A protest by any other name would still smell like pot

Conversation around Vancouver's annual 4/20 event has dissolved into a game of semantics

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      Ask any organizer of Vancouver’s 4/20 and none take issue with politicians calling the event a “celebration”. For the heavily stigmatized community, in fact, it is.

      “Of course it is. This is how we’ve been celebrating marijuana—without anyone’s fucking permission—for 24 years,” event host and organizer Greg “Marijuana Man” Williams says with a laugh while chatting with the Georgia Straight.

      “It’s a beautiful day of diversity and inclusion,” activist Jodie Emery says in another conversation. “When I am at these events, and I look into the crowd, we have all ages, all races, all ranges of socioeconomic backgrounds. It’s people coming together and having a wonderful time.”

      Sensible B.C. director and event spokesperson Dana Larsen goes further, saying that media tagging the event as a “fun festival” aren’t wrong either—in fact, that is one of the few things they get right.

      “4/20 has always been a celebration of cannabis and its culture and our forbidden love for this wonderful plant,” he says.

      It’s not surprising, then, that the hundreds of booths slinging a tantalizing spectrum of cannabis products, the celebrity musical acts, and the smiles on the tens of thousands of faces are enough to mislead many to believe that’s all it is—a festival.

      It is also why recent comments from the likes of city councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung and park commissioners Tricia Barker and John Coupar, all of whom are pushing for a rebrand of the word protest, seem defensible.

      Even Jeremiah Vandermeer, Cannabis Culture CEO and one of 4/20’s lead organizers, has dubbed April 20 a “cannabis lover’s day of freedom”, when attendees get to experience what the world would be like if weed were “truly” liberated.

      But what terms like celebration and party miss, however, is that if Canadian laws were enforced to the fullest extent, everyone at the event would be, by definition, a criminal.

      “Every single person could be arrested,” Vandermeer says.

      The annual cannabis protest has not secured a permit for the past 24 years—meaning everything from smoking weed in the park to the sale of product comes with risk. Yet somehow the smoke-in remains one of the city’s largest and most beloved annual gatherings. Why?

      “Peaceful civil disobedience means breaking bad laws openly, and 4/20 is still a demonstration of that,” Vandermeer adds. “People still believe there is something to fight for. That hasn’t changed.”

      Every year, the park board withholds a licence for one of the city’s largest events, and that hasn’t changed with the event going into its 25th year.

      A few weeks prior, Barker introduced a motion to urge city councillors to discuss a new venue for the unsanctioned event. Although she had no suggestion for an alternate location, she says it can’t stay at its current spot, Sunset Beach Park, at the mouth of False Creek. The protest was originally mounted at Victory Square, then moved to the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Over the years, it outgrew the downtown core. Although the new site has been contentious for the past three years, some politicians are pivoting away from location talks and instead taking a new approach to halting the gathering, fixating on the legitimacy of the word protest in light of the plant’s newly legalized status. Conversation around 4/20 is dissolving into a game of semantics.

      “After years of staging the annual protest, we’re now in a new era of legalization. They made it,” Kirby-Yung wrote in a recent Daily Hive op-ed, glossing over a list of issues that activists, medical patients, and consumers have flagged since pot’s legalization in late 2018.

      Backers say 4/20 is relevant even after legalization.

      Piper Courtenay

      She continued: “It’s a party on the residents’ dollar and it’s a trade show.”

      Kirby-Yung says Pride started as a protest and “grew and evolved”, and so should 4/20—although the former operates with a permit, sanctioned locations, and city funding.

      “They say, ‘You got what you wanted,’ but they continue to act the same way they did under prohibition. Have you seen anything change in the way they handled 4/20 this year than any year before? No. Of course not,” event organizer Williams says. “We’re still treated like third-class citizens.”

      Commissioner Coupar used the Monday park-board meeting to take aim at the event’s musical headliner, Cypress Hill, filing an “urgent motion” to formally request the board to ask organizers to cancel the rap group’s appearance for fear of the gathering getting “out of hand”; the board voted in favour. In a media statement, Coupar referred to the upcoming day of peaceful civil disobedience as a “commercial venture”—later telling reporters at City Hall that police could prevent the stage being set up. Mayor Kennedy Stewart told CBC that any such police action is unlikely.

      “The event is not about profit, but we need to generate revenue,” event organizer Larsen clarifies. “We spend over $150,000 each year for protection of the park, our own emergency services, food and water, printing bills, our own site security. It’s a very long list of things.”

      Last year, organizers also paid more than $63,000 to the city to cover costs to the public, not including two $4,200 donations to St. Paul’s Hospital and Vancouver firefighters. The one fee they did not pony up was a $44,000 policing bill, which Larsen says no other protest is asked to pay.

      As for continued use of the word protest, event organizers say there are now more discriminatory and ineffective laws to challenge than ever before.

      “Critics seem to think in order for it to be a protest we all have to be poor and disorganized,” activist Jodie Emery adds. “We are demonstrating that we are all normal people. This is what a protest looks like. This is the cannabis community.”

      According to Emery, cannabis is now harder to access and more expensive, and carries with it a new catalogue of criminal sanctions.

      For example, although Canadians are now permitted to grow up to four pot plants in their private residence, they can be slapped with a fine of up to $5,000 and three months’ jail time if they are visible from the street. The charge can double for a repeat offence. This is one of about 50 new punishable offenses, including questionable impaired-driving laws.

      “There are so many examples in this legislation of cannabis being punished at a severity far beyond what you would get for the same kind of situation involving alcohol,” Larsen says.

      Williams says that neither lack of a permit nor political campaigning has ever stopped organizers from pulling off a “magical” event.

      “We completely operate as if we had a permit, even though they have vowed to never issue us one,” he adds.

      Organizers scan the ground with sonar to ensure correct generator placement, ship in toilets and trash receptacles, work alongside the police to contain crowds, coordinate with Vancouver health and safety officials, place protective mats on the grass to prevent damage, and hire engineers to erect the stage.

      “We do a good job of keeping it clean. Every year, we pay a lot of money and put in a lot of work to make sure the park is in mint condition when we’re done,” organizer Vandermeer says. This year, Weeds, a local dispensary chain, has also put together a volunteer “green team” to stay after hours to pick up refuse.

      “At the end of every event, a VPD rep shakes our hand and says it’s one of the best events in terms of lack of violence and damage,” Vandermeer adds. “This idea that we ruin the park and do this in defiance of the city are some of the biggest misconceptions.”

      While talking to the Straight, Williams lights a joint and muses for a moment on his years pulling the city together around weed.

      “It’s pretty fucking cool this group of people is still prepared to do this—stand up against the oppression, the authority, and without a bat of an eye after all these years of threats,” he says.

      Holding true to the definition of a protest, Vancouver’s 4/20 community is set to spark up at 4:20 p.m. on Saturday without the permission of the park board.

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