BOULDER—April 20 is a date fraught with meaning for a number of reasons: It’s Hitler’s birthday. It’s the date of the Columbine High School massacre. And it’s the annual marijuana smoke-out day known as 4/20.
There’s not much that can be done to alter the perception of the first two. But there’s a movement afoot in Colorado to change the public’s view of the third.
Throughout the state, county governments, community groups and the University of Colorado are attempting to redefine 4/20 by discouraging public and underage pot-smoking. Lest they be seen as party-poopers, they’re offering a tempting buffet of alternative activities.
Officials at CU-Boulder stunned the stoner contingent earlier this month by announcing that they would cordon off the campus to outsiders on 4/20and issue trespassing tickets to non-students. Those who do manage to sneak in will find that Norlin Quad, the event’s usual gathering spot, has been covered with fish fertilizer.
The announcement drew national attention in large part because CU-Boulder has become the unofficial epicenter of 4/20. Look up “420” on Wikipedia, and there’s a photo of the Boulder campus flooded with participants at the 2010 event.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado has weighed in against the restrictions, arguing that the gathering is a protest against anti-drug laws and that the university is stifling the smokers’ right to free speech. So far university officials have refused to budge.
“The contention that the 4/20 gathering at CU-Boulder is a ‘peaceful protest’ is not correct. There are no microphones, demonstrations, or arguments advanced,” said CU Chancellor Philip DiStefano in an April 13 statement. “If it is a protest, then every party on every college campus in America is a protest.”
Meanwhile, at least a half-dozen counties are offering drug-free activities ranging from barbecues to community service with a “take back 4/20″ message.
“There are organizations across the state that have different events planned for 4/20,” said Carla Turner, community advocate for the Substance Abuse Coalition of Douglas County, which has organized a community-service day for middle and high schoolers.
Students at several school districts, including Douglas County and Boulder Valley, have the day off on the Columbine anniversary. Offering them something else to do besides sit on the couch and observe 4/20 in the traditional manner seemed like a useful plan, Turner said.
“What really got it started for us was the school district. I heard someone say that April 20 is coming up, the schools are going to be closed, and that it seemed like a bad combination. And I had been thinking the exact same thing,” said Turner.
In Eagle County, the sheriff’s office and high school are holding their inaugural “420 Drug Free Rally” on Friday at the Field House in Edwards. The event includes a barbecue, pick-up games, a giant bonfire and an outdoor movie.
“Most Coloradans believe 420 sends out the wrong message to our youth by glorifying drug abuse,” said the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office in a statement. “Others view this as insensitive and a dishonor to the Columbine High School tragedy, which also occurred on April 20.”
The effort to redo 4/20 has garnered support even in Boulder, where the Boulder City Council, the student government and the faculty assembly have endorsed the university effort. The student government passed a resolution in support of ending 4/20 on campus, and then agreed to foot the bill for a free concert by hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean, said university spokesman Bronson Hilliard.
A Facebook site set up by CU student Andrew Trujillo called “Stay Classy CU” urges students to wear a suit and tie on April 20 in order to “send a message that not all of CU students are looking to have a free pass to smoke in front of a cop.”
Still, the university is braced for protests. Occupy Boulder is expected to hold a rally outside the school boundaries to demonstrate against the restrictions. Last year’s event drew more than 10,000 participants, and the university’s reputation as a 4/20 destination is likely to attract would-be celebrants, despite the publicity surrounding the new rules.
The university has announced that campus police will issue tickets for both pot-smoking and trespassing, which carries a fine of up to $750. Students caught smoking pot could face additional penalties from the Office of Student Conduct.
Editorials in both The Denver Post and the Boulder Daily Camera criticized the harsh penalties, with the Camera calling them “a total overreaction.”
Hilliard responded that the party has simply become too disruptive, whether or not marijuana was involved.
“Having 10 to 12,000 people blowing bubbles and skipping happily across campus grounds would be an obstruction of our academic function,” he said.