The annual 4/20 protest that fills the air in downtown Vancouver with pot smoke and attracts tens of thousands of people is going ahead on Saturday, despite cannabis legalization and long-standing efforts to curtail the unsanctioned gathering.
City officials have long complained the event is stressing police resources and damaging park property. Organizers expect this year’s event on April 20 will be even bigger because of a scheduled performance by hip-hop group Cypress Hill.
Dana Larsen, one of the event’s main organizers, is unapologetic and says Canada’s legalization of recreational cannabis is only a small step.
“Cannabis users and more broadly drug users in general still face incredible stigma and criminalization,” Mr. Larsen said. “4/20 is mainly about cannabis, but it’s also about the whole war on drugs and drug users. We consider ourselves allies.”
The city refuses to give the organizers permits, in part on the grounds that smoking is illegal in parks. The event, which includes the sale of illicit products, has gone ahead year after year anyway, first in the square in front of the city’s art gallery downtown and then, starting in 2016, at Sunset Beach Park, near Stanley Park. Last year, city officials estimated 40,000 people attended and counted 482 vendor booths.
The aftermath inevitably leads to city complaints of the mess and costs left behind, and the defiance of organizers, who say they do what they can to contribute to costs and to preserve the park.
With just days to go before the 25th annual event, parks board commissioner John Coupar introduced a successful motion, which urged parks board staff to request the cancellation the Cypress Hill performance, worried unprecedented crowds could damage the park and pose safety concerns.
“The space is full with 40,000 people. When it gets much bigger than that, I don’t know where they’re going to go,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of young people using cannabis. They’re right against the shoreline and there’s hazards around the water. Certainly we’ll have to have additional lifeguards.”
Mayor Kennedy Stewart suggested in an interview both sides of the debate should “relax a little bit.”
“When 50,000 people gather in one place, you really just try to manage the situation and make sure everybody is safe,” Mr. Stewart said, adding he hopes the event will be permitted in the future.
“We have outlined all the costs we’re expecting to incur. We’ll be invoicing the organizers after the event. We expect [to receive] full payment and if we don’t, we reserve the right to take them to court.”
According to Mr. Stewart, the parks board asked the city to start looking for a more suitable location last month, and the search is continuing.
After the event last year, damage to the park’s grassy area left the park closed for a month, despite a $30,000 investment in turf protection by the organizers.
“I feel bad when the park is damaged and we do everything we can to protect that grass,” said Mr. Larsen, who also owns one of Vancouver’s many unlicensed pot dispensaries.
Mr. Larsen said organizers’ inability to get insurance because of the unsanctioned nature of the event leaves the event organizers, the city and the park board at risk.
Last year, the city invoiced the event organizers $64,870 to cover costs including sanitation and restoration of the park’s grassy areas.
The city also sought $170,796 for the staffing costs of fire and rescue, police, engineering, and emergency management services, and the 311 municipal phone line. In total, the city said last year’s event cost more than $270,500. Policing was the most significant expense by far.
Mr. Larsen said his group is the first protest group in the city to cover all civic and park board costs other than policing, to the tune of $63,000, and plans to do the same this year.
The group also covers the costs of portable washrooms, private security, on-site paramedics and other event infrastructure.
“The only thing we’re not paying for is policing, and policing costs in Vancouver are a huge issue,” he said. “We should be looking at the broader issue of how policing costs are getting impossible for any event to pay.”
But the parks board’s Mr. Coupar said the contributions the event organizers have made are a drop in the bucket, noting the Honda Celebration of Light paid for the policing costs associated with their own event at the same beach.