Image: April 20th festivities, Denver, Co.
Joe Mahoney  /  Rocky Mountain News via Polaris
Smoke rises over hundreds of pot smokers at a "420" rally held last April 20 in Denver.
By Mike Stuckey Senior news editor
msnbc.com
updated 4/16/2008 6:01:18 AM ET 2008-04-16T10:01:18

A once clandestine counterculture pot-smoking “holiday” observed each April 20 has crossed into the mainstream this year with public gatherings that will attract thousands of participants and marketing campaigns that tout a trio of marijuana-themed movies.

As anti-drug activists chafe, the so-called “420” (pronounced “four-twenty”) celebrations “are taking on a life of their own,” said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, who has been working on marijuana issues for 17 years.

Image: Allen St. Pierre
norml.org
Allen St. Pierre
St. Pierre, who thought the phenomenon was peaking about 10 years ago, has instead watched it continue to grow, thanks to the commercial efforts and “a remarkable cultural push for something that is not owned by anything, that nobody profits from per se.” It is now “highly institutionalized,” he said, ticking off dozens of events tied to the date, many organized by NORML’s 140 chapters across the nation. He said he expects to do as many as 75 media interviews this year on April 20.

While there are lots of legends on the Internet and elsewhere about the origins of “420,” “4:20” and “4/20” as terms for both marijuana itself and indulging in it, the most widely accepted is that the label came from students at a Marin County, Calif., high school in the early 1970s. The young stoners reportedly would meet after classes let out, at 4:20 p.m., to share their drugs in an era when the activity was less tolerated by society – and the legal system.

Code word and inside joke
For years, the 420 label remained obscure enough to be a viable code and inside joke. But by the late 1990s, it was being pressed into use everywhere from personal ads – “420 friendly” – to clocks and scoreboards in the background scenes of popular movies. Perhaps its most noticeable effect was the choice of April 20 as a day of reefer reverence, chiefly on American college campuses.

Two of the biggest annual celebrations have been held at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the University of Colorado, Boulder, both drawing thousands of students and outsiders despite attempts to discourage the gatherings. While the Boulder campus is taking a posture of grudging tolerance toward the event, Santa Cruz officials this year plan their harshest crackdown ever, sealing off the campus to all outsiders without pre-arranged business there.

But as campus administrators brace for the unwelcome publicity that attends the thick clouds of marijuana smoke rising above their campuses, film industry entrepreneurs are rubbing their hands in anticipation of money to be made.

A comic documentary, “Super High Me,” the new “Harold and Kumar” release and the mockumentary “Totally Baked” all have marketing and advertising schemes linked to April 20.

The trend disturbs anti-drug activists who say mounting scientific evidence indicates that Americans should reject marijuana use.

‘It's a tragedy’
“It’s tragic for our country,” Dr. Bertha Madras, deputy director of demand reduction in the White House drug office, said in an interview with msnbc.com. “It is a tragedy that this is a media circus event and it does not take into account what I have seen in treatment centers, what I have seen in weeping parents who have asked me for help with their children.”

Image: Bertha Madras
whitehouse.gov
Bertha Madras

Madras, a Harvard Medical School professor and addiction researcher for 20 years before going to work for the White House in 2006, said the high potency of today’s marijuana has increased its addictive properties. More kids from ages 12 to 18 — nearly 200,000 — are in treatment across the nation for pot abuse than any other substance, including alcohol, Madras said.

April 20 is “not a special day or unique day for me,” Madras said. “It’s one more day in trying to convince people that marijuana is a harm to their present and future.”

Pot aficionados don’t see it that way. They happily use April 20 events to proselytize a herb that they say is a better recreational substance than alcohol and other drugs, and also has medicinal and other uses.

“We are just trying to educate the students about marijuana and reform marijuana laws,” said Alex Douglas, spokesman for the University of Colorado, Boulder, chapter of NORML. Douglas said that while Boulder’s 420 event is “the largest gathering of people smoking marijuana in the world,” he personally will not be lighting up at the gathering because he would like it to be taken seriously as a “huge venue for activism.”

The same goes for Mason Tvert, a Denver-based activist whose organization — the Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation, or SAFER — has helped pass two local laws aimed at ending prosecution of marijuana users. Members of SAFER believe that pot smokers cause far fewer societal and criminal problems than drinkers. The group has used 420 events “to hand out education literature on the differences between alcohol and marijuana and try to get people to talk about it.” Denver's 420 event in Civic Center Park has attracted big crowds in recent years.

But most people who attend 420 events are there to get high, judging by the photographs and videos of previous gatherings posted online. On YouTube.com, videos show throngs of people racing to light up at Porter Meadows at UC Santa Cruz last year and chanting out the countdown to 4:20 p.m. at Boulder’s Norlin Quad. Cameras then pan over the thousands of participants at each event, capturing smiling, cheering and high-fiving beneath a fog of dope smoke.

“It was really insane how many people showed up,” said Eric Hengesbaugh, 19, who filmed last year’s Santa Cruz event as a freshman on the redwood-studded campus overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Commercial connection
Such devotion to 420 festivities has grabbed the attention of filmmakers with projects about pot, or featuring it. “Totally Baked,” a mockumentary written and produced by comedian Craig Shoemaker, premiered on April 20, 2007, and is being distributed on DVD just after 420 this year.

“Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo,” a comedy featuring John Cho and Kal Penn as a pair of hapless pot smokers, is being released April 25, and will be promoted with a prominent advertising campaign and other 420 content on the High Times Magazine Web site. “Harold and Kumar’s” maker, New Line Cinema, is a Hollywood powerhouse, a Time Warner company with over $1 billion in annual revenue and deals throughout the entertainment world that include NBC and Microsoft, msnbc.com’s parent companies.

But the most ambitious 420-linked marketing campaign belongs to the makers of “Super High Me,” who are giving away DVD copies of the film to anyone who promises to air a public or private showing of it on April 20. The documentary parody of the fast-food film “Super Size Me” follows comedian Doug Benson as he first abstains from marijuana for 30 days and then smokes as much as he can for the next 30 days, taking physical, psychological and SAT tests during both periods.

Hoping for 800 screenings
“We’ve got 401 screenings scheduled right now” for April 20, said Chris Hyams of B-Side, an entertainment technology company that is helping market and distribute the film. “By the time of the event we expect 800.”

Hyams had to talk film producer Alex Campbell into the ploy. “My first instinct was there’s no way I’m going to give this movie away for free,” Campbell said. “I’m an independent filmmaker and I haven’t made any money on it. But he said he then got to thinking that “people are going to watch it, they’re going to love it, they’re going to buy it.”

Campbell may need the word-of-mouth action generated by the give-away as the film drew tiny audiences to one of a handful of April 11 premieres in West Coast theaters, the Admiral Twin in Seattle.

While “Super High Me” viewers queue up, officials and cops at the nation’s 420 hot spots will have to decide how to handle the crowds that descend on their campuses. Weed fanciers familiar with the scene say the fact that April 20 lands on a Sunday this year will likely mean larger crowds, not smaller ones.

In Boulder, university spokesman Bronson Hilliard said officials accept that they can’t really stop the event. “There was a period of three or four years where we were trying something different every year,” he said. “One year the sprinklers came on and it was a kind of cold day and the party was over. In 2006, we tried posting photos of students and offering reward money.” But after that plan backfired spectacularly amid threats of a lawsuit from a prominent civil rights attorney, new leadership on campus backed off.

'A silly, unnecessary event'
“This is a sort of annoyance,” Hilliard said. “It’s a silly, unnecessary event that we don’t want to make into a cause célèbre. We will have law enforcement present but we won’t have a large demonstration of law enforcement. They’re only really looking to make sure that people come and go safely and that things like overt drug dealing doesn’t happen.”

At Santa Cruz, after an attempted crackdown by university administrators and police was completely ignored by 420 participants last year, officials this year are restricting access to the rural campus. University spokesmen did not respond to repeated requests about their plans but a 900-word-plus e-mail sent Thursday to all students said: "The campus will be closed to non-affiliates during Sunday, April 20," meaning anyone who is not a student, employee or a guest "attending pre-approved campus events."

Aggressive tactics did work at the University of Vermont, Burlington, once the scene of large annual 420 observances that have since died out, according to campus police Chief Gary Margolis. Margolis said that strong police efforts were aided by involvement from student government and an alternative event called “Spring Fest.”

Douglas, of the Boulder NORML chapter, applauds the grudging tolerance now in vogue on his campus and says his group has communicated with university police and officials about each other’s expectations. He said he anticipates a crowd of 10,000 will attend this year’s event.

“I’m hoping and praying it’s going to be good weather,” Douglas said. He’s also hoping for a scene as “indescribable” as the one he saw last year, complete with “random butterfly girls … fairies with big wings running around the crowd, just ridiculous.”

Pot use is down among teens
Such comments are deeply troubling to Madras of the White House Drug office, who pointed out that marijuana use has declined about 25 percent in recent years among teens 12 to 17.

“We’ve made tremendous headway in clarifying the hazards of marijuana use and then along come these yahoos who are countering this progress with media events and with marketing events and with money-making events … money made at the expense of the brain, the body and the behavior of susceptible people,” she said.

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