Opinion: It’s Time for 4/20 to Grow Up and Pay Up

With legalized marijuana just around the corner, the annual event needs to play by the rules.

April 21, 2017

By Jessica Barrett / Photo: Ariana Gillrie

I have a friend in his 40s. He has a business, a partner, a house and a dog—all that normal upstanding citizen stuff, except for one, nagging detail: a criminal conviction for a drug offense he obtained fresh out of high school when he had a habit of smoking up in the stairwell of his local shopping mall.

This stain on his permanent record was acquired in the mid-1990s, around the time a group of marijuana activists first took to a Vancouver park on April 20 to protest the fact that people like my friend were being busted for relatively benign drug offenses.

But that was then, this is now.

Some 20 years later, with the clock winding down until Canadians of legal age will be free to blaze themselves into oblivion without fear of arrest, one has to wonder: what is the point of 4/20?

Photo: Ariana Gillrie

Sure, there are elements of impending legalization that could have been done better. For instance, the new laws won’t pardon people like my friend, who will still be shouldering the ramifications of his youthful indiscretion. And the penalty for selling to a minor—up to 14 years in prison—seems a trifle stiff when compared to ticketable offenses for plying kids with booze or tobacco. But those things will likely change along the way as the kinks get worked out and the law catches up with public opinion. But refining those laws will occur due to the influence of people in Parliament, not those converging on the beaches of Vancouver.

For all intents and purposes, pot for personal use has long been a non-issue in Vancouver, with local law enforcement essentially ignoring the distinctive-smelling plumes emitted from people in every corner of the city, and some neighbourhoods now home to more dispensaries than grocery stores. And if that weren’t enough to convince marijuana activists that they have, in fact, won their war against The Man, the way the city bends over backward to accommodate their annual “protest” should be.

Photo: Ariana Gillrie

Not only do the cops turn a blind eye to the open sale, distribution and consumption of pot and pot products—often to minors—at the event, the city has been incredibly generous in its efforts to accommodate it, perhaps overly so. Last year’s 4/20 celebration cost the city almost $150,000 for traffic control, cleanup and policing. At this year’s event, foot traffic from the estimated crowd of 35,000 people trashed the field at Sunset Beach when organizers didn’t bother to put down plywood to protect the turf. It’ll cost thousands to reseed the field, but the bigger price will be paid by the local community, who won’t be allowed to use this prime public space for more than a month. And that’s in addition to dealing with the traffic snarls, noise complaints, and public urination that impact the neighbours on the day of the event. But because 4/20, spearheaded by activist organization Cannabis Culture, considers itself a protest, it isn’t required to apply for a permit or pay a deposit toward its policing, traffic control and engineering costs.

Meanwhile, attempts by the city to steer the event toward a more suitable venue have been met with outright refusal, if not hostility, from organizers. To 4/20’s credit, they did apply for a permit from the Park Board, but were denied on the basis that our beaches and parks are supposed to be smoke-free, not to mention the Park Board’s mandate doesn’t extend to facilitating underage drug use. But that didn’t mean they were out of options, far from it. A good-will suggestion last month by city councillor Adriane Carr to relocate this year’s event to the PNE was rejected, with organizer Dana Larsen saying he’d already approached the PNE, but the board refused to host the event. He also argued in March this year’s event could not be moved because vendors couldn’t relocate their booths in time. And speaking of those booths, according to 420Vancouver.com, this year’s event had 193 of them for which they charged a $450 “donation,” meaning that while the city is on the hook for the hefty bill associated with the event, the organizers made more than $85,000.

Photo: Ariana Gillrie

Now, I’m not against the right to peaceful protest, as outlined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And, contrary to the tone of this piece (God, I’m getting old), I’m not even against people sparking up a joint on the beach, as long as they use a little tact and discretion (i.e., not in front of the kids, please). But I seriously question whether 4/20 still counts as a protest, considering its aim—to end criminal persecution of marijuana users—has been effectively achieved.

Marijuana users are hardly a persecuted population in this city, in this country, in this day and age. If members of this community want to be taken seriously and regarded as law-abiding citizens, it’s high time (pun intended) for them—and their event—to grow up. It might come as quite a shock to the die-hard hippies, but 4/20 is no longer a counterculture protest. It is a mainstream street party that should be subject to the same rules and regulations of any other large-scale municipal gathering, which means it needs to play nice with the city and pay its own way. Bummer, I know.

This post has been updated. An early version stated this was the first year 4/20 applied for a permit from the Park Board. It has applied several times before, but a permit has never been approved.

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