“It’s a celebration more so than it is a protest,” my roommate Zach says to me as we walk around the packed social gathering that has become 420. Vancouver is a hub of cannabis culture, having been the first place to begin the series of protests that have become 420 rallies across the world. For a political rally, 420 has truly become a celebration of cannabis in all of its forms, with vendors and local drug dealers alike cashing in on the enthusiasm of the 30,000 individuals who came to this year’s rally. In total, there were two vendor booths that focused on policy based initiatives for ending the war on drugs, although there were also many dispensaries, which currently are fighting to stay alive under the new MMAR laws. The rally was tied together with amazing speeches by people like David Malmo Levine and Jodie Emery.
The Art Gallery
I arrived at the Vancouver Art Gallery at 2 PM to the smell of burning cannabis and two completely closed off streets covered in vendors and red-eyed youth. Everyone was smoking and partying, playing hacky sack and merrily ripping bongs. Police officers on bicycles rode by, no doubt slightly buzzed from the sheer amount of THC floating in the air. Those selling cannabis could be seen right beside brightly clothed police officers, who did nothing to stop them. Being at 420, one could almost forget that there is a war on drugs going on, or that cannabis is actually illegal.
There were four main areas of activity for those willing to be involved in blowing smoke at the system, including the main stage, the back of the art gallery, a side stage with a live band performing, and Robson Square skating rink. The main stage featured free weed being thrown into the crowd, by none other than David Malmo Levine, who between requests for people to sit down, reminded the crowd of the legacy he wanted to leave behind, namely, ending prohibition. Joints were launched at eager stoners trying to grab drugs that they would light at 4:20 PM.
The skating rink was filled with people relaxedly smoking, it had a completely different atmosphere to the other three spaces, in that one could walk with ease through the groups of underage stoners, and their older brothers-in-bongs. The rest of the spaces required maximum patience to walk through, as the groups of people wandering around created a barely penetrable wall.
“Plant the seeds of freedom, overgrow the government” – Jodie Emery
There were 3 political groups with vendor spaces at 420: the Liberals, the anti-enbridge activists, and Sensible BC.
The Liberal Party had a booth, and a petition to legalize cannabis, as well as a flyers that on one side read “Keep Calm and Legalize it,” and on the otherside had an invitation for a Liberal townhall panel with Jodie Emery, Dana Larsen, John Conroy and Steve Finlay. I talked to the Liberal canvassers, and they proudly told me about how they were the only party with a booth and had been coming to 420 for the past three years. The Liberal Party has been the only political party making serious inroads against Harper in fighting for cannabis reform, although their stance on other illicit substances contradicts their research-based approach to cannabis.
To show solidarity between policy reformers, I walked by a tent with anti-pipeline signs. The group was extremely responsive to cannabis legalization, and wanted to help stop the Keystone XL Pipeline. They were very enthusiastic about the social change that could occur at events like this, and their signs were a refreshing sight, in a sea of cannabis vendors.
The last political group with a vending table was Sensible BC (I heard the Green Party was there, however, they remained elusive, and I never found them at 420). Considering the current political climate in Canada, Dana Larsen’s project to decriminalize cannabis by redirecting policing funds through a referendum is one of the few hopes for true grassroots reform. Sensible BC fell through last November when they were unable to meet the minimum requirements they needed to have a referendum. Zach was volunteering with Sensible at 420 as they tried to find more volunteers to help them prepare for another chance at achieving electoral reform through a direct democratic process. Not everyone was comfortable with signing up to help the cause. Some were afraid that said information would be released to the government, and refused to sign up. Sensible BC was extremely happy to have anyone come up and help them, and were extremely nice to me when I talked to them.
The most political place of all was of course, the main stage. Jodie Emery gave an impassioned speech about freeing her husband, Marc Emery, and the need for everyday citizens to get involved in stopping Stephen Harper. Politician and activist, Jodie Emery has become part of the face of cannabis protest in Vancouver, only possibly overshadowed by the large picture of Marc Emery smoking in the background, a reminder that prohibition can still have personal consequences. She promised that when Marc Emery was released they would fight against Stephen Harper, joints flew in the air as cheering elevated the crowd.
Questions still remain. Where were the NDP at 420? The party’s membership has actively voted for cannabis legalization, and drug decriminalization at their General Meetings. The NDP’s lack of involvement in this issue is disconcerting at best. Jack Layton did an interview with Marc Emery back in 2003, and although the NDP stepped back from full legalization in 2010, decriminalization was still at least a viable option. Mulcair’s unwillingness to talk on the issue has endangered some of his pro-cannabis MP’s.
Secondly, the lack of harm reduction materials at 420 plays into arguments by people who wish to see cannabis criminalized. A religious organization prayed for the souls of all those at 420. One can only imagine that their belief that cannabis is sinful and hedonistic can only be helped by a lack of harm reduction information and adequate risk assessment. A recent post on Reddit “The Front Page of the Internet,” asked about the negative effects of cannabis, and the amount of level-headed responses was huge! One table was offering free water with purchases of ‘bud’, which was a great start, although full acknowledgement by organizers might help clear the air. I saw at least one person being treated by paramedics, and while that is actually pretty good for an event of this size, actions could still be taken to implement safer cannabis usage.
At 4:10 PM, Levine intensified his requests to sit down, as he threw joints into the air. The crowd was energized, the excitement for 4:20 PM reaching new highs. Bands played songs about smoking ganja as people sat on the damp pavement outside the front of the Vancouver Art Gallery, awaiting the moment when the countdown would begin, and the clock would strike. We counted 20…19…18…17…16…15…14…13…12…11…10…9…8…7…6…5…4…3…2…1… Happy 420! Joints were lit and passed around, reggae music filled the silence that was a chant, and The Art Gallery filled with smoke, as cannabis enthusiasts burned their weed in solidarity.