DENVER (CN) – Bill Coleman may have been the highest man in Denver — with his stilts and his top hat, he stood 9 feet tall on April 20, carrying a three-foot long bong with a plastic bag taped over the bowl.
“No, I can’t smoke it,” he explains to passersby. “This is the only way they would let me bring it in, but that’s okay because we’re not in jail. Twenty years ago, we’d all be in jail together.”
Since Colorado made its pioneering moves to decriminalize medical and then legalize recreational marijuana, the Civic Center Park at the state’s capital has become a Mecca for marijuana enthusiasts drawing upwards of 30,000 people annually. The event’s host, Euflora, a marijuana dispensary, billed Mile High 420 as the largest free marijuana event on April 20 on earth.
The date is significant to marijuana users as the term 420 represents either marijuana or the use of it.
The event, formerly called Denver 420, was first organized by marijuana activist Miguel Lopez 15 years ago. After the park was found strewn with trash following the 2017 celebration, the city seized the opportunity to ban Lopez from holding an event permit for three years. Lopez attributed the trash to dumpster divers, and his attorneys filed a complaint against the city in December.
Rather than smother the bonfire, this opened up a mad rush to hold the golden permit to host an event in Civic Center Park on April 20. In hopes of being the winner, Euflora reportedly paid employees to stand outside the Webb Building, where permits are issued, for 27 days, while waiting for the city to open up the process. Despite its diligence, Euflora was beat by a man named Smokey.
Michael “Smokey” Ortiz, an organizer with the Global Marijuana March with connections to the Rainbow Hippy Family literally ran through the government office building to beat Euflora to the counter. Based on the belief that Ortiz obtained the permit on behalf of Lopez, however, the parks and recreation department later revoked the permit, for which Ortiz has also filed a civil complaint.
Finally, in January the permit was awarded to the patient tortoise, the owners of Euflora.
For attorney Robert Corry, who specializes in marijuana law and is representing Lopez and Ortiz in their suits against the city, it has been a bittersweet day. In his office on Colfax Avenue, he sipped a big cup of coffee while wearing a festive shirt embroidered with cannabis leaves. From the window of the old art studio, he pointed out three courthouses and a parade of festival goers marching the park.
“We’ve been doing this 10 years. We built and branded that location,” he said. “It started in 2001 with a bullhorn, shouting at the capitol … it was two dozen people and that was it. We all blazed and celebrated medical marijuana.”
Still, Denver’s festival was not the only event in the Wild West to find itself tête-à-tête with city officials. Thursday night, the San Bernardino city council denied a cannabis consumption permit for America’s most well established marijuana celebrations: the High Times’ Cannabis Cup.
Founded in 1988 and first held in Amsterdam, the pot press has sponsored an event every year since, but increasingly struggled to secure a venue with legalization. In 2013, the event moved from Los Angeles to the Denver Mart in Adams County, Colorado. Then Adams County officials denied High Times’ permit in 2016, sending them to settle back in San Bernardino, California.
“We’re celebrating every aspect of the plant. The technological innovations. The medical advancements. The growing acceptance of responsible recreational use. And, of course, the movers and shakers who make it all happen,” High Times announced on their website Friday morning, clarifying a favored loophole. “The San Bernardino City Council may have made a last-minute decision to block the sale of legal cannabis-based products at the cup … you can still BYOB (Bring Your Own Bud).”
Hippie Hill at the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco has long attracted more than 10,000 attendees to celebrate the holiday, and this will be the first year the event received a city permit to stand on legal ground.
Cannabis remains banned by federal law as a Schedule I substance, meaning the Drug Enforcement Agency considers it highly addictive and of no medical value. To date, 28 states have approved some kind of medical marijuana program and eight have legalized the substance for recreational use.
While support, organization, and consumption laws differ from state to state and county to county, there is no denying that the industry makes green. Cannabis sales in Colorado hit $1.5 billion in 2017 and are predicted to hit $5 billion in California this year.
Around Denver’s Civic Center Park, weary travelers had lain out and enjoyed the grass. Stella Webb, from St. Louis, reclined against her boyfriend and said she grinned because, “All these people from different backgrounds are all chilling. This is what happens.”
One police officer estimated that there were hundreds of men and women providing event security.
“There’s no amnesty for the day or the event. People smoking can be cited,” said Denver Police Sergeant Ed Arnold, standing with his back to the line of attendees passing joints outside the gate. “We’ve given a lot of warnings today and most people have been compliant.”
Indeed, the air was ripe with the skunky smell of compliance.
“It’s kind of absurd for the city to spend one cent enforcing a public consumption ordinance that prohibits consumption of marijuana at the 420 celebration,” Corry said. “There has to be some level of common sense and human reasonableness to this. The city might as well criminally prohibit opening presents on Christmas.”
Therefore in the spirit of the holiday, Corry offered to represent anyone who is charged for marijuana consumption on April 20 pro bono. Over the years, he estimates he’s represented some 50 clients and has yet to lose a jury trial.
“Juries literally laugh and I laugh with them,” he said.