At 4:20 p.m. last Saturday, I was not among the 15,000 strong who descended on Robin Williams Meadow to toke up collectively in honor of sweet lady Mary Jane.
While joining the masses at Hippie Hill was my intended plan, the perils of modern-day San Francisco meant that I instead was given a perimeter survey of the day’s festivities while hopelessly trying to find a place to park. (Note: I’m the first to admit that driving to an event dedicated to consuming a mind-altering substance — let alone one occurring in a city notorious for its insufficient parking options — was perhaps a journey destined for failure.) Unfortunately, extenuating circumstances meant that far more reasonable methods of transport were off the table, leaving me with a unique glimpse into the side of 4/20 that goes uncaptured by news station helicopters.
In the Haight, traffic cops installed at every intersection ensured safe passage for the hordes of pedestrians who slowly snaked their way into Golden Gate Park. On the sidewalks, food cart vendors jockeyed for position, aware that those in the direct sightline of departing 4/20 revelers would likely do the most robust business. Many blocks away from the meadow, a young woman carefully cradled a four-foot, multicolored papier-mâché bong as she trekked toward her destination.
Taking this all in, I couldn’t help but wonder: Do we still really need 4/20?
Historically, the occasion has served as an act of protest and community. Protected by the volume of willing participants, 4/20 celebrations pre-legalization provided visual evidence that cannabis consumers and patients really did exist. It also gave leaders in the movement a place and time to meet with their peers. But such efforts may no longer be necessary.
Now we have high-profile festivals, regulated dispensaries, and industry conferences. There is High There!, a cannabis social networking app. Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover) smoked a blunt with a fan on Coachella’s live stream. What’s left of that blunt is now reportedly for sale on eBay. Pollsters have found that some 84 percent of Americans favor “legalization for medical or recreational purposes.” On April 20, the website for popular cannabis delivery service Eaze experienced intermittent technical difficulties due to heavy traffic.
So what purpose does an event birthed by the counterculture serve in an age of majority approval?
The commodification of culture is a story as old as time, but in the case of cannabis, it’s a much tougher narrative to define. Some may see Brooke Adams — a young girl in Santa Rosa whose mother fought to ensure her daughter had access to cannabis treatments for seizures while at school — as the face of the cause. Others might nominate Adam Bierman — CEO for prominent cannabis retailer MedMen — who, according to a recent Rolling Stone profile, sees his primary demographic as “the Chardonnay moms who haven’t smoked pot since the 2002 Gamma Phi Beta formal got a little weird.”
While one of these examples provides a far more compelling case for the power of pot, both are equally representative of where the industry stands today. With this in mind, one begins to understand that while 4/20 may serve largely as a safe outlet to indulge in some light hedonism, for others it remains a medicine, a spiritual cause, and an underlying lynchpin to the mass incarceration of tens of thousands.
In past years, “420” was an insider’s shorthand — a way to talk about pot without arousing suspicion — but now the word is out. While April 20 may no longer be necessary as a means of uniting an existing community, it does continue to offer value as a way to expand that community’s ranks. This doesn’t mean that the nature of the celebration should be fundamentally changed, but it does suggest that 4/20’s value may rest with its ability to educate those who are new to the cause.
Whereas once it was a buddy from college or a seemingly chill cousin being initiated into the fray, now the focus must expand to welcome intrigued individuals across the globe. 4/20 was never meant to be sponsored, but if such developments lead to freedom for the unjustly jailed and safe access to medicine for patients, then bring on the trademarks.
When it comes to smoking cannabis, the more the merrier has always been the motto. While careful attention must be paid to the corporate behemoths who continue to invest heavily in the industry, the ritual of 4/20 can ultimately serve as far more than a conduit for city blocks of cannabis smoke. It can become a rallying cry, a day to both revel in the wonders of pot while also demanding more.
Let the masses converge and get stoned — just make sure they leave with some homework.