On April 20th this year, stoners will convene once again in cities around the world to celebrate cannabis and denounce the laws that prohibit it.
In Canada, where the tradition originates, there are at least a dozen events planned across the country ranging from community-minded garbage pick-ups to full-on smoke-outs with tens of thousands of people. But no matter how the day is acknowledged, 4/20 celebrations this year will be the last of their kind in Canada, because this time next year we will living under legalization.
While that prospect might seem like everything that any 4/20-goer could want, legal weed in Canada won’t be entirely free of harsh tokes.
Eight years ago when I entered the world of cannabis, I went to my first 4/20 rally in Toronto. Having spent most of my life as a non-pot smoker, I had some preconceived notions about what a 4/20 event would be like. The thought of hanging out downtown with a bunch of sketchy ass hippies smoking weed was not something I had any interest in at the time. But having been wrong about virtually everything I had thought I knew about cannabis, I decided to check it out.
Failing to convince a single friend that it was going to be a fun time, I went alone. The thing that struck me that day—and every year since—is how relaxed the vibe was. Sure there were a few hippies and a sketchy person or two, but there was also just about every other type of person as well. Throughout the afternoon, activists and advocates took to the stage denouncing the criminalization of the plant. Standing in that square looking around at the hugely diverse group—people aged 18 to 80—I realized that all these people had a shared dream: a 4/20 where we would celebrate the victory of the long fight for cannabis legalization.
In most western popular culture, 420 is to weed what 13 is to bad luck, 666 to Satan, and 69 to sex. How the number became synonymous with cannabis is something that has been argued and debated by Weed Enthusiasts for decades. In recent years, however, credit has been given to a group of young stoners in California in the 1970s called the Waldos.
The Waldos would convene at 4:20 PM every day to imbibe in the sweet leaf and generally used the three digit number to refer to all things weed. This ritual was then passed on to the arbiters of all things hippie, The Grateful Dead, by one of the Waldos who had the good fortune (in a hippie’s mind at least) to be able to hang around the band while they practiced. 420 was further disseminated through the band’s dedicated fanbase, and as the “Deadheads” made their way around the globe so too did the numerical shorthand, making 420 the call sign for cannabis.
So it was only natural that back in 1995, when employees Dana Rozek and Cindy Lassu at Vancouver’s pioneering Hemp BC store were selecting a date for their peaceful protest against Canada’s cannabis laws, they would select the 20th day of the 4th month. Within a few years, similar events began springing up around North America and over the world and now 4/20 has become the most popular day of the year to acknowledge cannabis and the ridiculous laws around it. The Canadian government itself even seemed to acknowledge the significance when they chose the date in 2016 to announce legalization legislation.
The Liberal government has been adamant about sticking to mid-summer this year as the date for legalization. Although distribution methods have been left in the hands of the provinces the framework proposed is pretty rigid. People looking anywhere in Canada for the medicated candies or glass cases of dabs and pre-filled vapour pens seen in the less-than-legal dispensaries in places like Toronto or Vancouver these days may be a little disappointed in legalization. Edibles and most extractions are forbidden under the new laws, which is unfortunate as both provide convenient, odourless (or mostly odourless) options. Which is ironic, because chances are you won’t have anywhere to smoke your black boxed flowers! In fact, mass smoke-outs outdoors are DEFINITELY not something that’s allowed under legalization.
That’s not to say that laws preventing people from communing and smoking outside will stop 4/20 rallies from happening… I mean, this shit is totally illegal now and that hasn’t stopped it! On the contrary, this shows why a peaceful day of protest is necessary. This may be called legalization but the reality is more like Prohibition 2.0, according to many people in cannabis circles.
Cannabis legalization has been an economic victory, not a moral one. Despite decades of cannabis activists pointing out the moral obtuseness of cannabis prohibition, it wasn’t peaceful protests or well-worded arguments that won the day. This is a legalization brought about by seeing the money that’s being made in places like Colorado and Washington as well as in the multi-billion dollar Canadian cannabis black market and saying: “Yes, give us some of that.”
If this had been a moral victory, legalization would have happened differently. You would have had a Liberal Party come in to power and immediately call for the end of all cannabis-related arrests. They would have opened the cells of all people in jail in Canada for non-violent cannabis-related offences. They would have wiped the records clean of all people who have been unjustly criminalized for a plant that we are all pretty much in agreement was wrong to prohibit in the first place. They would have addressed the racial biases that informed this criminalization (and continues to do so even in places where legalization has happened). They would make it affordable to access. They’d be talking about prioritizing investing in research into the plant and all the claims of the medicinal benefits of millions of people (myself included). They would find a way to allow people to grow their own. And, boy oh boy, would that be a 4/20 worth celebrating!
But, again, this is an economic victory. Instead of a great overhaul of the justice system, we have the government setting the stage for an unprecedented number of cannabis-related arrests as they try to bring a $6-billion industry under their thumb. While there’s is no exact dollar figure on what the justice system have spent in the past two years on raids on dispensaries, the number is certainly in the multi-millions, even though you have senior police officers saying the raids are ineffective and pointless. There is seemingly no hurry to deal with the people criminalized by their involvement with this plant, simply a push to criminalize more people.
The government has to get rid of all competition because the only way to control a commodity that can be grown anywhere is to control the supply. Under legalization people are going to be allowed in theory to grow their own cannabis, the ability to actually legally do so is going to decided province by province and even then, only if someone owns their own spot. People who developed strains and techniques for growing and have had to pay for their commitment to cannabis with their freedom are not welcome in the new market.
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Outside of cannabis circles, conversations around legalization generally don’t seem to centre much around affordable access, amnesty for pot prisoners, and certainly not on the potential medical and health benefits that could arise from real study of the plant. The discussion seems to centre around how much money stands to be made from this glorious plant and the need to protect society from it once it is legal… but still profit of it.
This year, on the day we set aside to glorify cannabis, when the clock strikes 4:20 PM and I take the traditional toke (who am I kidding, it will probably be a dab), I’m going to breath a little deeper and hold it in a little longer because god only knows what 4/20 is going to look like next year. Follow Damian Abraham on Twitter.