Before organizers put together Denver’s first permitted 4/20 pro-marijuana rally seven years ago, Civic Center served as a magnet for ragtag gatherings of enthusiasts each April 20.
This year, it’s back to that old reality — in contrast to recent expanded 4/20 festivals that rolled out the green carpet for tens of thousands of people, plus vendors, for the all-important smoke-out in solidarity at 4:20 p.m.
The 4/20 fest likely will be back this year as a weekend event on Saturday and Sunday, with political speakers and big-name music acts dialed in with marijuana culture. But timing — April 20 is a Monday — and new Denver public event rules will keep the almost-guaranteed gathering at Civic Center disorganized on the annual pot holiday.
By that afternoon, the festival’s fences and stages and security checks, first introduced last year, will be gone. But officials expect plenty of people to show up Monday regardless.
Lead organizer Miguel Lopez applied to stretch last year’s Saturday/Sunday festival combo into Monday, but city officials denied that request.
The city cited a moratorium this year on new events in Denver’s big parks, including Civic Center, because the policy also bars recurring events from expanding their footprints or adding days. The Denver Post reported on the 2015 public event limits recently.
Denver police and the Office of Special Events say they will be ready for the possibility of unorganized crowds on April 20.
Festival organizers will have a deadline of noon that day to tear down their stages and fences, said Katy Strascina, executive director of the Denver Office of Special Events.
That’s several hours before the moment at 4:20 p.m. that marks the climax of a day laden with counter-cultural significance because of pot fans’ focus on the number “420.”
“Obviously, we expect plenty of people to come down anyway,” despite the lack of a sanctioned event, Denver Police Department spokesman Sonny Jackson said. “We’ll be staffed appropriately and will take appropriate measures that day,” geared primarily toward ensuring safety rather than mass-citations.
Typically, he said, the department shifts schedules before any expected large gathering or event with a need for a police presence to minimize or avoid paying overtime.
Elsewhere in Denver, High Times magazine’s Cannabis Cup is expanding to three days so that it concludes April 20 — a change that’s allowed because it’s hosted at the private Denver Mart.
While Strascina said moving the two-day 4/20 festival to a Sunday/Monday lineup was an option, Lopez said that change likely would have resulted in lower festival attendance, and lower proceeds for vendors and the nonprofit festival, throughout the day.
Lopez and others sparred with city officials last year in a standoff over their request, later withdrawn, for the city’s blessing of public marijuana consumption, despite a city ordinance against it. He says he doesn’t plan to test the issue this year.
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But while Lopez says Strascina is treating organizers well as they work out permit details, he suspects meddling from Mayor Michael Hancock’s office.
“I don’t think the mayor’s efforts are anything but patronizing,” Lopez said, citing Hancock’s opposition to Colorado’s marijuana legalization vote in 2012. “The mayor’s moratorium will give a black eye to the city. … He can’t change that around to make us look bad just because he lost (on legalization).”
Mayoral spokeswoman Amber Miller says the 4/20 fest isn’t being singled out, since the new restrictions apply to all events.
The 4/20 rallies have drawn scorn from public officials, especially as a flash-point over public pot-smoking. And in 2013, a shooting injured three attendees.
City Councilman Charlie Brown, long a critic of the 4/20 event, said he was glad the organizers weren’t granted a third day.
“It’s still a bad image for our city and, I think, for spreading the movement (of marijuana legalization) to other states,” he said.
But Lopez says it’s important to celebrate Colorado’s expanded rights while calling for legalization at the federal level and pressing other civil-rights causes.
Without the festival on April 20, Lopez says he’s been talking with others about an idea for an unofficial gathering that day surrounding the State Capitol, where past requests for permits by marijuana activists have been denied.
He calls it a “big hug” of the state building, timed at 4:20 p.m.
Jon Murray: 303-954-1405, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/JonMurray