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420 Fest in Denver highlights medical marijuana growing pains


Business-attired, Libertarian Drug War-reformers. Wheelchair-bound veterans battling chronic pain. Aging couples in faded tie-dye hawking handmade bracelets. Journalists for both mainstream news and industry publications. Glassy-eyed teenage girls in enormous pot-leaf headdresses. All of these people crowded into Denver’s Civic Center Park on Tuesday for an unofficial, but well-known holiday: “4/20.”

A visitor shows off his favorite shirt
Photo by Kendra Wiig

The date’s significance comes from a time of day (4:20) once chosen by a group of California teenagers as a good time to smoke pot after school, and the number “420” has since evolved into a general, not-so-secret code for the pastime. Here in Denver, the event itself has evolved from a semi-organized public smoking in defiance of the law to an official city-permitted event that highlights the often uneasy contractions of federal, city and state regulation of the Schedule 1 substance.

The event this week also highlighted the tensions between the perceived intention of Colorado voters and the actual effects of Amendment 20, which legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes. A major effect seen at the 420 Festival in the park was the presence of vendor tables where local marijuana dispensaries were able to display photos of products that could easily purchased at the clinic soon after. Literature presented the plant as everything from a treatment for anxiety to an actual cure for cancer. A physician set up a Lucy-from-the-Peanuts-style mobile clinic with a handmade sign overhead, “Evaluations $65,” and an arrow pointing to an ATM nearby.

The state of Colorado is by all accounts in a legal and cultural odd spot, which explains the presence of so many out-of-town press organizations in the city this week. When drug-reform advocacy group NORML prints up stickers reading “I’m a patient, and I vote,” they mean to lend some legitimacy to the policies in place, but when a boy who appears to be about 13 is wearing it while taking his joint in front of the Capitol the tensions of the current arrangement become apparent.


  • Ben 5 years ago

    Last line was unprofessional.

    Did you check the young looking person's ID, were they really 13? Or is that just conjecture demonizing the group with one line.

    Marijuana is just as illegal for kids as alcohol is. Don't go there.

  • Kendra 5 years ago

    @Ben, thank you for your comment. It is fair, and I apologize if I implied I had concrete evidence of the young person's age. I said he "looked to be about 13," because he did in fact appear to be of middle school age, and because he asked to borrow my phone to call his mom. I did not ask to photograph him precisely because of his age.

    It is not my intent to demonize a group of people or advocate for more restrictions, but to illuminate some of the tensions between the intent of the law and the effects of the law. Your point about alcohol is well-taken, but the big difference is that alcohol is understood, both legally and culturally, to be a recreational drug. The unusual status of marijuana in Colorado leads to an interesting situation where many recreational users take up medical arguments, which was what I was trying to get at in describing the young man with the sticker.

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