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The 4/20 rally, first held in 1995 in Vancouver, has grown to a worldwide event.Rafal Gerszak

Thousands of marijuana enthusiasts on Sunday flooded the streets of downtown Vancouver, the city that nearly 20 years ago birthed the stoner holiday that is 4/20.

Vancouver's April 20 celebration has come a long way from its inaugural event in 1995. Then just a small gathering of less than 200 people, the event's biggest logistical challenge was finding a long enough extension cord to reach from Marc Emery's Cannabis Culture headquarters (then a store called Hemp BC) to Victory Square park, where it was held for its first few years.

It has since grown into a sizeable – and worldwide – affair, with thousands of people spilling off Vancouver Art Gallery grounds on to downtown streets, forcing their closings. There were more than 150 booths set up at Sunday's event, selling everything from gluten-free pot brownies to politicians, with Vancouver police present only to keep the peace.

The pot-fest has also taken on a new significance in 2014, with changing attitudes toward pot being reflected in political action across North America. In Canada, the Conservative government is looking at softening marijuana laws by allowing police to write tickets for small-scale possession cases rather than laying charges. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has called for the legalization of marijuana and his party had a booth at Vancouver's 4/20 event, collecting signatures and distributing pins bearing Mr. Trudeau's image.

In B.C., an effort by SensibleBC to decriminalize marijuana possession fell short of the roughly 320,000 signatures needed to force a referendum – at least 10 per cent of registered voters in each of the province's 85 electoral districts – but still garnered 202,000. That makes it the province's second-most successful referendum effort behind the 2011 campaign to scrap the Harmonized Sales Tax.

In the U.S., Colorado and Washington held their first legal 4/20 celebrations after becoming the first two states to allow recreational marijuana use. Alaska is poised to become the third, with a vote on the issue in August.

"It's a new vibration in the marijuana movement because we feel, in some ways, success is on the horizon," said Dana Larsen, former Cannabis Culture magazine editor, and now a spokesman for SensibleBC. "There is a different atmosphere now, and people are looking forward to actual change happening."

Mr. Larsen said Mr. Trudeau's enthusiastic support for legalization is an encouraging sign. "That's a first. We've never had a leader of one of the mainstream parties using the L-word like that before," he said.

Sunday's celebration was the last that Mr. Emery will spend behind bars. Extradited from Canada in May, 2010, and currently completing a five-year sentence in a Mississippi prison for selling cannabis seeds to U.S. customers online, Vancouver's "Prince of Pot" is set to be released in July.

His activist wife, Jodie Emery, said the two will be throwing their support behind Mr. Trudeau and the Liberal Party of Canada.

"We're excited that this is a time of change in Canada," Ms. Emery said.

On April 1, new medical marijuana regulations took effect transferring the governing of access to physicians, from Health Canada, and restricting production to select commercial growers. Patients licenced to grow their own marijuana – or serve as a designated grower for someone else – argued that going through commercial growers would inflate costs and impede access to the drug. Some physicians are also reluctant to prescribe it.

Last month, Federal Court Judge Michael Manson granted an injunction, allowing patients currently licensed to grow their own marijuana to continue doing so while a larger constitutional challenge is before the courts. The federal government has said it will appeal the ruling.

On Sunday, a crowd of several hundred gathered in Parliament Hill, openly smoking pot and calling for easing of the country's marijuana laws.

The 4/20 moniker dates back to the pot culture of California in the early 1970s, but it became formally attached to April 20 with the day-long rally organized by Mr. Emery, Mr. Larsen and other Vancouver activists in 1995.

Rallies have been held every April 20 since and have spread across Canada and the globe. Local 4/20 organizers were advertising events from Whitehorse to Halifax, Iqaluit to Windsor, Ont., in Dallas, Texas, and Birmingham, Ala., London, Belfast, Reykjavik, Aukland, Lima and Cape Town, South Africa, to name just a few.

With reports from the Canadian Press and Shawn McCarthy in Ottawa

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