Denver 4/20 Rally’s Grassroots Could Make a Comeback, but Not This Year


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As the first major U.S. city with retail cannabis, Denver’s connection with 4/20 is well established, but the unofficial pot holiday’s future in the Mile High is uncertain post-COVID. While some newer members of the local cannabis industry think there’s a chance for Denver’s 4/20 celebration to return in all its smoky, stoner glory, more seasoned veterans of the scene say that the holiday peaked years ago. To see where Denver could be headed for 4/20 in 2022 and beyond, we checked in with four people who’ve played an integral role in how this city views and celebrates cannabis. We’re rolling out their stories in advance of 4/20, 2021. Read the introduction to the Burning Question series here, and Warren Edson’s memories of 4/20’s early connection to Denver here. And now, Miquel Lopez:

There are smoke sessions in Denver every 4/20, but the heart of the action has always been Civic Center Park. At first a loose-knit gathering created by cannabis activist Ken Gorman, over the decades it grew to a boisterous bash that drew up to 50,000 people. But as the crowds came, so did more bells, whistles and rules.

Miguel Lopez has seen it all. A friend of Gorman’s, he turned the 420 Rally into a memorial after Gorman’s murder in 2007 and kept it going as it grew into a free concert with booths and vendors, though always with a layer of activism.

The inclusivity Lopez preaches was reflected in the diversity of those at his events, but there have been hitches. In 2013, a shooting broke out amid the Rally celebration, leaving two people wounded. In 2017, Lopez lost his bid for a Civic Center permit for an April 20, 2018, event after a rough ending to the previous year’s rally. When photos and reports of long security lines, broken fences and overflowing trash cans during the rally and the next morning surfaced online, Mayor Michael Hancock’s office banned Lopez and his fellow 420 Rally organizers from applying for an event permit for the park for three years. Meanwhile, Euflora, a dispensary chain that was an unhappy co-sponsor of the 2017 420 Rally, sent employees to camp outside the Parks and Recreation office in an attempt to take control of the 2018 permit. After a literal footrace to the application counter shortly after midnight on November 1, 2017, the Euflora group was beaten out by a man named Michael Ortiz — but Ortiz was later found to have a connection to Lopez, and the department denied his application.

Euflora’s 4/20 event at Civic Center —  dubbed the Mile High 420 Fest in 2018 and then the Fly Hi 4/20 Fest in 2019 — remained free and full of unsanctioned pot smoking, but the activism attempts were gone. The 2020 event was canceled altogether during the early months of the pandemic, and no one has applied for a permit for April 20 of this year. But that could change for 2022.

Both Euflora and Lopez, whose three-year ban with Denver Parks and Recreation ended last year, tell Westword that they plan to hold an event in Civic Center Park on April 20, 2022. Depending on who wins the race this time, the city could be in for a surprise next year. We talked with Lopez about the meaning of 4/20 and where its future lies in Colorado.

Westword: What did 4/20 mean to you as you were getting introduced to cannabis?

Miguel Lopez: I have a long history of family activism that goes back to the peace and Chicano movements. Those movements then became entwined with anti-war demonstrations, which was kind of a birthing place for the marijuana movement. At a lot of these places, people would smoke marijuana as a peaceful form of public defiance against the Vietnam War and the War on Drugs. I use the term “marijuana,” because it is a misbelief that “marijuana” is a racist term. It’s not, unless the people who choose not to say it are racist themselves. According to the dictionary, the word marijuana comes from the Nahuatl term “mallihuan.” I think the term “marijuana” is too ethnic for some people, but too bad. The word “cannabis” is Latin, too, so no matter what you say, it’s going to be something historically demonized by being associated with “those Mexicans.”

How do you view Denver’s current relationship with 4/20?

It’s like Pride Fest. It was a riot the first year in New York City. Like 4/20, it was this political thing at first, but now all these people just jump on it to be happy without knowing what they’re being happy about.

A cloud of smoke hovers over Civic Center Park in 2017.

A cloud of smoke hovers over Civic Center Park in 2017.

Brandon Marshall

Have you noticed a parallel between the influx of money into the cannabis movement and 4/20’s evolution over the last five years?

Oh, yeah. People, especially young people and millennials, they don’t see the activism issues we have dealt with, whether that’s Rosa Parks on the bus or people busted on the street for smoking pot, or pretextual curses, like stop-and-frisk and New York or “broken windows” policing in Denver, which still exists.

How does that make you feel about 4/20 now?

People can say marijuana is legal, but it’s not federally. The United Nations hasn’t come to terms with it in a manner that has global impact, either. Our laws have impacted the world, and we’re still responsible for inhumanities in other countries, like the Philippines, where you don’t get a trial after getting caught with drugs. You get shot. That’s shit that comes down from our ideology, hate and religious fanaticism. To see 4/20 now, it looks like people have forgotten their fathers’ struggles.

Do you think Coloradans felt like there wasn’t as much left to fight for after recreational legalization passed?

But there are still struggles, economic disparities and environmental impacts. There are a lot of people who believe in the impact the grassroots movement can have. I have letters from Vietnam veterans and around the world, from coast to coast. To open this sort of mail and take on those causes — there’s a difference between salaries, and acts of nobility and trying to make the world better. We have civil rights concerns, but above all else, we’re all humans. Marijuana’s not a cure-all, but people should not be imprisoned, fined or in any kind of criminal trouble for this. There shouldn’t be limitations on marijuana; it should be regulated like tomatoes.

How do you look back on the 420 Rally when you think about where Colorado’s cannabis laws are today?

One of the things we’re really proud of is that we represented a lot of cultures there, whether it be Native American, Chicano, Black, hip-hop, poor white people, and white people using their privilege for something good. We incorporated all walks of music; it was everything. We wanted everyone to feel like they were welcome.

America is many things. How do feel people feel about a country that didn’t believe in their cause? It all started here, where the first people went to jail for marijuana under federal law. [Denver’s Samuel Caldwell and Moses Baca became the first people arrested for marijuana sale and possession under the federal Marijuana Tax Act of 1937.]

Civic Center's 4/20 fun has been fenced in since 2014, but those restraints don't always hold.

Civic Center’s 4/20 fun has been fenced in since 2014, but those restraints don’t always hold.

Brandon Marshall

What are your plans for future 4/20s, after the pandemic ends?

We are already putting together plans for 2022. We’re planning smaller, intimate events within the city’s neighborhoods, and are looking at partnering with someone for an event at Civic Center, as well. Everything will be pending as new social consumption regulations come out, but we will always maintain the course of a grassroots movement. The purpose of going smaller is to talk with people who don’t have the social capital, and let them know how their elected officials are representing their communities.

At Civic Center, I wouldn’t say it will be something as grand-scale, with large performers, unless they came forward for free. We’re going to focus going back to the smaller days of booth spaces and the Greek Theater. We’ve given opportunity to people and were exploited. We don’t want to exploit anyone or use anyone’s money, but don’t want anyone to exploit us, either.

Does Denver have a special connection to 4/20 that other cities don’t?

I would say the only connection to 4/20 that’s special here are the people who knew what this was before legalization. A lot of people didn’t like how the shooting in 2013 required us to put up fences at the rally the next year. That just changed the dynamic for things. We do emergency preparing, but with larger populations and growth, that’s what the world has become. The mayor wants to make this a world-class city and accuses me of all this trash. Well, the city doesn’t look very world-class right now, and they’re taking a lot longer to clean up trash than I did.

When we celebrate things like the Fourth of July, was that day really beneficial to everyone? Those rules with marijuana and this country’s birth certificate are parallel. That won’t change until we start seeing more inclusion for grassroots voices here, and not just politicos.

More tomorrow. In the meantime, read the first two installments of this series:
“Burning Question: Where Does 4/20 Go From Here?”
“Diving Into Denver’s Early Connections With 4/20”

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