A big crowd gathers at Civic Center and light up during 4/20 celebration April 20, 2016 in Denver, despite the official rally being cancelled due to weather. (Joe Amon, The Denver Post)

4/20 in the Trump era: Marijuana celebration or political rally?

There was a time — before the vendor booths, before the concerts with famous headliners, before the documentary crews and before the cannabis tour groups — when 4/20 in Denver meant a simple protest rally.

Eleven years ago, only a couple thousand people gathered in Civic Center park for the annual marijuana smokeout in defiance of state and federal laws. The rally planned for Thursday could hardly look different — 250 vendor booths, tens of thousands expected to attend and the rapper 2 Chainz scheduled to perform.

But organizers also hope that this year, especially, will bring a renewed commitment to activism.

“The rally is by definition a coming together for the common good,” said Miguel Lopez, who holds the permit for the rally and has been its most vocal advocate for years. “But we can’t be that effective if we’re not engaging a little more.”

Even by the standards of marijuana festivals, these are strange days.

On one side of the law, Colorado’s marijuana industry is booming, more states and countries are legalizing, and public support has never been stronger. On the other side, the new administration in the White House has signaled a hostility toward legal marijuana and a desire to do something to blunt its rise, meaning that legalization supporters could soon face their greatest challenge yet.

And that leaves Lopez and others in the marijuana movement with something of a problem this time around. Should they view the pot-smoker’s holiday as a chance to show strength? Or should they lie relatively low in the hopes of not attracting unwanted attention that could spur a crackdown?

“I think both sides are going to get something out of the 4/20 rallies,” said John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on marijuana policy.

For the cannabis movement, Hudak said rallygoers may decide to emphasize the event’s political roots and tap into the broader protests against President Donald Trump.

“This resistance movement that has really taken off … is something that’s really going to motivate a lot of people to come out and make this a pretty significantly sized rally,” Hudak said.

For anti-marijuana groups, the 4/20 rallies will probably provide an opportunity to criticize the excesses of marijuana legalization.

“It’s something that the (U.S.) attorney general can point to and say, ‘Look at this, the state can’t even control public use,'” Hudak said.

Both approaches could have their drawbacks. Talk of a crackdown could be confronted by the sheer number of people at the rally, demonstrating just how much money and energy the federal government would have to spend to push back against legalization. Meanwhile, a raucous rally could undermine the mainstream credibility that marijuana supporters have tried to build over the past several years.

This is a tightrope that the cannabis industry is particularly familiar with. While individual stores and product companies have embraced the glamour of 4/20, the National Cannabis Industry Association, one of the industry’s lobbying groups, has traditionally shied away from the events, even as it has expressed support for marijuana consumers. Taylor West, the NCIA’s deputy director, spoke of the 4/20 events as similar to the Great American Beer Festival in producing both positive and negative images.

“In the larger context of 4/20, it’s always been a little bit of a mix, and I think it will be the same this year,” West said. “There will be some things that come out that maybe aren’t as good for the image of responsible use. But there will also be a tremendous amount of political activism.”

West said the NCIA prefers to save its own major activism push until May, when it holds annual lobbying events in Washington, D.C.

Lopez, too, said Denver 4/20 rally might not be the best place for marijuana supporters to fight the feds. For those who wish to battle Washington, Lopez had another suggestion: an annual Fourth of July “smoke-in” at the White House that he helps organize.

This year’s 4/20 rally in Denver, meanwhile, will mark the launch of a new group he is calling 420 Revolution. The group will be focused on local issues and on trying to strip away social stigma around cannabis use by encouraging one-on-one conversations in the community, Lopez said.

“I don’t see us particularly focusing on Trump,” he said. “We would be focusing more on a self-pride issue and on self-preservation as a group.”

This story was first published on DenverPost.com