Piper Courtenay:

We’re already bored of these 4/20 arguments, and it’s not even April yet

Can you smell the smoke? Can you feel the “second-hand high” already coursing through your veins? Can you hear the panicked toe-tapping and nail gnawing emanating from the bowels of city hall as the day draws closer and closer? Can you hear the distant cry—“it’s still a protest!”—of a gathering crowd of activists? Did a free joint just hit you in the eye?

Well, that might be because Vancouver is about to catch a case of the 4/20’s, folks. If there’s one thing that scares conservative commentators and councillors more than the nouveau plague, it’s a bunch of stoners smoking in a park. Come mid-March, the Twitter feeds of local media outlets and keyboard warriors alike (particularly those interested in scooping up the quick clicks) will be awash in passive aggressive tension, sweeping generalizations, stigmatizing language, and a dubious concern for the turf skirting Sunset Beach Park. And, as always, the wrath of the city’s long standing cannabis liberation brigade will be waiting anxiously to counter with the full digital brunt of their thumbs.

For your viewing pleasure, ladies and gentlestoners, this year’s 4/20 rhetoric is going to take hold of your feeds for an entire month. As it’s the fourth month of the year 2020, the celebrations start April 1 and will slowly burn through to the end of the month. This means 4/20 parties, pre-smokeouts, pre-pre-smokeouts, afterparties, post-afterparties, and come downs. And don’t think it's just the underground culture set to ring in the cannabrations this year. All those newly licensed, legalized, and legitimized culture vultures will be waiting on cue to pick the flesh off the bones of the old guard activist community long since trampled over by a fevered mob fixated on revenue. (While “standing on the shoulders” of an industry’s forefathers serves an oratorically romantic purpose, one often ignores the fact those individuals are still beneath one’s boots. And it’s an idiom generally uttered only by the one with the good view.)

In the off-chance my bias has not already exposed itself: I am a fan of Vancouver’s annual 4/20 farmer’s market and protest. In past years, I’ve attended and covered the official event at both the Vancouver Art Gallery and Sunset Beach Park, and in 2019 I co-hosted the live broadcast. This iconic protestival is where my first chapter with Vancouver’s thriving and passionate weed community began. Ask me and I’ll tell you it’s a warm celebration of the more classical underpinnings of west coast stoner culture, minus the California tan. Ask me when I’m stoned and I’ll tell you in the rising tide of vitriolic, capitalistic rapaciousness and divisive corporate interest, 4/20 is the resin that keeps buds sticking together. But akin to other acts of civil disobedience, especially the resilient and successful ones, 4/20 and its supporters have naturally garnered some equally eloquent enemies. Every year, a handful of city councillors, media personalities, journalists, and everyday Vancouverites express their frustrations about the event—some legitimate, some painfully tone-deaf. Ask them, and the day is a noisy, smelly nuisance inspired by thinly veiled greed serving no current sociopolitical purpose, better held anywhere other than Vancouver’s West End.

To be explicit, I don’t hate, or even hardline disagree, with many of these critics. In fact, I drool at the thought of an educated debate on just about anything. But I am seeing less and less scintillating arguments, from both sides of the aisle, and I’m growing rather bored. And, like every year passed, the public is sure to see yet another weed season riddled with the most vocal pro- and anti-4/20 commentators grasslighting one another over for the failings and faults of a pretty standard example of capitalism and its fraternal twin social movement.

So, in an attempt to inspire at least a sprinkling of originality this year, here are four arguments surrounding Vancouver’s annual 4/20 protestival I’m already bored of:

Pollution: Noise, air, and litter

Every year, the conversation generally kicks off with fears around the number of people anticipated to fill Sunset Beach Park (the event’s home since moving from the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2016), and the potential for pollution—from noise and smoke, to discarded roaches and general garbage.

Considering official organizers estimated nearly 150,000 attendees filtered through Sunset Beach Park in 2019, this argument has legs. Any occasion in which tens of thousands of individuals congregate in one place is going to have an impact on the surrounding neighborhood. But what irks me about the pollution dialogue is the blatant hypocrisy of calling out the environmental imposition of 4/20, while events like the Honda Celebration of Lights, one of Vancouver's largest and most publicized outdoor events, draws an annual crowd of 1.4 million people. The annual celebration has left the city’s waterfront, streets, and parks filthy for days afterwards. The cleanup requires dozens of Vancouver city workers and beach groomers to tidy the mess. And the parks board generally just tosses out a statement or two reminding fireworks goers to pack out their garbage.The fears are considerably more overblown, however, when it comes to how cannabis consumers leave the same public space. Furthermore, what strikes me as odd in this argument is while everyone plugs their nose at the cloud of non-toxic cannabis smoke produced at 4:20 p.m. (a valid concern for some sensitive lungs of onlookers, minors, or non-consuming residents), very few draw attention to the highly toxic pollution to the water or air caused by fireworks laden with heavy metals and chemicals.

It rarely is mentioned in media coverage that a team of 4/20 organizers and volunteers help set up and tear down. Last year, the “green team” began cleaning up at 7 p.m. and stayed late into the evening picking up trash to ensure a flawless inspection the following day. Save a few minor impressions on the grass, the grounds were spotless. This sadly has never quite been enough to stop the parks board from overreacting and, last year, promising to shut the park down for a month following the event anyway (a projection it quietly reduced once people lost interest in the conversation).

Safety concerns: Crowds, cars, and ER visits

Despite common rhetoric, every year 4/20 organizers hold several meetings with city officials, including members of the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) to prepare for the sizable event. And, every year, VPD officers and other emergency staff are onsite to close roads, divert traffic, contain crowd spillage, and mitigate potential incidents. This presence includes a few firetrucks, paramedics, and ambulances on standby (for which 4/20 organizers get billed). On top of that, there are two onsite emergency facilities: a first-aid station (last year manned by Odyssey Medical) in the upper parking lot behind the stage and a “green out tent” located beside the farmer’s market, stocked with water, remedies, and food in the case of an overconsumption. The event is also staffed with private security to further reduce problems.

And every year, 4/20 goes off relatively incident-free. In 2019, event organizer Dana Larsen reported 42 emergency room visits, with no official admissions or cases involving minors. The VPD said in a press release that it issued over 30 tickets, with three investigations into impaired driving, and assisted B.C. Emergency Health Services with 14 medical emergencies.

In a public statement, VPD spokesperson Sgt. Jason Robillard commended the event as “a good example of remarkable teamwork between the Vancouver Police, fellow first responders, the Vancouver park board, and the City of Vancouver, allowing for a safe environment during a large-scale event.” Even police chief Adam Palmer has publicly lauded the safety of 4/20.

The police officers I’ve spoken to in previous years have praised the event for being one of the city’s safest and friendliest, and furthermore, usually quip about not having much to do.

This is a fantastic response considering these first responders are consistently tasked with putting out fires at other citywide events, speaking literally in the case of Halloween in 2019, which saw 36 fires and over $3 million in damages. And we all know what can happen when we lose a hockey game.

To be clear, if 4/20 is not the only large-scale public gathering that comes with a safety risk. A number of West End dog owners speak out against any fireworks in the area citing the loud noises and commotion can reduce their pets to trembling puddles of nerves. And liquor soaked events, like music festivals featuring beer and wine gardens, are commonly criticized for increasing the potential of violence, impaired driving, and physical injury. When you have gatherings of this calibre, there are bound to be legitimate security concerns—and a bunch of stoners smoking out a beachfront park is no different. But let’s have this dialogue understanding that no 4/20 organizer wants to ignore the potential for risk, and acknowledge their thus far successful efforts to evade major incidents.

Location, location, location

Now, let’s turn our attention to nimbyism surrounding 4/20’s home at Sunset Beach Park. This generally churns up the most senseless snark in the snakes nest of weedy debate. To provide context: the annual protestival has never received a permit. Despite many concerted attempts to appease the demands of city officials (from settling bills to protecting the grass), including numerous roundtables and appeals, the pleading of organizers has always fallen on deaf ears.

The brunt of political pushback comes from the city’s park board, and last year was no different as commissioner Tricia Barker put forth a motion to have the event moved. To where? Well, that was the bigger issue. When board members, including Barker, were explicitly asked for a new location, or at least suggestions, they came up with nothing concrete. The general sentiment was, “you can’t smoke in our parks, so you’ll just have to do it in someone else’s”. Needless to say, this was not an entirely effective answer for a farmer’s market comprising 300 vendors drawing over 150,000 attendees. Moving that circus is no small feat. With no clear alternatives provided, 4/20 is set to take place at Sunset Beach Park again this year. And many of the casually proposed venues, like the PNE, have long-since shut down any exploratory conversation.

If Kelowna’s residents, or those of Squamish or Victoria, want a 4/20 event, all the power to them. Many of these municipalities already play host to similar events—and the more, the Mary Jane. (In fact encouraging and empowering events in other cities may help quell the numbers in Vancouver, as many attendees currently travel for lack of one in their hometown.) We’ll all get high at 4:20 p.m. together regardless of where you spark up. But every year, Vancouver’s residents show up for this event—thousands—which is case enough to justify finding a way to make it happen here, too. Ignoring the desires of those residents is just as insidious and lazy as ignoring any other vocal body speaking up in your city. Granted, passing the buck onto other unsuspecting municipalities is a considerably easier prospect than actually admitting fault in the years of pushback against a safe, friendly, and well-attended event.

“It’s still a protest”

You’ll hear this phrase a lot from activists who’ve lead the 4/20 charge for many years—think flag bearers like the Medical Cannabis Dispensary’s founder Dana Larsen, Cannabis Culture’s Jodie Emery, and lead 4/20 organizer and host Greg “Marijuana Man” Williams. On the opposite side of the aisle, you’ll hear people like CKNW host Linda Steele, city councillor Melissa DeGenova, and park board commissioner John Coupar rebut something along the lines of: “it generates money, thereby it’s no longer a protest!”

Well—besides the fact that many cities have no legal consumption spaces, medical cannabis is still heavily taxed, home growing carries arbitrary restrictions and fines, important compassion clubs are being shuttered, impaired driving laws are scientifically flawed, the international community is riddled with discriminatory laws, farm-to-table sales are hindered, the federal and municipal licensing processes are plagued with barriers to access, advertising restrictions prevent even the most basic level of consumer education, and medical patients are getting shafted by the recreational market—legalization has been just peachy. Beyond that intentionally painful run-on sentence, how can any political figure, journalist, or commentator tell anyone what constitutes a “protest”? It’s a fundamentally ignorant argument that overlooks both the simplest definitions of the word and the current state of the industry.

And, yes, 4/20 certainly has raked in cash in the past. And why shouldn’t it? The stage costs money, the headlining artists performing on the stage cost money, the cleanup (save for the volunteers) costs money, portable washroom rental, extension cords, sound systems, booths, environmental protection, security—you got it—cost money. And money doesn’t just grow on weed stalks, kids. (Well, figuratively, it does… but it has to be good, and you have to cure it, trim it, move it, and get a licence if you want the big bucks these days. I digress.)

But this event is not making considerable profit. Every year, after bills are paid and donations are made, organizers effectively break even. Considering the restrictions and clamp downs brought on by legalization, this year will mean considerably less financial support as swaths of illicit market vendors have left the industry, legal vendors can’t endorse illegal events, and advertising restrictions prevent ancillary companies from cannabis-centric marketing.

This event isn’t a performative wokeness. It is a 25-year-strong success story started by a group of passionate activists in the heart of the city’s most dejected community, which built itself into an internationally recognized celebration of the culture.

Long story not so short

Now, to close out this incredibly long winded attempt at quelling another year of these absurd arguments plaguing feeds everywhere, I would like to state for the record that I have no intention of silencing valid debate. There are legitimate conversations that need to be had around the city’s event permitting process, safety concerns, crowd control, and even the efficacy of peaceful protests. I only ask that this year, everyone stays open minded, and that we have a progressive, fact-based, and inclusive dialogue without succumbing to needless insults or slander. Good weed may grow in the dirt, but good debate doesn’t need to roll in it.