British Columbia·Analysis

What is the point of 4/20? (And other blunt questions)

With everything seemingly going their way, these are tough times for marijuana activists. Ottawa is promising legalization, the courts are ruling in their favour and pot is legal in a growing number of U.S. states. So why do we need 4/20?

'Killjoy Catch-22' makes it difficult to question 'protest' without sounding like a crank

4/20 organizers say the event is a protest and a celebration. But critics claim the annual gathering has become a giant trade show. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

With everything seemingly going their way, these are tough times for angry marijuana activists.

Ottawa is promising legalization, the courts are ruling in their favour and pot is legal in a growing number of U.S. states. The Man, basically, is on their side.

So what is 4/20 anyway?

Organizers call the event a celebration of cannabis culture and a protest. But with the move towards regulation and taxation, a dyed-in-the-hemp marijuana martyr has more to fear these days from greedy investors than they do cops.

That's certainly the case in Vancouver, home to one of the world's biggest 4/20 rallies, along with a burgeoning sense of, if not exactly discontent, then discomfort about the point of the event. 

Smoking is prohibited in Vancouver parks. But that doesn't seem to bother 4/20 organizers. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

This is, after all, an un-permitted rally in a permit-loving town, celebrating smoking in a smoke-free park and claiming to watch out for minors while simultaneously promising a day-long party of epic proportions.

"I wonder what the purpose of 4/20 is anymore? It's sort of a protest that's lost its soul," says Vancouver city councilor Kerry Jang.

"I think it's morphed into a trade show to make money: the commercialization of marijuana as a corporate event."

'Somebody needs to call them out'

It's tough to take on 4/20 without sounding like a crank.

But nobody has a monopoly on self-righteousness when it comes to pot: not the hard-core prohibitionists leading a failed war on drugs, not the abolitionists who dismiss concerns about the drug's impact on the developing brain and least of all not the millions of Canadians who support legalization — but not for their kid.

Former Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair has said authorities will still keep enforcing Canada's pot laws ahead of legalization. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Jang points to Vancouver's efforts to regulate the nearly 200 medical marijuana dispensaries which have popped up in the city in the past two years. The licensing scheme is a recognition of their right to exist.

But introducing rules means you have to play by them. And Jang says rules should be coming down the pipe — literally — for 4/20.

For years, organizers have held the event at the Vancouver Art Gallery. But record crowds have moved it down to Sunset Beach, on the east side of the city's iconic English Bay.

Vendors set up dozens of booths to market an array of marijuana-related edibles, products and services.

The chair of the park board, Sarah Kirby-Yung, has made no secret of her unhappiness at having 4/20 imposed on a non-smoking location for which it would have never received a permit.

She feels they're hiding behind the 'protest' mantle.

"I think somebody needs to call them out," she told the CBC's Early Edition.

"I respect people's rights to protest, as does the board of commissioners of the park board. But that's not what this is. This is an organized festival that has been allowed to mushroom."

Rebels without a cause?

Obviously, marijuana is still illegal.

And as former Toronto police chief and current Liberal pot point man Bill Blair has made clear, he expects police to keep enforcing the laws right up until the second his government tears them apart.

Meanwhile, the courts have sided with activists on the use and production of medical marijuana. The prime minister is a supporter. And Health Minister Jane Philpott's decision to announce legalization plans on 4/20 wasn't exactly subtle.

The space between existing law and popular sentiment may leave room for protest. But as that gap narrows, legitimate questions remain about legalization.

Raise them and you're caught in a killjoy Catch-22.

This year's 4/20 celebrations also saw a splinter rally outside the Vancouver Art Gallery shut down traffic on Robson Street.

That's where CBC reporter Greg Rasmussen watched as a 16-year-old was called onstage at one point and offered a marijuana-infused lollipop by an event official.

Rasmussen asked the man whether he thought it was appropriate to be giving pot to a teenager: "I don't appreciate you attacking me," the man replied.

Sunset Beach 4/20 organizer Jodie Emery said the event is safe and vendors were asked not to sell to minors.

Vancouver 4/20 organizer Jodie Emery says the event is one of the most popular gatherings in the city. (CBC)

But the Vancouver School Board had to remind students 4/20 is not, in fact, an official holiday.

And in the hours before the event, health authorities issued increasingly desperate-sounding tweets warning attendees about the dangers of holding in smoke, driving within six-hours of eating cannabis or triggering schizophrenia.

Emery rightly points out that 4/20 is very popular. Last year, 50,000 people attended and this year's final count is expected to be far higher.

"It's not something that's really loathed or hated," she says. "Obviously, people want this, that's why it's one of the biggest events in the city."

But is it an event about the legalization — or the glorification — of marijuana?

Regardless, no one should blow smoke in your face for asking.   

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

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