By Laurent Banguet
DENVER, United States—Tens of thousands of cannabis enthusiasts gathered in Denver on Wednesday to celebrate the ever-widening US legalization of recreational weed with plumes of pungent smoke, music… and a few grumblings about commercialization.
April 20 has become the national holiday for pot in the United States, as the date corresponds with the “420” slang name for marijuana.
In particular, Colorado’s capital has become a magnet for enthusiasts, since the western US state became the country’s first to vote to legalize recreational cannabis a decade ago.
They gathered for festivities on Wednesday afternoon in a park overlooked by the windows of the local Capitol building, where protests to push for decriminalization of marijuana sparked up in the 1990s.
Among the first to arrive at the Mile High 420 Festival—billed as the world’s largest free gathering of its kind—was Michael Farwell, proudly carrying a giant oversized joint measuring around 15 inches (40 cm) long, thick as a chair leg.
“It’s the biggest joint I’ve ever smoked—or I’m about to smoke!” said the 25-year-old.
“It’s like a six ounce joint, six-and-a-half-ounce joint… I don’t know,” he added, estimating the blunt had cost around $800 and took more than an hour to roll with the help of two friends.
Farwell made the pilgrimage from the East Coast state of Delaware, where cannabis is currently allowed only for medical use.
“It’s my favorite day of the year. It’s better than Christmas!” he said.
Green gold and greenbacks
Since Colorado green-lighted recreational cannabis, eighteen of the 50 US states, plus the capital Washington, have followed suit.
But it remains illegal at a federal level. And even in Colorado, the law technically still prohibits the smoking of marijuana in public places.
Still, festival attendees know that in reality they have little to fear from authorities, and made no effort to hide their favorite pastime.
It is a long way from the more clandestine origins of this day, said Miguel Lopez, a pro-legalization activist and co-founder of the “420 Festival.”
Back in 1995, activists gathered for “smoke-ins” in protest at the capitol, but had to watch out for police intervention or risk arrest.
Much has changed since then, and legalization went into effect in Colorado in 2014.
But Lopez complained that the festival and the wider legalized marijuana industry have taken a highly commercial turn.
“The message was strong about, you know, we want to legalize, but not at the discretion of legislators who want to just make money,” he said.
The veteran activist pointed out that legal cannabis sales last year in Colorado—a state of fewer than six million people—reached $2.2 billion.
With that translating to $423 million in tax revenue in the state’s coffers, in addition to indirect benefits such as tourism, it is little surprise that local officials now support the “420” movement.
“The grassroots didn’t want it this way. The industry wants it. It’s really over-regulated, it’s overtaxed,” said Lopez.
“It really hasn’t really freed up people, but it’s just made another opportunity for people to come and profit, like oil and gas.”
Lopez, a previous organizer of the festival, was recently ousted by a chain of specialty cannabis stores that have partially rebranded the event.
Still, for Tammy Herndon, this day in the park with a joint in her mouth has a taste of freedom.
She lives in the conservative state of Georgia, where cannabis—even for medical purposes—remains illegal.
Hendon, 54, suffers from trigeminal neuralgia, a painful condition that some studies have shown can be relieved by cannabis.
A former Navy veteran, she travelled almost 2,000 miles to attend the festival.
“It was on my bucket list of things to do,” she said.
“Georgia is Bible Belt, so there’s no chance you’ll ever be able to have the freedom to smoke there.”
“I’m a disabled veteran. I’m retired from the Navy. If I like to smoke a joint and relax, I should be able to celebrate that.”