Every year on April 20th, thousands of people gather on Parliament Hill and watch as the Peace Tower clock strikes 4:20 pm, while police officers turn a watchful eye and marijuana smoke fills the air. April 20th has long been observed in North America as national pot smoking day, but still many wonder how this tradition got started, why people get involved and what kind of consequences are paired with such a controversial counterculture holiday. Here are some questions and answers about the ill-understood marijuana celebration.
HOW did it start? The name 4/20 has long been associated with marijuana but the origins are a little murky. Many stories exist but the editor of High Times Steven Hagar, provides the most popular urban legend explaining the bizarre nick name. 4/20 was started by a group of friends in 1971 at a high school in California. The clique would convene after class at around 4:20 every day, and eventually 4/20 became a code word for going to smoke up. The legend of the group of friends spread fast through North America and the code word soon became common day slang.
WHY does it continue? By the time the 1990’s rolled around 4:20 was recognized as the time for a daily toke. The first actual celebration on April 20th took place in Vancouver in 1995 in Victory Park. 200 people showed up the first year, the next year the numbers more than doubled drawing in over 500 people to celebrate. In 1997 the party had grown too big for Victory Park and was moved to the Vancouver Art Gallery, a popular spot for political protests. Over 1000 people showed up that year along with the media, spreading the fad throughout North America. Today 4/20 is used as a rally that shows the impracticality of enforcing current marijuana laws.
WHO participates? Participants can be found from New York to California, from Vancouver to Ottawa and everywhere in between. Many people assume 4/20 participants are only students, hippies and band members but the unofficial holiday brings marijuana enthusiasts young and old, professional and unprofessional together. In Ottawa alone, 6000 people are anticipated to set up camp on Parliament Hill and start a peaceful protest about the prohibition of marijuana, or just sit down and smoke up. And they are not alone. Authorities expect tens of thousands of protesters to hit the streets of Colorado, Denver, New York, California and Austin this year on April 20th as well. With the passing of Bill C-10 here in Canada pot is expected to become much more political. Protesters and activists will be seen trying to make a difference and legalize this leafy green substance.
WHAT is the omnibus crime bill (Bill C-10)? Pot is expected to become much more political this year as on March 11th 2012 the Conservatives passed the Omnibus crime bill. Many critics of this bill will be present and protesting on April 20th at Parliament Hill, but what are they protesting for? One of the most criticized aspects of Bill C-10 is that the new bill imposes mandatory minimums. This means mandatory jail sentences for certain crimes, including drug trafficking. Critics believe that mandatory minimums will increase costs of prosecution and incarceration and overcrowd Canadian prisons. As well, mandatory minimums will take away judge discretion and their ability to tailor a sentence to defendants’ particular needs. It also limits the use of alternative sentencing, which has been known to be far more effective in terms of rehabilitation than incarceration. By encouraging incarceration sentences, which have little rehabilitative effect on offenders, this new law actually makes it more likely that offenders will re-offend. A topic that many 4/20 protesters are concerned with is the effect of the bill on small-time drug offenders, who will be punished much more severely than the big time drug distributors or traffickers. These reasons and many more are why protesters argue that Bill C-10 is causing more harm than good.
WHAT are the consequences? Many people have the same reaction as I did when I first heard about the huge 4/20 celebration here in Ottawa: “Wait a minute… smoking marijuana is illegal, won’t everyone be thrown into jail? I DONT WANT TO GO TO JAIL!” But the fact of the matter is authorities take a very hands-off approach in regards to 4/20. RCMP and paramedics stand by looking for any disturbances or any people in need of help. Arrests and disturbances are very rare, as not one arrest was made by RCMP last year on April 20th. For the most part, 4/20 on Parliament Hill is a peaceful, friendly and fun environment, seen by some as a protest and others as a celebration of the controversial substance known as marijuana.