Vancouver 420 event continues to grow

To some, protest seems more like a festival

Tristan Johnston / The Runner

Tens of thousands of people descended upon Sunset Beach, Wednesday to celebrate 420, the unofficial marijuana holiday.

All over the world, in places where it’s possible, people gather—usually in front of legislatures—to protest the war on drugs. Protesters will often smoke joints in defiance.

This year, 420 had to move to Sunset Beach from the usual Vancouver Art Gallery location, as the event has been growing year after year. This meant enough space for a stage, portable toilets, and plenty of vendors openly selling marijuana and other paraphenalia.

Another key difference for this year’s 420 was a morning announcement from Minister of Health Jane Philpott at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where she explained that the Liberal government would be unveiling marijuana legalization legislation by next spring.

Tristan Johnston / The Runner

“Volunteers, all volunteers,” says Jodie Emery about the organizers of the protest. Of course, it’s an illegal protest. For now.

Jodie Emery is well-known in Canadian marijuana activism, and is the wife of Marc Emery, who himself is known for founding the B.C. Marijuana Party and for running several cannabis-related businesses.

“We just do it. It’s been 20-plus years of 420 happening in Vancouver and it’s always been civil disobedience. We don’t ask for permission because we don’t need it. We’re a protest, but it is peaceful.”

This may sound strange, given the obvious presence of first aid and fire crews, along with copious amounts of police, who aren’t making arrests.

Tristan Johnston / The Runner

“Every year we have to get more and more professional. Every year the city asks us to get more toilets, we get radios to communicate, we hold regular meetings with city events coordinators at city hall. Parks board, B.C. Ambulance, Vancouver Fire, and Vancouver Police Dept. And we work with them regularly with meetings and discussions to coordinate this fully. The only reason we can’t get a permit is because marijuana is illegal. And the only reason we’re here is because marijuana is illegal.”

Having heard Philpott’s announcement of coming marijuana legislation earlier that day, Emery said that she was sceptical. “I think the Liberals are taking too long, because they are promising to keep arresting Canadians for pot possession in the meantime, and they’re only talking to mental health experts, and addiction experts and police, who have all traditionally opposed legalization, and they’re using language like ‘restrict’ and ‘heavily control.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has recently reiterated the Liberal opposition to immediate decriminalization, saying that such a move would provide gangs with a “legal stream of income.”

Emery said that her ideal form of legalization would be “the way it is now, but with more opportunity available—medical marijuana more readily available, no more arrests. You can have big corporations making their own recreational marijuana, and small craft producers. Just like coffee, just like beer, just like wine.”

Tristan Johnston / The Runner

Many of the protesters likely hold similar opinions to Emery, with many of them toking up in plain sight. However, given the heavy police presence at the event, why isn’t anyone getting arrested?

“The primary concern for the police down here when we have a crowd of 15,000 to 25,000 people is the safety of the people that are here,” says Sgt. Randy Fincham of the Vancouver Police Dept. “Although there are people down here smoking marijuana, marijuana possession does remain a criminal offence. We weigh out the requirements and the need to arrest someone with the safety of other people around here and the public interest in doing that.”

However, Vancouver is already known for being a city with a relaxed outlook towards marijuana.

“We only have so many police resources in the City of Vancouver, investigating a variety of crimes, that goes all the way from fatal car accidents, to homicides, to robberies, to drug offenses.”

“When it comes to enforcing drug offenses,” says Fincham, “our priorities lie with dealing with violent drug traffickers, people who are preying on other people to sell drugs, buy drugs, that’s where the focus lies.”