Like, what's the point of 420?

There is a palpable sense that smoking weed in public as a means of clamouring for the decriminalization of cannabis has become culturally irrelevant.

The public cannabis-smoking ritual persists, along with questions about pending legalization

Two years and a cultural lifetime ago, sitting on the front lawn of the Manitoba Legislative Building, sparking up a joint and taking a long, deep breath could have been considered a political act.

Today, 420 festivities seem as dated and as a tie-dyed T-shirt your dad has in his closet.

Smoking weed in public as a means of clamouring for the decriminalization of cannabis is more than a little pointless, now that the federal Liberals are preparing to actually legalize the stuff.

The Trudeau government has promised Canadians an end to cannabis prohibition by July 2018. This would not be evident from a quick scan of the scene on Broadway on Thursday afternoon.

Peter Tosh was still emanating out of a loudspeaker, urging passersby to Legalize It, much the same way he did in when he recorded that single in 1976. A smattering of teens and adults in their 20s were still sitting on the front lawn with their bongs and vaporizers and frisbees.

But there was a palpable sense that this mass ritual — for years, a collective and thumbing-of-the-nose at cannabis prohibition — has just become as culturally irrelevant as, say, crowd surfing at concerts or streaking at sporting events.

"Like, what's the point? Is 420 even going to exist, once it's legalized?" asked Richelle Burchill during the drizzly noon hour, as the Legislature grounds were beginning to fill up. "It feels less protesty, I guess."

Burchill and her friend Jasmin Epp said they haven't attended 420 since they were in middle school. Epp surmised the event may continue as a celebration, of sorts.

Richelle Burchill and Jasmin Epp, attending their first 420 since middle school. Burchill says the pending legalization of cannabis makes this year's event less of a protest. (Holly Caruk/CBC News)
That may be true, but it's still unclear how cannabis will be sold ​and regulated once it is legal. During 420s of the past, the location of the event was incongruous, given that the laws governing cannabis are federal, not provincial.​

Today, the Manitoba legislative grounds ought to be the perfect place to conduct some cannabis lobbying. That's because Ottawa has punted some of the most difficult cannabis decisions to the provinces, including Manitoba, where Brian Pallister's Progressive Conservatives are more than a little annoyed by their new responsibilities.

Manitoba still has to determine how cannabis will be sold. There are numerous options on the table, all of which pose some form of headache for the Tories.

The PCs could appear tough on cannabis by restricting sales to government-owned stores, but that would be at odds with Pallister's free-marketeering philosophy. It also won't be easy to hand private retailers the entire responsibility for cannabis sales without making winners and losers out of the entrepreneurs who line up to purchase licenses.

A mix of private and government sales would also pose the same regulatory headaches you find in jurisdictions where alcohol is sold both publicly and privately. Right now, visitors to Manitoba are already confused to learn they can only purchase hard liquor from government stores, while wine is available at a handful of private stores and cold beer generally is sold out of retailers attached to hotels that don't really operate like any hotel that appears on Trivago.

Assuming there will be some form of private sales in Manitoba, the province must decide whether those sales will take place in stand-alone cannabis stores or at retailers that also sell other goods, such as groceries or pharmacies.

Leo Tom Baker said he bought two grams when he heard 420 was happening. He said he does not believe Sidney Crosby gets high on anything other than hockey. (Holly Caruk/CBC)
The province must also decide whether to set the minimum cannabis-smoking age at 18, as Ottawa is doing, or raise it to a higher threshold. Setting the minimum age at 21 would please mental-health professionals, but would  defeat one of the stated purposes of legalization: eliminating the black market in cannabis.

If Manitoba's minimum age is set higher, anyone younger who wants to get high will still find illicit sources of cannabis. If there's one thing prohibition has demonstrated, it's that it's almost impossible to keep intoxicants out of the hands of people who want to be intoxicated.

Finally, the Pallister government has to decide how to price and tax cannabis products. Set the price too high, and the illicit market will continue to flourish. Set it too low and Manitoba-sold cannabis will be smuggled into Ontario, Saskatchewan and elsewhere.

Add in the tricky task of cannabis enforcement and you can see why the PCs are annoyed at the federal Liberals. While refusing to tip their hands about made-in-Manitoba cannabis regulations — Justice Minister Heather Stefanson declined a request to be interviewed in the middle of the 420 festivities — the Tories are not shy at all about complaining about the cost and complexity of their new burden.

Pot smokers may not care what's happening behind the scenes, if they are paying attention. While an unscientific survey of 420 attendees revealed universal awareness that cannabis will soon be legal, there was little to no awareness of the specifics of the Liberals' plan.

"I heard they were going to legalize it and I'm hoping, praying that it will go through," said Leo Tom Baker, a Leaf Rapids resident who wore a Sidney Crosby jersey to 420.

Of course, 420 attendees are just a small sample of cannabis consumers. Most Winnipeggers can not afford to take time off on a Thursday to sit and smoke weed outside the Legislature. 

As much as today's crowd will appreciate the legislation, the Liberals appear more intent on appeasing the Canadian mainstream. That makes sense, considering the diminishing stigma associated with the use of cannabis.

It's April 20th today, or some people know it as 420. A day where marijuana advocates get together to push for the legalization of weed. 1:03

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Before joining CBC Manitoba, Bartley Kives spent most of his career in journalism at the Winnipeg Free Press, covering politics, music, food, the environment and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.