he adds. "And no one blames alcohol and smoking for leading to marijuana use.”

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