A crowd gathers for the 4/20 rally at Civic Center Park in in 2013. (Hyoung Chang, Denver Post file)

Denver 4/20 rally’s smoking riddles remain

Sales of recreational marijuana may be legal, but organizers of this weekend’s 4/20 festival in Denver — billed as the largest in the world — have a fine line to walk.

They nearly got the two-day event cancelled after the organizers’ attorney asked the city to endorse public pot-smoking by attendees.

Now, with a permit for Civic Center in hand as of Thursday, April 10, Miguel Lopez and other organizers will need to broadcast the illegality of public marijuana consumption — as a concession to city officials — while also protesting Colorado’s remaining strictures on cannabis use. They also plan to protest that alcohol is treated differently than pot on public property.

In other words, when tens of thousands of the pot-passionate fill the park Saturday and Sunday — the same day as Easter — there will be plenty of winks and nods.

And pot smoke in the air.

The longstanding rally-turned-festival was supercharged by Colorado’s Amendment 64, passed by voters in 2012. The first legal recreational pot sales anywhere, to those 21 or older, began Jan. 1.

Despite a changing climate, though, Lopez says organizers’ goals remain the same: to protest federal marijuana prohibition and remaining local restrictions and to support a grab-bag of causes including gay rights.

As in previous years, police say they will keep watch with an eye on safety rather than cracking down on public pot use.

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This year could mark a turning point for the rally.

Organizers have added to the event’s offerings, upped security and expanded the footprint, with planned closures of Bannock and 14th streets as 4/20 grows beyond Civic Center park.

Besides the usual lineup of political speeches, bands and a hemp fashion show, organizers secured big-name musical headliners Wyclef Jean and rapper B.o.B. VIPs will mingle during a reception in the McNichols Building.

And a fence will surround the site, limiting access to four entrances with bag checks and pat-downs.

The measure comes partly in response to trouble last year, when a still-unsolved shooting on April 20 injured three attendees and cut short what was supposed to be the rally’s first two-day outing. The shooting happened not long after the crowd’s collective puff in celebration of marijuana at the symbolically important time of 4:20 p.m.

Organizers also plan to have medics and an ambulance on hand this year.

Lopez predicts 80,000 people a day, up by a third from his estimate of last year’s attendance, though such counts are difficult at a free event.

“Our event costs more than J. Lo’s wedding,” he said, citing more than $300,000 in costs for the event management company, which profits from vendors. “And we have more guests.”

They’ll include plenty of stoners, of course, but Lopez is hoping to attract more out-of-towners and curious sorts on a weekend chock-full of marijuana-focused events.

Among them will be Robert Hill, 27, a computer systems administrator who said he moved to Denver last year with his girlfriend to take advantage of legal marijuana. They left South Carolina.

The rally has value “not only as a celebration of what Colorado has done,” Hill said, “but in celebration of liberating my life from the threat of criminal prosecution and the life-ruining consequences of such a prosecution.”

Tyler D’Spain, 22, has a different reason for coming: networking, both at the festival and at the High Times Cannabis Cup expo at the Denver Mart. He co-owns a Durango potency testing lab serving Western Slope medical dispensaries, with plans to expand the clientele.

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Still, 4/20 suffers from a bad rap among many who would agree with Denver resident Tedd Langowski’s assessment of it as “nothing more than to highlight the bad idea that illegal drugs are good for you.”

Even some pro-pot advocates and dispensaries keep their distance, with the Marijuana Industry Group keenly aware that rampant public pot-smoking could tarnish perceptions. The group plans an education push this week to highlight Colorado’s marijuana restrictions ahead of 4/20, particularly for visitors.

Diane Carlson, a co-founder of Smart Colorado, a group concerned about the effects of legalization on youth, says she bristles at the negative message sent by last year’s “scene of chaos.”

“The rest of the world will be watching to see whether they want to emulate marijuana legalization like we have in Denver,” Carlson said. “More importantly, kids have been watching.”

Lopez, who sees himself as an aggressive civil rights activist — a “Chicano version of a Black Panther,” as he puts it — also helps organize parts of the Annual Smoke-In each Fourth of July in Washington, D.C.

He says he takes his role seriously, but wants attendees to enjoy themselves.

“It really is our responsibility and intention to make sure people do know the law and don’t get in trouble,” he said.

Denver 4/20 festival

Schedule: The annual rally and festival are set for Civic Center from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. More information: www.420rally.com.

Police stance: Denver police say they will be standing by. “We’ll enforce the laws, but we’ll use discretion as we do that,” Denver police spokesman Sonny Jackson said. “Our main concern is the safety of everyone involved — both participating in the event and in the area, as well as officers.”

Citations: After making nearly 50 arrests in 2012 for marijuana possession — which Amendment 64 later legalized for adults — police last year issued only five citations, mostly for public consumption.

Sources: Denver Police Department, 4/20 festival organizers.

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

This story was first published on DenverPost.com