Mark Leffingwell/Reuters

Mainstream and mellow in Denver on 4/20

Crowds celebrate cannabis at a downtown pot fest with music, funnel cake and little fear of arrest

At 4:20 p.m. on 4/20 in Denver's Civic Center Park, Scott Eskra, Cheri Clark and thousands of others lit up vapor pens, joints, blunts and bongs.

"Light that s--- up!" came a shout from the stage of Denver’s 420 Rally.

"Whoooo-hoo!" shouted Eskra, as a cloud of marijuana smoke rose from the park, between Colorado's state Capitol and Denver's City Hall.

Then hip-hop artist B.o.B. took the stage, performing his song "High as Hell."

420 events  — from police radio code for marijuana smoking in progress, according to one version of the origin story  — began sometime in the 1990s in California. These days, informal gatherings take place not just in California
but across the U.S. and in Canada

Denver’s public rally was just one of many celebrations in this first year of legal retail marijuana sales in the state. Even the conservative bastion of Colorado Springs hosted a cannabis technology expo on Saturday and Sunday.

Denver’s 420 event carried more than a whiff of state fair, with funnel cakes and ethnic food on offer in kiosks selling hemp lollipops and bongs. 

The Cannabis Cup, sponsored by High Times magazine, sold out for the weekend and snarled traffic midday Saturday and Sunday along Interstate 25 north of downtown. Repeats of the expo are scheduled in San Francisco; Flint, Mich.; and Seattle later this year.

Music was a key element of the festivities, with Snoop Dogg and Slightly Stoopid playing in the nearby town of Morrison and the Cannabis Cup. Wyclef Jean and B.o.B. played the Civic Center event, and local jam band Leftover Salmon played outside a bar. 

For Eskra, 48, who said he divides his time between Denver and San Diego, Sunday's rally symbolized progress in marijuana legalization.

"We joked about this when we were kids in high school, smoking a joint in the backseat of a car," he said, later pointing out that he was smoking Scott’s OG from Green Man Cannabis, a Denver medical marijuana dispensary.

We wanted to see it the first year it’s legal. It’s great. You see people wearing suits and people half-naked with tattoos.

Mark Rodriguez

Santa Fe, N.M., resident at Denver’s 4/20 event

Young women in short skirts and heels peddled products during the 420 event. Vendors sold vapor pens, tie-dyed togs, elaborate glass pipes and, of course, plenty of food.

Mark Rodriguez, 22, drove with friends from Santa Fe, N.M., to attend the event.

"We decided to take a road trip at the last minute," he said. "We wanted to see it the first year it's legal. It's great. You see people wearing suits and people half-naked with tattoos."

A Coors beer truck was parked outside a city building, which had with a full bar inside. Ingesting marijuana in public is illegal under Colorado’s new law; drinking beer is allowed at indoor venues.

Sipping a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, Tae Rhee of Seattle scoped out the scene from the second-floor bar. At 29, he's with Rain City Cannabis, a Seattle medical dispensary, and wanted to investigate Denver's retail marijuana stores. They opened in January, almost six months before their counterparts are scheduled to open in Washington, the other state that has legalized pot. Other states are contemplating legalization.

"This is a huge event," said Rhee. "The atmosphere is very chill, very relaxed."

Lou Elder of Lee's Summit, Mo., walked around the perimeter of the downtown Denver festival after attending a marketing event sponsored by Kannaway, a company that sells hemp botanicals. The 71-year-old said she doesn't smoke marijuana anymore because it's illegal in Missouri.

"I think it's fabulous. I was one of these 50 years ago," she said motioning at young people in the park. "I am a gardener. I'm into plants. I'm most interested in growing it so I can juice it and drink it directly."

Joseph Schaeffer, 34, of Denver, wore a classic "D.A.R.E. to keep kids off drugs" T-shirt from his Florida school days and said he was "celebrating freedom."

"Can we finally end the war on drugs?" he asked. "Let's save the millions and billions [on enforcement] and put it into rehab."

Cannabis edibles

But the celebration came amid consternation over cannabis edibles in Colorado.

In March a 19-year-old Wyoming man jumped to his death from a hotel balcony after eating a cookie containing a high level of THC, the main mind-altering ingredient in cannabis. And on April 14 a Denver man shot and killed his wife as she called emergency dispatchers to say that her husband was hallucinating after ingesting marijuana and possibly prescription painkillers.

Colorado’s legislature is considering a law that would require manufacturers to make cannabis edibles easily distinguished from regular food. Edibles already must be placed in childproof packaging.

On this sunny spring Sunday, security guards and Denver Police patrolled Civic Center Park, with a tower in the middle to overlook the crowd. Paramedics stood by to care for those with medical problems.

Miguel Lopez, an event organizer, sat in a small room behind one of two stages early Sunday, holding a glass pipe with a full bowl of bud. He said a shooting at last year’s event prompted the heavy security.

"We've been very cooperative with the Denver Police Department," he said. "We've never encouraged anybody to break the law."

Lopez said in a text message later in the day that drones with cameras flying over the crowd were being operated by rally organizers, but he didn't say if they were for surveillance, fun or both.

Police tweeted late Sunday that there were 63 citations or arrests at the event — 47 for public consumption, including a dozen to out-of-staters. There were 32 arrests or citations on Saturday.

"Last year there was no security to get in, and I was here for the shooting," Eskra said. "I was glad to see people get patted down."

As 4:20 neared, there was even a bit of a nod to Easter as a man dressed as Jesus moved through the crowd, selling headbands.

It was the third rally for Eskra, and he attended with Clark, his girlfriend; his son, Devin, 25, of St. Louis; and his son's girlfriend, Tamisha, 26, of Illinois. The youngsters asked that their last names not be used for fear that employers and friends might recognize them. Tamisha cautioned Devin to avoid posting on social media his selfie with the man dressed as Jesus and other photos.

Eskra observed that the Denver's rally has transitioned from civil disobedience to celebration, adding, "I'm glad I was here for both."

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