A cloud of smoke will rise above Canadian cities at precisely 4:20 p.m., in what traditionally has been a celebration of pot use and a call for the legalization of cannabis.
However, with the Canadian government set to end the prohibition of marijuana by the end of summer, cannabis advocates and marijuana users say the annual protest isn’t over.
“Certainly there are some things to celebrate in the cannabis act, and we are happy about that, but by no means is the passage of the act a sign that our activism is done and everything is perfect and we don’t need to do anything anymore. There’s still a lot of work ahead in terms of continuing to change the cannabis laws,” Dana Larsen, an organizer of 420 Vancouver, said in an interview with Global News.
Larsen said that he expects Vancouver’s 24th annual 420 event to be bigger than last year’s and that next year, it will be similar in size despite the law changing.
“Some of the things that we do at 4/20 won’t become legal,” Larsen said. “Possessing cannabis that you bought at 4/20 will remain illegal next year after the cannabis act passes. We see our event as a protest and will continue to be a protest in the years to come.
“4/20 is going to remain as it is for many years to come and hopefully one day the laws will look at what we’re doing there isn’t illegal,” Larsen said.
History of 4/20
April 20 has been long recognized as a day to celebrate cannabis culture, thanks to some California high school kids in the ‘70s and their after-school pursuit to find a rumoured marijuana patch. Dubbed “The Waldos,” a group of five teen boys would chill at a certain wall between classes at San Rafael High School. The group got wind of a supposed pot patch growing not too far from school, and they decided to hunt for the green pot of gold.
The group apparently decided to meet in front of the school’s statue of Louis Pasteur at 4:20 p.m. after football practice to set out on the hunt for the patch. After the first failed attempt, the Waldos vowed to keep searching. They would pass in the halls and whisper “420 Louis” to each other if a new attempt was planned, indicating they should meet at 4:20 p.m. at the Pasteur statue. The boys never found the supposed plants, but continued to meet up at the same time after school to smoke some pot, as the story goes.
The number, 420, eventually became known as a call sign in cannabis culture to smoke pot regardless of where you were, eventually leading to a full day of protest and celebration on the 20th day of the fourth month of the year.
4/20 origins in Canada
Vancouver-based pot activist Jodie Emery said 4/20 has come a long way since “The Waldos,” especially in Canada. She credits her husband, Marc, the self-titled Prince of Pot, for establishing April 20 as a full-day celebration of cannabis some 24 years ago.
“In 1995, Marc Emery and his activist crew in Vancouver said ‘Why don’t we make April 20, 4/20, a full day of celebrating cannabis and protesting prohibition,’” Emery explained. “It turned into what became a really good rally. So people would come out in the early days when it was a protest…and that was truly what it was.
“It was a group of people coming together and peacefully, using civil disobedience, to openly break a bad law to demonstrate that law was ridiculous and should change,” Emery said.
The activist explained the origin of 4/20 is definitely a protest but also a celebration because people who share a similar interest can enjoy marijuana with other like-minded people. She said it’s no different than a group of people going to a hockey game or going to a concert to share interest in the music they love.
“People come together and for the cannabis culture, it’s been a subculture for very long and forced to be marginalized so, for many people, they don’t have the opportunities to come together with like-minded people,” Emery said. “So, 4/20 is a time for a lot of people to use cannabis but are not full-time activists, or professionally working with pot, it’s a time for them to come together with their culture.”
Annual rallies are held across Canada, in cities like Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa. Vancouver’s is arguably the largest rally in the country.
4/20 after legalization
The Canadian government had planned to legalize recreational marijuana by July 1, a goal that has since been pushed back to likely the end of summer. But, once legalized, 4/20 celebrations and protests won’t end and will most likely become an even larger event, cannabis experts say.
Jenna Valleriani, a PhD and strategic adviser for Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, suggests that 4/20 will still be an annual event, but more of a celebration than a protest.
“The meaning is going to change a little bit, I think a lot of people can appreciate that legalization isn’t perfect. There is this kind of protest element embedded in 4/20 but I think it’s also turned into an event itself, rather than a protest,” Valleriani said. “A lot of the times it’s been protesting unjust cannabis laws and cannabis prohibition more generally. It’s also taken on its own life.”
Valleriani points out that thousands of people attend Vancouver’s event, which boasts live music, stages and vendors which “has all the makings of an event rather than a protest itself.”
“I think next year will just be even bigger. It will embody more of a celebration, but also acknowledging that there’s still a lot of work to be done, particularly around social justice issues and the cannabis law,” Valleriani said. “I think it will be really great to see the lens really narrow in on what that kind of looks like, what work still needs to be done in the context of cannabis legalization.
“No one expects legalization to be perfect right out of the gate … so I still think there is the element surrounding 4/20 as a protest,” Valleriani said.
As for April 20 itself, Emery believes the iconic date in cannabis culture will always hold significance.
“When people say ‘legalization is coming, what’s going to happen to 4/20, do you even need it anymore?’ The answer is, of course we do,” Emery said, “It’s similar to how the gay Pride parades didn’t stop when gay marriage was legalized or when there’s movements in society on the legal front, it doesn’t get rid of the cultural front.”
Emery said the date is about not feeling stigmatized and mocked for using cannabis and to “feel like a free citizen for a day.”
“They go to 4/20 in Toronto or Vancouver. It’s a magical experience for people to be yourself, openly and freely without fear of the law,” Emery said. “That’s exactly how gay Pride and other festivals are, they celebrate the culture and community and it’s a safe space.”