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Marijuana activist Neil Magnuson is arrested at the 20th annual Cannabis Day protest on Canada Day at the Vancouver Art Gallery in downtown Vancouver, on July 1, 2015.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

An event that's been held for 19 years without incident – Vancouver's annual Canada Day marijuana protest – erupted in an ugly confrontation between protesters and police, leaving many up in arms over the city's policing of pot smokers.

Witnesses say they saw at least two dozen officers descend with physical force and pepper spray a modest group of peaceful gatherers at Cannabis Day in the downtown around noon on Wednesday. Four people were arrested, police said.

"I've never seen the cops act so violent," said Jeremiah Vandermeer, a Cannabis Day organizer and editor-in-chief of Cannabis Culture magazine.

Marijuana activists hold an annual protest on the grounds of the Vancouver Art Gallery on July 1. This year's protest comes in the wake of a council vote last week that made Vancouver the first jurisdiction in Canada to regulate storefront pot sales, and a Supreme Court of Canada ruling in June that all medical-marijuana users have a right to edibles.

In response to Vancouver's new dispensary bylaw, federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose said in a statement that she expected "the police to enforce the law" against storefronts selling pot in Vancouver, a practice she called illegal.

Several witnesses said they saw police take three protesters away in a van after a scuffle that left some with scratches and bruises, and others with the taste of pepper spray in their mouths. As of Wednesday afternoon, two men were in custody, according to police. One faces potential trafficking charges, the other faces a charge of obstruction.

"I'm shocked and appalled. This is horrifying behaviour from the police, I've never seen anything like this," Mr. Vandermeer said.

In a letter last month, the city requested that organizers move the protest from the art gallery to an area below the Cambie Street Bridge near the Vancouver Police Department headquarters. Organizers were puzzled by the last-minute demand and refused to relocate.

"We work with [the city and] the Vancouver Police Department every year," Mr. Vandermeer said. "We're peaceful protesters, we have a right to be here, we're not selling cannabis, we're giving out information [because] an election is coming up."

Bureaucrats and public health officials previously have raised cost and safety concerns over supervising the much larger 4/20 cannabis event in April.

Police say they warned organizers Wednesday morning that people would be arrested for the open selling or giving away of pot to young people.

"Police urged organizers to keep public safety in mind and that it will be the top priority for police," Constable Brian Montague said in a statement.

Const. Montague said police made an arrest when they observed someone overtly selling marijuana and he refused to stop. "The man was arrested and officers were immediately confronted and swarmed. Police were required to pepper spray at least one person to complete the arrest," he said in a statement.

Shortly after, angry crowds followed police down the street. People blocked off downtown's Howe Street for a short time in protest of the arrests.

Organizers and long-time attendees of the event said this was the first time the protest has been so heavily policed.

"There's [usually] two or three [cops] smiling, just keeping the peace, and everyone's just walking around," said Shirley Simpson, a resident of the area who has been coming to both the Canada Day and 4/20 events for 20 years.

In past years, police mainly served as crowd control, shutting down traffic or making sure an ambulance can get through if needed.

Eric Einarson has been coming to Cannabis Day for 15 years. He said he believes Wednesday's incident will be a turning point for the city to realize it hasn't gone far enough with its new pot regulations. "People still protest and … there's a lot of ground to cover."