Marijuana smoke rises from Norlin Quad at the University of Colorado during the 4/20 celebration on April 20, 2010 in Boulder. (Daily Camera file)

Op-ed: 4/20 at CU has a much better vision now after its renegade years

It’s a new era. For the first time in four years, the entire University of Colorado Boulder campus will be open on April 20.

No barricades will surround campus lawns or the entire perimeter of the the public university to prevent a 4/20 event that in its heyday had featured a large crowd gathering shortly after 4 p.m. in the afternoon, smoking marijuana en masse at 4:20 and dispersing by 5.

There will be an elevated police presence to address any unsanctioned activities, according to CU-Boulder chief spokesman Ryan Huff. But otherwise it will look like a normal spring day on campus.

However, cannabis will still have a prominent place at the school this week.

The third annual Cannabis Symposium will take place from 10 a.m to 9 p.m. Wednesday at the University Memorial Center with support from the Cultural Events Board and CU Student Government. (Full disclosure: I am a CU alumna and participant in the symposium.)

When the CU administration took the heavy-handed approach in recent years to extinguish the smoke-in (or smokeout, whatever you like to call it), others rallied with a different idea.

The school’s chapter of national advocacy group Students for Sensible Drug Policy and Carol Conzelman, an anthropology instructor, have been organizing a teach-in based on topics related to the popular plant.

“4/20 as an unorganized campus smoke-in was a wasted opportunity from an educational perspective,” said Conzelman via phone.

In addition to the symposium, the scheduled campus 4:20 observation will be marked by a somber drug war rally, organized by students in Conzelman’s drug policy class and the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). Conzelman says participants will light candles to remember the victims of the drug war and at 4:20 there will be a moment of silence. The only smoking going on will come from the extinguished candles.

The transformation of 4/20 into a day of education and activism on campus has developed out of a rocky history between the longstanding smoke-in and campus administration.

For nearly 15 years, CU administration and campus police grappled with how to curtail the non-permitted smoke-in. The scene started during my time at CU, between 1996-2000. I remember seeing announcements for a smokeout at Farrand Field at 4:20 on 4/20, written in chalk on the sidewalks around campus. During those years, I recall meeting a fellow student on several occasions, who claimed to be the organizer. He wanted to remain unknown for his efforts, for fear of being punished or expelled. He said that to avoid being identified, he would get together with a couple friends and they would chalk out the sidewalk advertisements all over campus under the cover of darkness.

CU-Boulder students host pot symposium April 2
CU-Boulder’s campus was closed to the public on April 20 in 2013. CU student leaders started a Cannabis Symposium in 2014 in an effort to repurpose the annual campus smokeout that led to the closures. (Daily Camera file)

From this covert beginning, the event grew in size. By 2003, 800 people showed up and starting in 2008 until 2011, the campus crowds swelled to 10,000 people each year. The event contributed to CU Boulder earning top ranking in Playboy Magazine’s 2011 list of party schools. Was this a protest or was this a party?

Various tactics were used by the administration and campus police to deter the crowds with ineffective results. In 2005, sprinklers started to water the lawn around the time of the gathering. In 2006, photos of the crowd were taken and posted online by campus police.  A financial reward was offered to informants who identified participating students. In 2007, a barricade around Farrand Field sent the event to the center of campus at Norlin Quad. In 2012, odorous fish fertilizer was applied to the grass of Norlin Quad.

The event was getting so large, it was negatively impacting normal function of school and research, Huff recounted via phone. Teachers were canceling classes, traffic was congested and pregnant women and employees with asthma would complain about smoke exposure. Among the crowd, Huff said, the potential for injury was increasing because people were climbing trees. Medical personnel couldn’t navigate the throngs easily.

In response, the campus was closed to all “non affiliates” in 2012. Only students, faculty and employees were allowed on campus.  A lawsuit filed over the campus closure of the public university ended with the Boulder judge ruling CU had a right to close the public campus to non-students on 4/20.

In a 2012 op-ed rebuttal to The Denver Post’s Editorial Board, Chancellor Phil DiStefano said an educational event that advances ideas, engages debate and questions policies is more fitting to the campus political climate than the unwanted public marijuana smokeout that formerly defined 4/20 on CU campus. Huff said, “Chancellor Philip DiStefano supports the symposium. He invites a civilized, academic discussion and debate on marijuana laws.”

CU-Boulder isn’t the only school to deal with this situation. While CU grappled with 4/20 every April, the University of Michigan has allowed an annual cannabis-focused event on campus.

hash bash at the university of michigan in 2016
Participants gather for the annual Hash Bash protest at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., on April 2, 2016. (Junfu Han, The Ann Arbor News via Associated Press)

The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, another hippie college town like Boulder, hosts the Hash Bash, an early-April public smoke-in for the past 45 years.

The big difference is the origin and maintenance of the event as a protest. Hash Bash began as a political protest for the 10-year prison sentence of Ann Arbor resident John Sinclair over the possession of two joints.

“The university has allowed the Hash Bash to continue, as it is consistent with the university’s values to encourage free speech on campus,” said University of Michigan spokesman Rick Fitzgerald, via email. “At the same time, the university does not condone the use of drugs or the public consumption of alcohol on campus.” Since there was no official organizer or sponsor at CU until recently, the educational or activist component was absent.

For the Cannabis Symposium, Conzelman finds a different influence from Ann Arbor. The 1965 Vietnam teach-in on the University of Michigan’s campus inspired a national wave of education and discourse on campuses to discuss the war. Similarly, Conzelman wants the Cannabis Symposium model to spark a wave of education and discourse on 4/20 on campuses. “As the flagship public university in Colorado,” Conzelman said, “we have a leadership opportunity to develop meaningful interdisciplinary topics and thoughtfully engage students in discussions on drug policy.”

As more states pass medical and recreational marijuana laws and local communities evaluate how to adjust, there is a need for education, discussion and engagement. The Cannabis Symposium is the best thing to happen to 4/20 at CU.