Winnipeg's 420 event jeopardized because of conflicting provincial, city requirements: pot advocate

Months before pot is scheduled to be legalized, the organizer of the city's annual 420 protest says he suddenly can't get permits due to conflicting rules from the province and the city.

Steven Stairs says province wants festival atmosphere, but city says festival would be illegal

A flag reading 'marijuana' flies next to a series of food vendors that strategically parked near the 420 crowd at the Manitoba Legislature in 2017. This year's event could be jeopardized because of conflicting requirements from the province and city, says an organizer. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Months before pot is scheduled to be legalized, the organizer of the city's annual 420 protest says he suddenly can't get permits due to conflicting rules from the province and the city.

Provincial officials made it clear the event should be moving from a protest to a festival atmosphere, said Steven Stairs, who is also a local pot activist. The city, he said, objected.

"Every year I have meetings with the province and the city and the police and things like that," said Stairs. 

"The city comes back [this year] and says, 'Well, we can't issue a permit for that, Steve.' And I'm like, 'OK, why not?' [They said] 'Well, because it promotes illegal activity.'

"Well, what has every other permit you've given me for the past five years done?"

From protest to party

Marijuana is set to be legalized across the country this summer. While the federal government plans to legalize it, each province will set rules on how to regulate and sell it. 

For the past several years, people have gathered yearly on April 20 to smoke marijuana on the Manitoba legislative grounds, as a protest against marijuana prohibition. The protest was accompanied by speeches and police would attend to make sure things stayed peaceful. 

However, with cannabis on the verge of being legalized, Manitoba officials know the annual day will become a festival every year instead of a protest, said Stairs.

"This year, the province told me that they don't want me to do what we did last year.… They want me to kind of do a test run, because in 2019 when pot is legal, 420 will still happen. It will just become like a Taste of Manitoba or Manyfest, Winnipeg Wine Festival type thing."

Steven Stairs says he's stuck between the province and the city over the annual 420 protest at the Manitoba legislative grounds. (CBC)

The province requested security at this year's event, insurance for vendors and attendees, and a cordoned-off area for people who are 19 or older to smoke, said Stairs.

After agreeing to the province's requests, Stairs then sent his plans over to his special-events liaison with the city.

Despite talking to the liaison about the new plans throughout the process, Stairs said he suddenly received an email this week saying the city won't issue a permit for the plans that were submitted.

The time frame is really a concern. I feel like they're really tying my hands here.- Steven Stairs

"The City of Winnipeg cannot approve any permits related to an event which includes overt criminal activity such as the possession and consumption of cannabis (outside of medicinal purposes)," reads an email from the city sent on Feb. 16.

The email notes marijuana "remains a controlled substance at this time" and invites Stairs to submit a revised plan by Feb. 23.

That gives Stairs until Friday to work out the problems with the province and the city, he said. If he can't, his permit application won't be approved until April at the earliest, leaving organizers two weeks to plan the event.

"The time frame is really a concern," said Stairs. "I feel like they're really tying my hands here. 

"I don't know where it's going to go right now." 

City response

A spokesperson for the city said the city has not denied the permit.

"We can confirm that we are still actively working with the applicant on the preparation of the required event permits — the application is considered open," the spokesperson said, noting it had invited Stairs to submit a revised plan.

"What we can say is that this year's proposed event location and format is different than in years past," the spokesperson said, adding "special event permits can only be issued under the condition that all activities directly related to the permits (e.g., food and product vendors) do not contravene the Criminal Code."

Stairs said despite everything, he hopes to go ahead with the event.

"It's an interesting little conundrum that they've put me in. But I hope I don't have to break the laws."


Elisha Dacey


Elisha Dacey was a journalist with CBC Manitoba. She is the former managing editor of Metro Winnipeg and her work has been seen in newspapers from coast to coast.

With files from Tessa Vanderhart