Like St. Patrick's Day in Boston or New Year's Eve in New York City, April 20 seems to have a found an epicenter in Denver.
The annual global celebration of marijuana drew tens of thousands of people this weekend to festivals in Denver, the capital of the first U.S. state to make the drug available for recreational use to anyone 21 and older.
The annual celebration has fallen on April 20, or 4/20, because a group of rebellious California teenagers in the 1970s supposedly decided to meet up at 4:20 p.m. each day after school to smoke marijuana. The legend spread, and the date and time become synonymous with the push to celebrate the mood-altering green plant.
Although marijuana now can be bought as easily as alcohol in Colorado, public consumption of marijuana products remains illegal. Denver officials were unwilling to waive that prohibition this weekend.
A Denver police spokesman said 22 people were cited downtown Saturday on suspicion of public consumption of marijuana, and 10 more were cited for other offenses. One man was booked into custody on suspicion of selling marijuana without a license. By midafternoon Sunday, seven citations for public consumption had been issued, police said. [Updated, 4:10 p.m. April 20: By Sunday evening, police had cited 37 people, 31 of them for public consumption.]
Among the weekend's marquee events were a music festival, dubbed “The Official 420 Rally,” across the lawn in front of the statehouse, and a convention known as the Cannabis Cup inside an events space.
Despite the local law enforcement concerns, marijuana supporters gathered in Denver focused attention on the larger battles ahead. Activists are looking to ensure that marijuana retail stores open as planned in July in Washington state and that ballot measures seeking to legalize the drug in Oregon and Alaska succeed later this year.
“Unlike past years, this year’s event will feel less like doing something wrong while your parents look the other way, and more like a celebration of how grassroots organizing can effect change,” 420 Rally organizers said in a statement ahead of the event.
As Allen St. Pierre of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws put it, “The events here are decidedly in celebration of the only place currently on Earth where an adult can purchase and legally consume cannabis in a similar manner to that of alcohol products.”
This year’s celebration coincided with the Christian holiday of Easter, which marks the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the Red Rocks Amphitheater in Denver, an early-morning Easter service attracted thousands of parishioners, while an early-evening concert with Wiz Khalifa and Snoop Dogg was expected to bring out thousands of pot-smokers.
Snopp Dogg’s Twitter account Sunday morning included messages saying both “Happy 420. !!!!” and “Happy Easter.”
Usage of marijuana — either for fun or for medicinal purposes — remains illegal under federal law. But U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. has instructed federal authorities to focus on arresting big-time dealers and drug cartels, not individual users or locally licensed growers.
That approach from federal prosecutors has given marijuana advocates in other states fresh enthusiasm that the tide is turning on the public attitude toward the drug.
In Oregon, although a legalization ballot measure failed in 2012, a group began collecting signatures this week to bring a new measure to voters in November. It would allow individuals 21 and older to buy and possess limited amounts of marijuana for any use.
And in Alaska, voters will see a similar proposition on their ballot in August. Both initiative campaigns have generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in support.
Holder has said that officials in most states are keeping a close eye on how things are working out in Colorado before deciding whether to act themselves.
Already one issue starting to come up is whether cookies, brownies and candies that have marijuana in them should be more strictly regulated in terms of potency and packaging.
In one recent Colorado case, cookies were sold with nearly six times the legal limit for THC, pot's active ingredient. A visiting college student ate an entire cookie and fell off a balcony to his death, officials say.
Police also are investigating a case in which a husband is accused of killing his wife after apparently consuming marijuana candy and a prescription painkiller.
In addition, lawmakers have expressed concern that the so-called edibles are getting into the hands of unsuspecting children, prompting an uptick in hospitalizations. Overall, 26 people have reported edible-marijuana poisonings this year, according Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center.