The first 4/20 rally held at Vancouver’s Sunset Beach felt as much like a music festival as a protest, with some vendors promoting Hollywood movies and smartphone apps rather than flouting drug laws.

Near the event stage, a man handed out free swag for “Keanu,” an upcoming action-comedy about a kidnapped kitten, to young women in swimsuits. Metres away, WeedMap promoted its strictly-legal phone app, which helps users find the nearest dispensary location.

But the markings of 4/20’s protest past were still there. Between live musical acts, a man took the stage to criticize Vancouver’s current crackdown on dispensaries, accusing the city of being unnecessarily heavy-handed with an industry insistent that it presents little harm to the community.

Organizer Jodie Emery acknowledged Vancouver’s 4/20 has evolved from a pure protest to a hybrid event that mixes celebrating pot culture with peaceful civil disobedience. If all goes well, she said, the protest aspect will soon be gone altogether.

“Hopefully this will be a legally sanctioned event where everything is exactly the same but nobody is seen as a criminal,” she said. “ Eventually I’d like it to be like the gay pride parade, where they protested against being criminalized and now they can just celebrate.”

Wednesday’s event started hours after the federal Liberals announced plans to introduce their much-anticipated marijuana legalization law next spring. Emery said depending on how Justin Trudeau’s government chooses to approach the issue, there could still be plenty to protest next year.

“If the Liberals introduce legislation that’s heavily restricted and continues to criminalize people, that’s not full legalization and we’ll have to keep protesting,” she said.

Health and safety concerns

While some vendor tents were focused on corporate promotion, the vast majority were cashing in on Vancouver’s large market of weed smokers by selling everything from bongs to pot-infused cereal.

Leading up to the event, health officials urged sellers to turn away underage kids to avoid a repeat of last year’s 4/20 rally, where more than 60 attendees – many of them teenagers – were admitted to St. Paul’s Hospital for marijuana intoxication.

Edibles were the main culprit blamed for issues including anxiety, upset stomachs, and in some cases symptoms of psychosis.

“We’d really like to warn people about the risks associated with marijuana consumption, particularly edibles, and we’d like to ask those participating in the event not to sell products to anyone under the age of 19,” said Dr. Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health.

Extra doctors and nurses were staffed at St. Paul’s on Wednesday to deal with any potential influx of pot patients. By the mid-afternoon, officials said eight 4/20 attendees had checked into the Emergency Room.

Some of the tables at Sunset Beach had signs indicating they wouldn’t sell to minors. Ben Rees, co-founder of mail-order dispensary Eagle Eye Online Foundation, said he’s seen a lot more awareness this year among vendors who are eager to avoid the bad publicity the hospitalizations caused in 2015.

“Of course you don’t want people getting sick and going to the hospital,” Rees said. “That’s the complete opposite of what we want from these events.”

Rees said he wasn’t aware of any orders from organizers to turn away underage attendees, however.

“We all know that’s where the police draw the line. But in terms of an organized thing, it’s just the general vibe. People just now,” he said.

But some vendors were clearly taking the issue less seriously than others. Two 17-year-old girls, who would only speak on condition of anonymity, said they had no trouble buying edibles, pre-rolled joints and bagged marijuana at the event.

They told CTV News they had experience with edibles, and weren’t concerned about any ill-effects.

“It’s just like getting drunk and getting a hangover in the morning. That’s it,” one said.

Paying for police

As always, dozens of police officers and paramedics were on hand to ensure everyone attending 4/20 stayed safe. The park board also hired additional lifeguards to patrol the beaches over concerns that stoned swimmers would run into trouble in the water.

The Vancouver Police Department confirmed there was one water rescue Wednesday after a man tried to swim across to Kitsilano. 

Board chair Sarah Kirby-Yung said that’s one reason the group begged city staff to push organizers toward a different venue months ago.

“Unfortunately, the mayor chose not to work with us on our request to find an alternate location,” Kirby-Yung said.

Mayor Gregor Robertson’s office said the rally is an unsanctioned protest, not a permitted event, so there’s little the city could have done to force organizers’ hands.

Sanctioned or not, the annual event still costs taxpayers. All told, last year’s 4/20 left Vancouver with a bill of around $90,000, and that total could balloon even larger this year.

But Emery believes the health and safety concerns around 4/20 are overblown, and said organizers have never needed or requested a police presence from the city.

“We don’t want anyone hurt, but there never really is anyone hurt at 4/20. It’s an extraordinarily successful event of this size to have no fights, no violence, and no problems,” she said.

The people who attend the protest are taxpayers as well who finance policing at every other event in the city, she added.

Splinter group protesting at historic site

While the vast majority of 4/20 participants gathered at Sunset Beach, some pot protestors set up tents and a stage at the Vancouver Art Gallery, where the rally was held for decades, hoping to catch people who missed the news of the relocation.

“Lots of people for decades have been trained to come to this site. We expect thousands, and we have thousands of cannabis doobies to pass out. People have been rolling them for days,” said Ron Woodruff, who helped organize the splinter group..

Woodruff said the event, which blocked off part of Robson Street, is free for anyone who wants to take part, while many vendors paid hundreds of dollars for a spot at the beach.

“It’s not a dueling protest thing. We’ve been doing this thing for years here. No one consulted us about any kind of a move,” he added. “There’s no hard feelings.”

Police estimate around 25,000 were gathered at Sunset Beach at the height of the protest, the same number estimated to have been outside the Vancouver Art Gallery at the peak of last year's 4/20 rally. 

With files from CTV Vancouver’s Scott Roberts and Scott Hurst