A crowd gathers at Civic Center Park to mark the 4/20 marijuana holiday in 2013. (Hyoung Chang, Denver Post file)

Denver 4/20 rally back on track, but some red tape remains

The first year of legal recreational marijuana sales nearly brought an ironic twist when Denver city officials raised the possibility of shutting down the city’s huge, long-held 4/20 rally.

But now that organizers have backed down from a standoff over the legality of public pot-smoking, the April 19-20 festival looks likely to go on.

The organizers, including a headline-grabbing attorney, have agreed to discourage attendees from toking up, while still maintaining the city is treating them unfairly.

For the city, the hard-line stance of Mayor Michael Hancock and other officials may have averted an Easter weekend struggle.

Even if the city had denied organizers a permit, it’s likely many people would have shown up in Civic Center anyway to celebrate the April 20 marijuana holiday recognized by many enthusiasts.

City Attorney Scott Martinez has cleared the 4/20 rally for a permit, though organizers still must work out some details before getting it.

Martinez wrote in a letter to organizers Friday that Denver Parks and Recreation staff may require them to take “affirmative measures” to discourage pot consumption by attendees.

The tiff has left a sour taste for organizers, one rooted in frustration over public officials’ reluctance to implement the voter-passed Amendment 64.

Related: coverage of all things 4/20 — What’s going to be open? What’s going to be shut down? Who’s playing at Red Rocks?

“We’re integrating marijuana,” organizer Miguel Lopez said, comparing legalization to the end of racial segregation. “And they’re saying, ‘Prohibition today, prohibition tomorrow, prohibition forever.’ ”

Many of the tens of thousands of 4/20 attendees typically toke up. In past years, police have stood by without cracking down.

But attorney Robert Corry’s assertion in February on organizers’ behalf — that pot-smoking would be legal this year — led city officials to balk.

His letter to the city argued that rally organizers could regulate marijuana use, much like other permit-holders allow alcohol consumption in Civic Center park during festivals.

Corry backtracked last week.

And so the Parks department has resumed consideration of Lopez’s festival permit application. It could issue a decision in the next week or two.

Rather than the legality of pot smoking, officials will focus on details such as the number of portable toilets needed.

They also will look at how organizers will manage the crowds — which could grow as Colorado marijuana users celebrate the first legal recreational pot sales anywhere in the world this year.

Related: Denver city council’s Charlie Brown: “I believe in celebrating 4/20” (video)

On Monday, Lopez turned in a site use plan and proof of contract payments for security, trash removal, portable toilets and other services required for the permit. Those contracts total more than $36,000, he said.

Parks and Recreation spokesman Jeff Green said everything seemed “status quo at this point.”

“There’s nothing we’ve received thus far that is cause for concern,” he said.

Amendment 64, approved by Colorado voters in 2012, legalized the sale and use of recreational marijuana but not public consumption. Late last year, Denver City Council approved new rules allowing only private pot use.

Corry had asked to meet with Martinez, but the city attorney has resisted a face-to-face discussion with organizers.

Now it’s up to Executive Director Lauri Dannemiller and her permitting staff to decide any conditions they think are necessary to discourage cannabis consumption at the rally.

City Councilman Charlie Brown has criticized the 4/20 rally and Corry’s tactics, urging police to step up enforcement.

Given the likely permit approval, he said Tuesday: “I just hope they will follow our rules and regulations. They’re clear in our constitution and they’re clear in our ordinance that we worked so hard on last year.”

Lopez said organizers never have promoted or encouraged illegal activity during the rally.

The normally peaceful event was stung last year by gunfire that injured three people, and Lopez says Denver police have not worked hard enough to solve that crime.

This year, Lopez and Corry reluctantly agreed to seek a more costly festival permit instead of the free-speech public assembly permit they’d used previously.

Lopez says he still needs to pay $14,000 in fees and a damage deposit to the city and show proof of insurance.

Jon Murray: 303-954-1405, jmurray@denverpost.com or twitter.com/denverJonMurray

This story was first published on DenverPost.com