Has Vancouver's annual 420 event outgrown its roots?
The weather was certainly on the side of the 20,000 people gathered at the Vancouver Art Gallery on April 20 for the annual 420 marijuana festival, a record turnout for the 17-year-old event.
But this year's 420 rally kind of left a weird taste in my mouth—and it wasn't due to anything I ingested while I was there. It's been two days and I still can't quite figure out what this event has become.
Is it a music festival? There were two stages this year—one on the steps on the West Georgia side of the art gallery, and one at the corner of Howe and Robson—and they had a solid rotation of eclectic musicians. Impromptu jams sprung up wherever there was a spare patch of grass. But the music could hardly be cited as the primary draw.
Is the art gallery party a protest? Most of the cannabis-advocating came from the occasional speaker on the main stage. Of the hundreds of signs carried by participants, I didn't see a single one advocating legalization. There were definitely pro-cannabis booths offering information to attendees, but they weren't in the majority. Occupy Vancouver showed up, setting up its Peoples' Library near the main entrance to the art gallery, and there was one enterprising gentleman wearing a tent like a shirt and handing out pamphlets, but the overall feel wasn't political in the slightest.
Is it simply a one-day free market for cannabis and other products? Tents offered pre-rolled joints, hash, all kinds of edibles, and oils as well as T-shirts, glassware, jewellery, books, stickers, postcards, and more munchies than you would think possible. Roving vendors waved crudely constructed signs advertising their wares. People offered up free hash caramel. It seemed like every food truck in Vancouver showed up, ringing the streets around the chaos, constantly entertaining long lines of hungry tokers.
Regardless of what 420 is to Vancouver, it feels like a deranged carnival: a Zombie Walk without the makeup, a Stanley Cup viewing party without the post-game rioting. Lots of people come in costumes—pot fairies and candy ravers mingle with mad hatters and Mexican wrestlers. "Free Marc" shirts abound, as do red, yellow, and green getups. Face painting and mud pits only add to the chaotic feel.
Big changes were evident this year, particularly in regards to access. An elevated stage was constructed on the back steps of the art gallery, affording an excellent view of the performers and speakers—and it was fenced off, watched by a bevy of security, both paid and volunteer. While the fencing was an improvement in a sense, it also felt exclusionary.
I didn't see a press tent to check in with festival organizers, either. If there was one, there was no way I could have found it. Were there first aid stations on-site? Reportedly. Did I see them? Nope. I did see two girls pass out right in front of me; medical attention arrived quickly in the form of an ambulance. Portable toilets? Again, didn't see any. Schedule of events? Not one that I could find on the grounds.
The crowd observing the main stage was primarily a crush of slow-moving shufflers. While many keeners arrived early enough to toss down a tarp, there was barely any room to walk in front of the stage. The one time I made the mistake of trying to cross the plaza, it took 15 minutes to move about 100 feet. If it's possible to cordon off the stage, it should be possible to sort out traffic flow issues.
And while it's obviously stupid to complain about the cramped conditions—remember, over 20,000 people were there—it was uncomfortably packed. Howe was closed between Robson and West Georgia all day, and every seat, step, and sidewalk was crammed with people even when I arrived around 1:15 p.m. Around 4 p.m., the crowd grew so large that West Georgia was slowly closed lane by lane until it was completely shut down to vehicle traffic between Howe and Hornby.
Luckily, most people were in wonderful moods. Those manning booths were amiable and chatty, people were eager to show off their pot-smoking devices, and nearly everyone I saw had a goofy grin plastered on their face. It's one of the only times and places in Vancouver where you can strike up a conversation with anyone in attendance and not have them stare at you like you're a criminal. Because at 420, we're all criminals, aren't we?
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