Is 4/20 a commercial festival or a protest? Organizers say both
Published Thursday, April 20, 2017 4:01PM PDT
Last Updated Thursday, April 20, 2017 4:55PM PDT
Walking through the massive annual 4/20 event at Vancouver's Sunset Beach, it's hard to miss the similarities to farmer's markets and music festivals – including the mobile bank machines set up for easy access to cash.
Roughly 200 vendors hawk everything from clothing to paraphernalia to marijuana cookies to pot-infused cosmetics, including face creams, tinctures and anti-wrinkle serum.
What started 23 years ago as purely a protest of Canada's marijuana prohibition has clearly evolved over the decades. Its current form is a highly commercialized event that benefits from resigned cooperation from civic officials and police.
But organizers insist it also remains very much a protest rally, and will for years – despite the Trudeau government's promise to have the drug legalized by Canada Day 2018.
"Nothing has changed yet, of course. Cannabis is still illegal, people are still being arrested every day," pot advocate Dana Larsen told CTV News. "In the years to come if we finally get the legalization we're looking for then our event will only be a celebration, but we still have a lot of protesting to do."
There's certainly a lot of money being made in the meantime. It's unclear how much the event actually takes in, but there are 193 paid vendor booths on the official planning map and organizers ask for a $450 "donation" from each. That would amount to $87,000, before whatever money is made from sponsorships.
Organizers have promised to use some of the money collected to help offset the costs of policing and cleanup, which came to about $148,000 last year, though they have not gone into specifics.
Apart from the commercial side of the event, there remains overtly political aspects to Vancouver's 4/20, including protest speeches. Much of the current focus is on the federal government's proposal for legalization, which could change the face of 4/20 as pot enthusiasts know it.
It puts key decisions about how to license, distribute and sell the drug up to the provinces, and those decisions could end up severely diminishing the role of advocates who are already profiting off illegal dispensaries once marijuana goes mainstream.
The Canadian Pharmacists Association is lobbying to have medical cannabis sold in pharmacies, while both private and public liquor stores are trying to claim recreational sales, arguing their age-restricted stores would make the best fit for safety.
Larsen said he isn’t opposed to corporate or government sales, provided smaller dispensaries can still operate – a situation he likened to B.C.’s craft beer industry.
“Although we're happy Trudeau's introducing some form of legalization, it's by no means the end of our battle for equality,” Larsen said.
The federal proposal also aims to keep drugs out of the hands of young people by making it a serious criminal offence to sell to minors – something that undoubtedly goes on to some degree at the annual pot rally, according to the Vancouver Park Board.
Commissioner Sarah Kirby-Yung said municipal officials are working with organizers to get the next 4/20 moved, potentially into a covered stadium venue that would let them control who gets inside.
"You don't have to worry about dealing with weather issues but you can also avoid a lot of the challenges we saw last year, such as selling to minors," Kirby-Yung said.
A change of venue could also pave the way for officially sanctioning the event for the first time. The board narrowly rejected organizers' permit application this year in a 4-3 vote, which Kirby-Yung said hinged largely on the Sunset Beach location.
"This isn't a fit for a West End residential neighbourhood," she said, also noting the no-smoking bylaw that applies to beach and park spaces.
Permitting the event would allow the city to charge a hefty fee to recoup some of the costs of the event as well. Commissioners have already pledged to prepare an invoice after this year's 4/20, but it's not clear to what degree they’ll be able to compel organizers to pony up for costs.
With files from CTV Vancouver's Penny Daflos and Nafeesa Karim