DENVER – Tens of thousands of revelers raised joints, pipes and vaporizer devices to the sky Sunday at a central Denver park in a defiant toast to the April 20 pot holiday, a once-underground celebration that stepped into the mainstream in the first state in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana.
The 4:20 p.m. smoke-out in the shadow of the Colorado capitol was the capstone of an Easter weekend dedicated to cannabis in states across the country. Although it is still against the law to publicly smoke marijuana in Colorado, police only reported 63 citations or arrests on Sunday, 47 for marijuana consumption.
"It feels good not to be persecuted anymore," said Joe Garramone, exultantly smoking a joint while his 3-year-old daughter played on a vast lawn crowded with fellow smokers.
The Garramone family came from Hawaii, among the tens of thousands who crowded into various cannabis-themed extravaganzas, from a marijuana industry expo called the Cannabis Cup at a trade center north of downtown to 4/20-themed concerts at the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheater. Acts included Slightly Stoopid and Snoop Dogg.
At 4:20 p.m., an enormous plume of marijuana smoke wafted into the sky above downtown Denver as rapper B.o.B. belted out his song "Strange Clouds," with the hook: "And all we do is light it up, all night/All you see is strange clouds/Strange clouds, strange clouds."
The Civic Center Park event is the most visible sign of the pot holiday's transformation. It started as a defiant gathering of marijuana activists, but this year the event has an official city permit, is organized by an events management company and featured booths selling funnel cakes and Greek food next to kiosks hawking hemp lollipops and glass pipes.
Gavin Beldt, one of the organizers, said in a statement that the event is now a "celebration of legal status for its use in Colorado and our launch of an exciting new experience for those attending."
Denver is just one of many cities across the country where 4/20 marijuana celebrations were planned Sunday.
In Trenton, N.J., speakers urged a crowd of about 150 gathered at the statehouse to push state and federal lawmakers to legalize or decriminalize marijuana and called on Gov. Chris Christie to do what he can to help medical marijuana patients. Among those at the rally was Jawara McIntosh, the youngest son of noted reggae musician and pro-marijuana activist Peter Tosh.
In San Francisco, thousands of revelers gathered at Golden Gate Park's Hippie Hill, which has become the go-to spot for the unsanctioned festival every year.
City officials said they would be cracking down on illegal parking, camping, drug sales, underage drinking and open alcohol containers. Hippie Hill was covered in canopies as dozens of people sold pot-laced cookies, brownies and other items. Some vendors told the San Francisco Chronicle that sales were slow because so many people were peddling the treats.
Officer Danielle Newman said at least eight people face possible felony charges, but she didn't elaborate on the reasons for their arrests.
In Washington, thousands celebrated in the only other state to legalize marijuana. Events included an event sponsored by Seattle's Dope Magazine, with a $99 "judge's pass" available that included 10 marijuana samples.
Back in Colorado, University of Colorado officials closed the Boulder campus to all but students, faculty and staff on Sunday to ensure no 4/20 celebrations were held. Spokesman Ryan Huff said the tactic was working, with no arrests reported Sunday.
While the weekend was for celebrating, recent events have brought serious scrutiny to Colorado's experiment with legalizing marijuana. Denver police say a man ate marijuana-infused candy before shooting and killing his wife on Monday, an attack dispatchers heard during a 911 call the woman placed. Her death followed that of a college student who traveled from Wyoming to Colorado with friends for spring break, ate more than the recommended dose of a marijuana-laced cookie and jumped to his death from a hotel balcony in Denver. State lawmakers are debating how to increase safety regulations.
Marijuana festivities got off to a slow start on Easter Sunday. But as the clock counted down to 4:20 and crowds surged into Civic Center Park, festivalgoers noted the big changes from previous years — more merchandise and more police.
Last year's rally was cut short by a shooting that wounded three. All attendees this year had to pass through security screening, and a heavy police presence ringed the park.
"I still feel a little like a teenager," Garramone said as he eyed police patrolling the park.
Just as striking was the proliferation of merchandise, from cannabis-related gear and T-shirts to $9 roast turkey legs and $4 water bottles.
"I can just imagine how much money is being made right now," said Tina Crockett, 34, of Wichita.
The commercialism disappointed Bob Glisson, 27, who was attending his fourth 4/20 celebration in the park.
"It's all about the money now," the Denver resident complained.
Still, the scene was wonderfully surreal for Bud Long, 49, from Kalamazoo, Mich., who recalled taking part in his first 4/20 protest in 1984.
"Nationwide, it'll be decriminalized," he predicted on Saturday, the first day of the two-day festival, "and we'll be doing this in every state."