Over the past three decades, 4/20 has crept -- and then leapt -- into the public consciousness as the unofficial National Marijuana Day. While the origins and significance of 4/20 as a marijuana holiday are the subject of contention, the most commonly accepted version is the one enunciated by High Times editor Steve Hager. (See explanatory YouTube video here.) Hager explains that 4/20 began in 1971 as the code for a small group of San Rafael High School pot smokers who would gather after school at 4:20 to indulge in their vice.
student activist flyering during 2007 4/20 rally in Toledo, Ohio
Since then, 4/20 has mushroomed, embraced by countless marijuana enthusiasts as their special time of day, or, in the case of April 20, day of the year. What began as private celebrations of stoner togetherness have now morphed into sometimes massive public events hailing the herb, not to mention a whole industry of 4/20 paraphernalia makers and sellers. This year, as the topic of marijuana and marijuana law reform grows white hot (look for an article on that here next week), 4/20 celebrations garnered increased attendance and increased media attention. This year's 4/20 was probably the most recognized yet, with thousands of people gathering at places like the University of Colorado in Boulder and the University of California at Santa Cruz to celebrate the weed and to express that celebration by publicly toking up in massive numbers.
But it wasn't just Boulder and Santa Cruz. 4/20 events took place across the land, with several thousand people gathering in Denver and another large crowd in San Francisco. In New York City, High Times threw in a party. In Oakland, medical marijuana advocates used the occasion to conduct a fundraiser. In Memphis, hundreds participated. In Saratoga Springs, New York, about 100 Skidmore College students celebrated. Similar accounts can be heard from campuses and communities across the land.
"It's a time for us to celebrate our pastime, I guess you could call it, or adult substance of choice," Richard Lee, president of Oaksterdam University, an Oakland trade school for cannabis club workers told the Associated Press. "It's like St. Patrick's Day is for drinkers."
It wasn't just pot heads acknowledging 4/20. The cable TV network G4 ran marijuana-friendly programming all day. The cable TV network Showtime used 4/20 to send out a mass email promoting its hit series "Weeds." 4/20 seems to have come into its own.
But while 4/20 is proving wildly popular with Cannabis Nation and enterprising entrepreneurs, it is not without its critics, and some of the themes they hit will be familiar to anyone who has followed movement debates about strategy and tactics. Does the spectacle of mass drug-taking and law-breaking help the movement? Malakkar Vorhyzek doesn't think so.
Vohryzek, the New York office coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance, attacked the 4/20 celebrations in a same day blog post, In Opposition of 4/20 on 4/20. "How does it look, this annual celebration? Juvenile. Like our opponents to sensible drug policy have more sense than us. They celebrate their victories in real terms with a frame that makes it look like they're actually accomplishing something (when in fact, prohibition has failed by all measures). Their markers lead to more funding, more acceptance in political circles, more acceptance as an appropriate way to handle drugs in our society. The 4/20 celebrations, on the other hand, look imbecilic. Despite the miserable failure to radically alter the drug policy landscape, despite the hundreds of thousands of ruined lives from cannabis prohibition, these celebrations make those who appreciate or need cannabis look like people who are just happy to party," he continued.
While Vohryzek took pains to make it clear he supported ending drug prohibition, until the cannabis prisoners are freed, he said, "4/20 partying can go to hell." Instead of celebrating, Cannabis Nation should spend 4/20 "protesting the senseless policy of cannabis prohibition -- demanding amnesty, clemency and/or pardon to all cannabis 'offenders.' Once we achieve something like that, then celebrate."
"The 4/20 celebrations feed into a stoner stereotype that actually hurts us," said Vohryzek Wednesday, pointing to the inevitable front-page newspaper photos of very young people smoking pot in public. "Even when I was in the middle of my drug career, I didn't publicly celebrate it," said Vohryzek, whose drug career ended after he was sent to prison on LSD charges.
As a former drug war prisoner, said Vorhyzek, "I find it offensive that people are so set on celebration without paying any attention to all those people behind bars. I'm offended that people are celebrating while prohibition is still in place. What do you think people in prison or treatment think watching these events? We need to combine these 4/20 events with protests to say we won't celebrate while there are still people in jail."
Vohryzek also criticized the 4/20 events as "privileged" and "sending the wrong message." "We shouldn't be encouraging drug use of any kind," he said. "You don't have national meth snorting day. There is also a racial dynamic. Smoking marijuana is protected by privilege, whether it's skin color or a certain amount of money in the bank, so there is a sort of discriminatory aspect to it. You don't have 4/20 in the hood because the cops would be cracking down. 4/20 happens in white suburbs or college campuses, where privilege protects the participants," he said.
Bruce Mirken is communications director for the besuited Marijuana Policy Project. "We don't do 4/20 parties because we think there is a lot of value in letting people see the non-stereotypical side of our movement," he said. "I still have to handle way too many pot and stoner jokes."
Still, said Mirken, there is room in the big tent for everybody. "We are a large and mixed movement, and becoming larger every day as people come out of the closet. That's a healthy thing. I have a long history in other movements where there have been similar debates, and I've always been resistant to trying to censor anybody. I think we should let the world see the multitudes of folks who either use marijuana or think the laws need to be changed, but at the same time, if you're going to a public event, it wouldn't hurt to think about the possibility you'll end up on the evening news. Are you going to show up in a way that helps people understand and advance the issue or not?"
Colorado-based activist Mason Tvert of SAFER said his attitude toward 4/20 events was changing. "I've long held that these things aren't necessarily helpful," he said. "They may be counterproductive in terms of media coverage; in many cases, they send the message that marijuana smokers are irresponsible, that they're openly breaking the law."
But the event in Denver this week and the attention it garnered signals a change, he said. "I've had a shift in my attitude that I think reflects a shift in public attitude," Tvert said. "The headline in the Denver Post was 'Peaceful Pot Party at Civic Center,' and I was quoted about police just standing around with nothing to do. No incidents, no arrests, no injuries. If those cops were at a University of Colorado football game with all the drinking, they'd be in riot gear."
Tvert took issue with Vohryzek's characterization of 4/20 participants as "privileged." "Here in Denver, the majority of people out there were black and Hispanic youth, not upper class white kids at all. That skin privilege argument just wasn't the case at all in Denver."
There is also a certain hypocrisy about getting upset over people using marijuana in public, said Tvert. "This may not be the best image for our cause, but keep in mind there are public drinking events all the time and keep in mind that 4/20 is safer than any alcohol-fueled sporting event or party. We have to highlight the positive, safe, peaceful side of these events. Just compare Hemp Fest with Mardi Gras."
Even if movement leaders in all their wisdom decided that events like 4/20 are bad for the movement, they're not going away, said Tvert. "Here in Denver, people have been gathering to celebrate 4/20 for years. They're going to happen whether SAFER or DPA or MPP likes it or not. Our job is to figure out how to harness that energy. We have hundreds of people signing up to get involved at these events, and that's a good thing."
And that is probably the most sensible approach to the annual celebration of the marijuana subculture. It is a true grassroots phenomenon, percolating up from communities and campuses across the land like so much bubbling bong water, and now it seems to be breaking into the mainstream, too. 4/20 may not be the ideal face for the marijuana law reform movement, but it is the face of many of the people the movement claims to serve.