What started as a small “Smoke Out” with friends to protest Canada’s marijuana laws more than two decades ago has grown into a celebration of civil disobedience that draws tens of thousands of pot puffers in Vancouver each April 20th.

An estimated 50,000 people are expected to attend Wednesday’s 4/20 rally, which for the first time will be held on one of the city’s iconic – and non-smoking – beaches.

Although the true origin of the term 4/20 is widely debated, it’s more or less accepted that it originated in the 1970s with the band The Grateful Dead, and a group of high school stoners in San Rafael, Calif., that took to smoking a joint after school – around 4:20 p.m. By the 1990s, 4:20 p.m. was generally considered to be the time for the “the toke of the day,” with groups of pot smokers around the world taking part, according to a Cannabis Culture article explaining the roots of the cannabis “high holiday.”

In Vancouver, a formalized 4/20 event didn’t start until 1995. That’s when two workers at “Prince of Pot” Marc Emery’s store downtown asked for his permission to hold an organized event in nearby Victory Square to publicly denounce the Canadian laws – and enforcement – around marijuana smoking.

That inaugural year, around 200 people enjoyed music and marijuana in the small park in the afternoon -- a tiny but peaceful gathering that lasted just a few hours.

And then it grew, and quickly. In just one year the event doubled to 500 people, with revelers showing up at noon and staying for the entire day. That’s when a decision was made to move the event to the Vancouver Art Gallery, the city’s traditional site for protests.

By 1997, the event, now in its much larger home base, drew more than 1,000 people. It was also the same year 4/20 started being celebrated simultaneously across North America.

“It was only because of Vancouver and Marc Emery and our grassroots team that people around the world looked to us and said ‘that looks amazing. We should do the same.’ Now there are hundreds and hundreds of events globally,” said Jodie Emery, Marc’s wife and owner of Cannabis Culture magazine.

The annual pot rally has grown in leaps and bounds in the past decade, but it has not been without controversy.

By 2011, the rally started allowing vendors like head shops and other pot-based businesses to set up tents to showcase their wares. While marijuana wasn’t sold openly on the tables, it was happening behind the scenes.

“Some people would sell marijuana out of their backpack and it was a risk they took. Police would arrest them,” said Emery.

Emery says at least some of those arrests were defrayed by what activists refer to as “Hug Power,” where people lock arms with each other and around the person being detained to exercise civil disobedience in a non-violent way.

marijuana infused products

With Colorado and Washington State making history by voting for the legalization of recreational pot in 2012, Vancouver saw a spike of people jumping into the dispensary trade in the city. And some of those operators started selling weed at the rally that year, likely as a result of the relaxation around pot laws in the U.S., says Emery.

“There were a few dispensaries being civilly disobedient. Many of the people operating underground finally felt comfortable coming out and participating,” she said.

With an increased public acceptance for the decriminalization of marijuana, the year 2014 marked a sort of gold rush in the Vancouver pot dispensary game. Rally organizers saw a big boom in the number of dispensaries opening, and also more businesses that wanted to set up at the 4/20 protest.

Last year’s 20-year milestone for the rally also arguably marked the event’s most politicized year. Marc and Jodie Emery had a strong message for all attendants: Use your voting power to oust Stephen Harper to make way for Justin Trudeau, who was promising to regulate and legalize marijuana in Canada.

“There was a lot of excitement to get Harper out, and vote the Liberals in,” said Emery.

4/20 rally

The 2015 rally also saw a record-number of attendees taken to hospital. A total of 64 people were hospitalized with various symptoms including heart palpitations and nausea. Many had apparently over-indulged in edible marijuana products, according to health officials, who are now calling for organizers to stop selling edibles to people under 25 years old.

Far from its humble roots, last year’s event drew an estimated 25,000 people to the art gallery, and caused traffic chaos as revelers spilled onto key commuter routes during the afternoon rush hour. It became clear that the once-tiny smoke out had outgrown its home.

This year’s 4/20 rally is rolling into a new home base: to the city’s scenic Sunset Beach, an unusual move given the non-smoking bylaw in the park. Not everyone is happy about the move. The Vancouver Park Board has called on Mayor Gregor Robertson to push the event away from the city shores, citing health and safety concerns.

It’s also worried some residents, who don’t fancy the idea of pot smokers packing the shores of the West End. With concerns over marijuana smoke leeching into the ventilation system of the Vancouver Aquatic Centre, the city-run pool and community centre will be closed for the day.

This year’s 4/20 rally will include a heavy police presence, as well as on-site life guards, provided by the park board in a bid to keep people out of the water. And with unseasonably warm temperatures expected, organizers believe this will be the biggest Smoke Out in history.

Initially intended to voice opposition to Canada’s pot prohibition, detractors argue Vancouver’s 4/20 events have become more party than protest, with dozens of vendors openly selling pot paraphernalia and edible weed products before the annual “joint toss” and ceremonial smoke out at 4:20 p.m.

But with Vancouver city council threatening to shut down unlicensed medical marijuana dispensaries at the end of the month, and Justin Trudeau’s promise to legalize weed still unfulfilled, Emery believes there is still work to do.

“This year we realize we’re needed more than ever,” said Emery. “Until marijuana is legalized everyone at this rally is still seen as a criminal in the eyes of the government. It is still illegal and people get arrested every day.”