At around 9 PM on Tuesday night in Portland, Oregon, a man named Pork Chop leaned out the window of a van driving back and forth across the Burnside Bridge, which runs along one of the city's main thoroughfares, and repeatedly announced via bullhorn his plan to hand out 420 pounds of marijuana for free at midnight. By the time the advertised hour arrived, a line of more than a thousand people eagerly awaiting the promised pot stretched for several blocks on either side of the bridge.
Last November, Oregon voters approved Measure 91, a ballot initiative to allow citizens over 21 to possess and use cannabis for recreational purposes. The law officially took effect at the stroke of midnight, and the Portland chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) planned to give away small amounts of weed and cannabis seeds to the public to celebrate. But as news of the event spread — through word of mouth, the internet, and Pork Chop's bullhorn — many people came to expect a free weed bonanza on the middle of a busy bridge.
At a nearby bar a few hours before the event, Russ Belville, the 47-year-old president of Portland NORML, sipped a Diet Coke and told VICE News that he expected "between 50 and 5,000 people" to attend. He had brought an ounce of pot — the maximum "shareable" amount under the new law, which doesn't yet allow for the drug to be bought and sold for recreational use — to hand out himself. He said he hoped generous Oregon medical marijuana patients, who can legally possess up to a pound and a half per person, would arrive to kick in enough to go around.
"Right now, I'm nervous," Belville remarked. "I've got 42 joints that I can give away, and I already see more than 42 people up there."
As he said this, Pork Chop, a medical marijuana activist who didn't give his real name, had abandoned the van and was rolling up and down the street in a wheelchair repeating his vow to hand out "420 pounds of medical marijuana." Bearded, weathered, and tattooed, Pork Chop wore black pants with red, purple, and yellow pot leaves, pot leaf longjohns, and a green and white trucker cap with a green medical marijuana cross symbol. He did not appear to be carrying 420 pounds of weed.
"Some of our activists are real go-getters," Belville observed, deadpan.
The crowd that assembled was incredibly diverse and eclectic, skewing toward the younger side but with many gray hairs as well. Some had come from as far away as San Diego and Canada. There were at least two mothers with their young adult sons. People smoked casually and without the least bit of fear. The occasional police cruiser rolled by, drawing a smattering of boos from the crowd, but the cops never stopped to issue a fine for smoking in public under the new law.
"This is history," Sean Crocker, 21, told VICE News. He was wearing a Guy Fawkes mask and waving a green, yellow, and red flag bearing a pot leaf and the word "marijuana" in script. "This is going to be something to remember for a long time. It shows people that things can change. I want to be here to spread the message that it's okay — don't panic, it's organic!"
Tensions began to rise as the crowd grew and midnight approached. Some people had arrived as early as 8 PM to form a line for the expected weed handout, and the people at the front, particularly one guy in a Cheech and Chong shirt, were left shouting themselves hoarse telling others to move to the back at the opposite end of the bridge. Several bystanders snickered and suggested that the yeller maybe take a hit of something and take it down a notch.
Moments before the countdown to midnight, Pork Chop cleared a spot near the front of the line and grabbed his bullhorn. Somebody yelled, "Tell 'em how it is Pork Chop!" This was quickly followed by chants of "Fuck the DEA!" and "Free the weed!"
"Why the hell am I here?" Pork Chop asked. He paused briefly before answering his own question: "To free the weed!" He then took a large hit of marijuana from a glass pipe and raised his hands in triumph.
Many joints and pipes were passed around, but only a handful of people reported actually receiving any free weed, let alone 420 pounds worth. A couple of people near the front of the huge line received small starter marijuana plants, their roots neatly held together in cupcake wrappers, but many who waited in line expecting a handout were left grumbling. A huge traffic jam — both human and vehicle — made the situation even more chaotic.
Belville, whose stated intention earlier in the night was to smoke a joint and get a selfie in front of the iconic "White Stag" sign toward the west side of the bridge, wasn't the least bit disappointed.
"For the first time in 25 years I can go to bed in my home state and not be considered a criminal," he said. "That's a good feeling."
He had given away all 42 his joints, and when a guy who appeared to be in his early 20s came upand asked somewhat indignantly if the weed giveaway was a "ruse," Belville said that local dispensary owner was making a trip to get more product to distribute.
"We gave it away, they're going to get more," Belville said. "I don't know how else I can phrase it."
But across the block, Jay Baker, the dispensary owner in question, seemed to be in no hurry. Asked about the location of the purported free weed, he shrugged and smiled.
"Pork Chop was in charge of it," he said. "He was supposed to have it."
This story was produced with support from LG as part of the Photos from Beyond program — click to see more photos from this series. VICE News maintains all editorial independence in the production of this content.