Last Friday was April 20 (4/20), the unofficial national marijuana smokers' holiday, and members of Cannabis Nation were out in force on college campuses across the land. Non-campus events took place, too, but some of them faced hostile reactions from local authorities -- most notably in Denver, where police cited more than 50 people on marijuana charges, and in Las Vegas, where the city bureaucracy effectively stifled a long-planned and costly two-day celebration of cannabis culture.
In the SAFER events, which in many cases were coordinated with campus Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) and National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), students handed out literature comparing the effects of marijuana and alcohol and called for campus policies that do not punish marijuana use more severely than alcohol use.
"The campus events seemed to go very well," said SAFER head Mason Tvert. "All around the country, students handed out thousands of pieces of literature and SAFER t-shirts," he told Drug War Chronicle. "The literature contrasted the effects of marijuana and alcohol -- no marijuana ODs, it doesn't contribute to acts of violence and sexual assault, while alcohol is the number one campus date rape drug.
Judging by the response this week, the action was a success, Tvert said. "We've been getting lots of emails from people who say that literature, and the NORML and SSDP chapters are reporting that they signed on a lot of new members."
While some SSDP chapters participated in 4/20 actions, others were busy lobbying Congress in an effort to repeal the Higher Education Act's anti-drug provision. "Last week was a week of SSDP HEA action," said Daigle. "We sent out phone script cards that people could use to encourage them to call the Senate HELP Committee, which is reviewing HEA this week."
There were other 4/20 campus actions unrelated to the SAFER campaign, although they hit some similar notes. In Amherst, Massachusetts, hundreds of people gathered Saturday for the 16th annual Extravaganja, organized by the University of Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition (CRC).
CRC head John Werner touched on familiar themes as he addressed the crowd. "People are being kept out of college for small infractions," Werner said. He said that when people are jailed for marijuana offenses, it's harder to find a job when they're released. In turn, this may cause them to turn to crime.
The laws also takes resources away from combating more dangerous drugs. "I think there are drugs that are dangerous, and marijuana is not one of them," said Werner. "No one has ever died from a marijuana overdose."
Werner also addressed campus marijuana policies. "There's a huge problem with cops in dorms," said Werner. "There's a skyrocketing arrest rate." According to Werner, at UMass any student caught with marijuana is suspended immediately, which severely interrupts academic work and leaves a stain on the individual's record.
While the campus events were largely unmolested (six students at the University of Colorado were arrested for publicly smoking pot), it was a different story for 4/20 events in Denver and Las Vegas. In Denver, dozens of public marijuana smokers were cited by police, who massed in force around the peaceable rally memorializing slain activist Ken Gorman.
"People who smoke marijuana in public have to be ready to pay the consequences," said SAFER's Tvert. "But this is different from past years and it certainly shows the police were going out of their way to cite people. This was a peaceful gathering and the only problem was the arrests," he said.
According to Denver police, more than 100 officers, including the SWAT team, the mounted patrol, undercover members of the vice and narcotics bureau, the gang unit and other departments were on duty during the rally. "Even though marijuana smoking isn't illegal in Denver, it's still illegal in Colorado," said police spokeswoman Virginia Quinones.
But Tvert questioned the need for the massive police presence. "Do they call out the SWAT team for bar closing on Friday night?" he asked. "Do we get that much police presence at a Broncos football game?"
Tvert said he plans to pursue the issue by demanding hearings at the city council. SAFER was behind the successful 2005 legalization initiative ignored by city fathers, and Tvert warned that the city could see further action, perhaps in the form of a lowest law enforcement priority initiative, if the city doesn't change its tune.
4/20 in Las Vegas was supposed to be a two-day festival with dozens of live bands, vendors, and exhibitors, but instead turned into a disaster for organizers after city permitting officials stalled their permits, then shut them down completely on the first day of the event.
Mikki Norris of the Cannabis Consumers Campaign and her husband, cannabis cultivation expert Chris Conrad, traveled from the San Francisco Bay area to attend and address the event. They were expecting a major bash, but "when we arrived, the event had significantly reduced," Norris reported. "The venue, the Ice House, had been contacted by the authorities and were told that no vending could take place outside or inside, no speakers could speak, nobody could table or hand out literature. There could only be music in a place that holds a thousand people. Police were riding bikes through the large parking lot area that only weeks before had hosted an event by Snoop Dog and others. When the scent of cannabis was sniffed in the outside air, the code-enforcement person cancelled the event, threatening the owners of the Ice House to suspend their licenses for 30 days if they didn't call off the 4/20 event."
While Norris decried the hypocrisy of a city built on sex, drinking, and gambling shutting down a marijuana event, the damage was more than emotional. "Many people lost thousands of dollars on this weekend," she noted. "Many vendors lost money, the Ice House lost money, the musicians lost money, attendees lost money, and we lost money getting there. Much money was to be generated at this event, tourist dollars were going to be spent all over town, and the message was to get out about legalizing, taxing and regulating cannabis in Nevada in the near future. But, instead it was a big loss for everyone."
Nevada NORML organizers Billy and Beth Soloe are not answering their phone this week and their voicemail box is full. The couple stand to lose significant sums on the thwarted event.
They are not to blame, said NORML founder Keith Stroup, who also traveled to Las Vegas for the event."[The organizers] had an agreement with the venue that the Icehouse would handle permit issues because it's a venue that does these big events all the time, and only 11 days before the event, the Icehouse told them the permits weren't moving. At that point, Nevada NORML realized it had a problem and tried to get it resolved, but all they got was the runaround from city officials. They created an endless series of hurdles; I think it is clear there was never any intent to let this event happen."
Stroup wishes they had asked him for help. "I think the Nevada NORML people were well-intentioned and worked very hard, but they presumed city officials were dealing with them in good faith, and that's clearly not the case," said Stroup. "They should have called us for help when they realized this was a crisis. Perhaps we could have acted to clear this up, but by the time we got to town on the day of the event, it was too late to fix things. I told them that if they want to try it again next year and they don't have the permits six weeks out, bring us in and we'll take them to court."
City officials apparently acted at the behest of a Mormon anti-drug group that submitted a petition with 30 signatures demanding that the event be canceled, Stroup reported. "Not 30,000 signatures, not 3,000, but 30 signatures!" he exclaimed. "Clearly, they got to someone on the council, and mid-level bureaucrats were told not to grant that permit. Someone decided this wasn't healthy for the city, and they weren't going to let the event happen," he said.
"This was clearly a case where somebody didn't like the message," said Stroup. "The city was claiming this event was going to bring the city to a screeching halt, but this is Las Vegas. You've got to be kidding me. That was a bullshit justification by the city. We may have to go back with guns blazing next year."
To add insult to injury, city code enforcement officers even forbade event participants from handing out literature. "That's clearly unconstitutional," said Stroup. "If NORML wants to hand out a brochure on private property, that is their constitutional right."
Stroup said he spoke with the Icehouse manager and offered legal assistance if the venue challenged the literature ban, but the manager declined, saying city officials threatened to shut him down for at least 30 days. "At that point, we didn't have the option of challenging the city's bullshit decisions," Stroup said. "They could have destroyed that business."
Nevada NORML and national NORML are weighing their legal options at this point, Stroup said. "Suing for damages is not out of the question. Some people took a real financial hit on this," he said. "But if our main goal is to overcome these obstacles, we have to ask if we want to spend the time and resources to teach these people a lesson or would we be better off using that same energy to really do it right next time and cram it down the city's throat."