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Upcoming 4/20 pot fest a celebration for states where drug is legal

Marijuana advocates in Colorado mark their first 4/20 since recreational pot stores opened Jan. 1

Pot-smoking celebrations held each year on April 20 — 4/20 — have long given marijuana users around the world a chance to gather in defiance of what they see as unfair drug laws. But this year will be different for some of them: Instead of protesting marijuana prohibition, Colorado is celebrating its first 4/20 since the Jan. 1 opening of recreational pot stores in the state.

Pot enthusiasts in Colorado and elsewhere are planning parties and events promoting marijuana as personal and business pursuits. This year’s 4/20 comes as the arc of history starts to bend in advocates’ favor, as new polls show most Americans support the drug’s legalization and some municipalities across the country have decriminalized pot possession or regulated its sale.

While the mood remains optimistic, a 4/20 like this one is still uncharted territory for Colorado.

“This is the first year we’ve ever had a 4/20 where it was legal, so we don’t know what to expect. I think Coloradans are good at rolling with the punches and embracing new things,” Dougie Maloney, a Denver “budtender,” told Al Jazeera.

Maloney, busy with a rush of customers on Thursday, said that people don’t realize how much attention to detail goes into the marijuana business.

“I think that the farther away from Colorado you are, the more excited you are about it because fantasy takes over," he said. "Here in Colorado, we are very focused on compliance law and inventory limits and making sure that we end the prohibition of cannabis in a responsible way.”

Among visitors to the state, for example, Maloney said, edible marijuana products are a popular purchase, but he warned that people need to realize highs from those products can last longer and be more intense than the feeling after a puff of a joint or pipe.

Another issue is that smoking in public is still against the law in Colorado, and doing so can earn violators fines.

“People who are behaving responsibly will find that the Denver police are very reasonable people. And people who are choosing to act the fool will have a less pleasant experience,” Maloney said. 

Statistics so far show no increase in crime in Denver since legalization of the drug, although a shooting that injured three marred a marijuana celebration in Denver last August.

Denver police didn’t return request for comment on how they are preparing for the weekend events. 

Kevin Oliver, executive director for the Washington state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said that celebrations in Denver are the premier place for pot smokers to be this year.

“That’s the biggest party in the land,” he told Al Jazeera, referring to High Times magazine’s Cannabis Cup this weekend in Denver, where strains of potent weed compete for awards.

Meanwhile, Washington state, which legalized marijuana in 2012, celebrated its first post-legalization 4/20 last year and is gearing up to start licensing several hundred marijuana stores later this year. Oliver said people are “holding their breath” to find out who wins the licensing lottery.

Seattle, a hub of marijuana culture, will also see its share of happenings on April 20.

“There’s a plethora of events. There’s an event at Seattle Hempfest. There’s several dope cups around. A lot of people are throwing events to celebrate who’s growing the best marijuana,” Oliver said.

Rules still apply, even in a state where tolerance for marijuana use is high. As in Colorado, smoking in public is an offense in Washington.

And there are other ways to run afoul of the law. 

“If a cop sees you smoke a joint and you get in a car, I’d say you’re an idiot,” Oliver said, adding that police administer a sensitive test to determine who’s smoking and driving.

Oliver said that in his opinion — and perhaps other marijuana advocates’ — high driving is less of a problem than drunken driving.  

“I think people know when they’re too stoned to drive, unlike alcohol, when they don’t know when they’re too drunk to drive,” he said.

There is no scientific evidence to prove that driving stoned is safer or easier than driving drunk. And after alcohol, marijuana is the second most common drug found “in the blood of impaired drivers, fatally injured drivers and motor vehicle crash victims,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Since legalization, the Colorado Department of Transportation has launched a campaign to stop driving while stoned.

Oliver said that the cannabis culture in Washington is mellower and that rapid commercialization of the industry in Colorado has encouraged stores to advertise using images of scantily clad women and gimmicky regalia.

In Washington, he said, “It’s that demographic of typical stoners or hippies that do respect women. It’s more, ‘Let’s keep it natural and organic.’ It’s a whole different vibe up here.”

But Colorado’s 4/20 Rally website throws a jab at Washington’s slower market ramp-up after marijuana legalization.

“While Washington state has floundered in their attempts to create a robust regulatory infrastructure to govern the industry, Colorado has taken aggressive steps to ensure the marijuana industry realizes its potential in a credible, responsible manner,” the website reads.

“Colorado is the epicenter of the industry, and all eyes will be on Denver on 4/20/14.”

The legalization has brought big tax revenues for the state, while Washington is still waiting on the opening of its first marijuana stores. 

But Maloney in Denver said cultural comparisons were invalid because of the wide spectrum of marijuana users, growers and sellers.

“I actually think that cannabis extends to many different subcultures, so that making direct comparisons sort of overgeneralizes the amount of internal diversity that each community has,” he said.

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