4/20: International Day of Cannabis Freedom

A giant cloud of cannabis smoke hangs above the Vancouver Art Gallery last 4/20. (Photo by Jeremiah Vandermeer)A giant cloud of cannabis smoke hangs above the Vancouver Art Gallery last 4/20. (Photo by Jeremiah Vandermeer)CANNABIS CULTURE – April 20 is the international day of cannabis freedom: a day of global celebration, a show of appreciation for a truly amazing and versatile plant, and an impressive display of solidarity by an oppressed but resilient culture.

The War on Marijuana rages across the planet. Every day brings new stories of abuses of the rights of citizens, expansions of the prisons system, bloody turmoil in Mexico, threats and intimidation against medical marijuana users in the United States and Canada, and even executions of non-violent citizens for involvement with marijuana and other drugs.

The cannabis culture prevails despite these adversities, pushing back on all fronts as an unstoppable force that seems to epitomize the old saying, “what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger”.

State ballot initiatives in the US, promising court decisions in Canada, and other initiatives around the globe could loosen the strangle-hold of the prohibitionist Drug Warriors who profit from the pain and suffering of their favorite scapegoats.

But on April 20, thanks largely to tenuous agreements between tolerant police officers and bold protestors in places like Vancouver, the politics and propaganda gets lost in the purple haze, and the copious (and conspicuous) consumption of cannabis becomes something more than just an act of defiance of authority: a lot of people simply having a good time and getting high.

“4/20 is the day we all get together and celebrate our freedom to smoke marijuana in beautiful places like Vancouver, where police openly admit they won’t be enforcing drug laws,” Vancouver’s 4/20 organizer Jacob Hunter told Cannabis Culture. “This arrangement is largely due to activist David Malmo-Levine’s Hug Power protests of the 1990s that forced police to back down. In the last few years we’ve gone a step further with open-air vending taking place. Now, for the first time, we have the full co-operation of the City of Vancouver.”

Vancouver’s downtown Art Gallery plays host last year to about 13,000 blazing pot-lovers, and recent years have seen growing numbers of street entrepreneurs erecting tents and kiosks, offering open sales of every imaginable marijuana strain, extract, and edible.

“We have permits from the city for the first time this year,” Hunter said. “They will be giving us Howe St. from the very beginning as well. This is going to mean a much safer atmosphere and mean we will have two stages and about double the square feet available for people. Reports say it will be a sunny day and we are expecting up to 15,000 people.”

Though 4/20 has traditionally been about celebration, Canadian organizers say that if Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party get a majority in the Federal Election on May 2 and enact new laws with mandatory minimum prison sentences for marijuana offences, this may actually be the last 4/20 – or the last without mass arrests.

“This is our biggest and most important 4/20 yet due to the federal election,” Hunter said. “Stephen Harper’s obsession with throwing peaceful cannabis users in jail paints a clear picture of our options May 2. Our mission tomorrow is to tell the thousands in attendance from across British Columbia to vote against these Conservative culture warriors and return Canada to a path of progressive, rational and scientific policy on drugs under a new government.”

Speakers at the Vancouver rally include activist David Malmo-Levine and Jodie Emery, wife of imprisoned marijuana activist Marc Emery.

Marc and Jodie attend and help organize 4/20 every year, but since Marc was extradited to the United States on May 20, 2010, this will be the first time Vancouver’s 4/20 will happen without him.

“My husband will miss this protest because he is currently a political prisoner in the United States, serving time for selling seeds to finance the marijuana movement, as admitted by the US Drug Enforcement Administration,” Jodie Emery said. “He was ordered extradited by the Harper Government, and was just notified on Friday that he won’t be transferred home to Canada to serve the remainder of his sentence. We’re reminding all supporters to punish Harper’s Conservatives on election day for sending Marc down to an unjust five-year US prison sentence.”

Jodie will be a regular voice on stage to talk about her husband’s imprisonment, the danger of a Conservative majority government, and the importance of voting.

The Vancouver 4/20 event will feature large “Vote on May 2” and “Free Marc” banners on a main stage, with music and speakers providing entertainment and education.

Vancouver may be one of the biggest 4/20 celebrations, but many major cities around the world are hosting their own growing 4/20 festivities. Previous years have lit up North American cities including Boulder (which had about 10,000 last year), Toronto, New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, Ottawa, Boston, Denver, Oakland, Dallas, Miami, Ottawa, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Victoria, Calgary, Regina, and Winnipeg (among many other places) and international locales including London, Auckland, and Dunedin.

Some cities, like Toronto, are still growing but catching up to Vancouver and Boulder quickly.

“We don’t have permits or stages or anything like that, but we invite as many people as possible and year after year the numbers grow,” Chris Goodwin, manager of Toronto’s Vapor Central, told CC. “There are usually about 1,500 to 2,000 people there at any given time at Yonge and Dundas Square – we estimate about 4,000 or more over the whole day. It was a pretty big event last year.”

In an article published last year on Cannabis Culture, Goodwin laid out the history of 4/20:

It is interesting that most of the official reports and rumors about the origins of 4/20 trace directly back to ‘The Waldos’ in San Rafael High School in 1971. ‘The Waldos’ have many items of date-documented evidence, some from the San Rafael Police department, proving that they would smoke cannabis at the campus statue of Louis Pasteur at 4:20pm everyday. It passed from those high school students, into the 70’s Grateful Dead culture where it spread all across the United States.

The students there may have been inspired by an older reference, like H.P. Lovecraft’s mention of the time in the story “In the Walls of Eryx”, in which a man exploring the planet Venus encounters a “mirage-plant” and begins to see “dancing lights” and “shimmering spectral scenery”. After regaining his senses, he realizes it is 4:20.

Over 35 alternative stories, legends, rumors about the origins of 420 are known to circulate, including in the mainstream media, but the simple explanation above is most likely the correct history. Other purported sources for 4/20 are Bob Dylan’s song Rainy Day Woman #12 & #35. 12 x 35 = 420. The song is more commonly known as Everybody Must Get Stoned. Written in 1965, it would be the oldest and most compelling of the competing 4/20 legends. Another is the song written by John Lennon for Tim Leary’s aborted run for California Governor in 1969, Come Together, is 4 minutes, twenty seconds long.

By the early 1990’s, 4:20pm was the toke of the day, with the cannabis siesta at 4:20am. In the late 1990’s, spontaneous groups of 10’s, dozens, and hundreds of people in cities around the world began a tradition.

The actual 4/20 day, as a celebration taking up all or various parts of the day, started in Vancouver in 1995. The HEMP BC store, Marc Emery’s original hemp store in Vancouver, was staffed by Grateful Deadheads. Marc Emery recalls:

I remember my store manager Danna Rozek and an employee named Cindy Lassu came up to me in early April 1995, and said, “Marc, can we have a 4/20 celebration on April 20th next door in Victory Park?” I responded, “like, on 4:20 in the afternoon on April 20?” and they said, “No, like all day on April 20.”

“What will we do all day?” I asked, and they said “Smoke pot all day and play music.” I replied, “we can’t just smoke pot all day. That’s decadent. No, you can’t do it.”

Rebuffed, Ms. Rosek then asked “Can we just go ahead and do it anyway even if you don’t approve?” So I said yes and the staff organized the first April 20 celebration I ever heard of, at Victory Square/Park next door.

200 people came that April 20, 1995 and it was a lovely time, with music starting at 2pm and going till 7pm. In 1996, over 500 people came to Victory Park and smoked pot all day with the event starting at noon. It was decided that Victory Square was too small for the 1997 April 20 smoke-fest, so the traditional political rally location of the Vancouver Art Gallery, in downtown Vancouver’s financial district, was the site of the 1997 4/20 celebration. Over 1,000 people attended the 1997 Vancouver 4/20 and was widely covered in media and the phenomonon began to spread to other locations across North America.

These days, if the weather is fine, tokers around the globe jam into their main city square, beginning in the early afternoon, finally climaxing with massive simultaneous smoke-outs at 4:20pm every April 20th!

This year is sure to see larger chronic-smoking crowds than ever, and CC wants to publish photos and videos of the 4/20 gathering in your city. Send links or content to [email protected]

Click here to read CC‘s coverage of last year’s 4/20 events around the globe or read about my 4/20 mushroom trip in Vancouver.

Find out more about 4/20 events happening in your area in the Cannabis Culture Forums.