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As the first major U.S. city to retail cannabis, Denver’s 4/20 connection is well established, but the future of the unofficial Pot Holiday at Mile High is uncertain after COVID. While some newer members of the local cannabis industry feel that the Denver 4/20 celebration may return in all of its smoky, stony glory, seasoned veterans of the scene say the holiday peaked years ago. To see where Denver could be headed in 2022 and beyond, April 20th, we caught up with four people who have been instrumental in how this city views and celebrates cannabis. We will publish their stories in the next few days before April 20, 2021. Read the introductory part of “Burning Questions” here.
Denver’s reputation as a pot hot spot can largely be traced back to one man: Ken Gorman. As the grandfather of the 4/20 rally, he held monthly “smoke-in” events using joints and megaphones in front of the Colorado Capitol in the mid-1990s. These got so large that Gorman began applying for event permits at Civic Center Park, where hundreds of people gathered to smoke weeds and listen to punk bands and celebrities in protest of the cannabis ban.
Gorman was not afraid of the consequences of being a cannabis user in the 90s and was regularly charged by police on minor possession or paraphernalia charges. However, he continued his upfront campaign with ads on the back of Westword and an automatic answering machine advertising the cannabis he was selling. Even so, his campaign was political rather than financial: Gorman was an activist who fought for the rights of cannabis users.
Warren Edson, who graduated from law school in 1995, represented Gorman during his numerous legal disputes with the city, helping him obtain various event permits, fighting cannabis citations, and pushing for Amendment 20 that legalized medical marijuana in Colorado in 2000. After Gorman was murdered in 2007 (the case remains open and unresolved), his friends continued the park-rendezvous tradition, hosting the Denver 4/20 rally at Civic Center Park from 2007 to 2017. And Edson went on defending medical marijuana patients and cannabis users.
Today Edson says he is more focused on family treatment court and social service issues after retiring from cannabis as commercialization took over the legal landscape. And while the spirit behind those early 4/20 celebrations has definitely changed, Edson says we should have seen it coming.
Westword: What did 4/20 mean to you when you first walked into the cannabis room?
Warren Edson: I graduated from law school in 1995 and somehow immediately became Ken Gorman’s attorney. Granted, I’ve been able to get hired and fired all the time, but that was just living with Ken. I can’t remember when he first did a 4/20 in the park – it was around 1995 and after – but one of my first jobs for him was the start of this monthly protest. We had a smoke on the lawn in front of the Capitol and sometimes the Greek theater in the Civic Center attracted it, but it was usually in front of the Capitol. Sometimes we had a stage and a band. I met Jack Herer at one of our events. It was a real weed protest.
First, the city pinned him down for not having an event permit, so we went through this bullshit approval process every month. There were other crazy things he would do to get in trouble and different ways we would try to avoid it. We would fill bongs with wax so that they are technically unusable. These were the days when they were all “hookahs” and “tobacco only”. All of this eventually became the 4/20 event.
How did you go through this every month in the 1990s without getting arrested all the time?
This was before social media and before the internet started, so the sucker got hundreds of people going there every month based on word of mouth and posters. There were punk rock bands coming too. Ken also had that infamous answering machine that you could call and find out about his next smoking protest, who Ken said was “asshole of the week” and what pot he had [for sale]and what the prices were.
Attorney Warren Edson fought some of the early 20th century battles in City Hall.
Courtesy Warren Edson
This is probably not the right term, but it was kind of a beauty thing. I’m just out of the Reagan years and this guy in my forties is running all these events, telling everyone to fuck off and doing this scene successfully every month. In the beginning it was him and his pals who smoked to actually host events with stages, production assistants, bands, lecturers, and permits. He collected a ton of property and parcel cards, but he never carried enough with him to make a super edition.
Did Denver need someone like Ken to become the 4/20 hub?
No doubt. I think it would be fascinating to see how many people in the industry or activists belonged to this group of “Ken’s kids” – teenagers and twenties who always showed up for the things he did. Miguel Lopez is a self-proclaimed Ken boy and has taken over the 4/20 event for a period of time. However, Ken never commercialized it the way it ended up being, and there were never any stalls or anything like that in the Civic Center Park under Ken.
How do you feel when you see 4/20 festivals and events over 20 years later? Do you see the latest incarnation of April 20 at the Civic Center as progress?
Overall, it’s amazing to see how far things have changed from the mid 90s to the present day. Granted, I’m old and that’s a long period of time, but nothing had changed since the 30’s when I started, and now there have been these big changes legally and within societal acceptance. It is impressive to see that these events can take place. Have they been incredibly commercialized? Yes. Is that to be expected? Yes. But is that a little disappointing? Yes. Part of it is just the growth of an industry.
When we started everyone but law enforcement was on the same side of the table. For the 4/20 event back then it was all weed people with a pinch of civil liberties. Now we have business, consumer, and social inequality interests, and all of these other things matter too. It used to be weed people and weed activists. When Ken put the formal 4/20 event together it was very activist oriented. This was before Amendment 20 was passed, so these were the really bad old days.
But I worked in Denver County years later, and I remember going into the judge’s chambers with a 4/20 because his office looked out onto the park. This was in the early 2000s, and we were both surprised by how big the crowd had gotten. It was something.
Ken Gorman, the 4/20 Denver father, at Civic Center Park on April 20, 2006.
Do you think Colorado’s April 20th legalization of recreational activities resulted in a decline in activism?
A little bit, but that’s also part of a misunderstanding because Colorado’s weed laws are bad as never before. People will still go to jail for marijuana. We have a government approved point of sale to buy, consume, and distribute, but there is no penalty for the facility. It used to be about people going to jail for a plant and how stupid that was. Now there are many other things at stake. Washington state has passed law banning home growth and Oregon is currently cracking down on them. We were mistreated for home growing in Colorado, which went from the number of plants recommended by your doctor to twelve plants. I’ve hit that dead horse enough already, but that came from the industry, not the moral majority. Medical marijuana carers and patients who misinterpreted the law are unfortunately now my criminal clientele. Now that the sun is shining, I’ll start my annual soap box titled “Don’t Plant Your Weeds Outside in Denver Or Your Home May Be Confiscated or Filed.”
I can’t say that 4/20 didn’t always feel solemn either. Ken was having a really good time too, so it wasn’t just someone standing up there doing politics and teaching people. That was part of his charm. It would be really hard to have a 4/20 with a guest speaker who doesn’t stop complaining about laws that rob our growing rights. That usually doesn’t look big.
Should cannabis have a day of celebration? Should that day be 4/20?
Ah man. Maybe it’s because I’m old, but I don’t really care. There should be some realization that what’s wrong with marijuana is still not right, but 4/20 stopped a long time ago. If people want this St. Patrick’s Day celebration then they have more power, but it looks a lot more like St. Patrick’s Day than Earth Day.
Did Ken’s 4/20 rally and Denver’s political cannabis past create an attitude in the city that can survive commercialization and competition from other states?
No, I just don’t see it. In part, what is going on legally in other states is much worse. As much as I complain about Colorado, the laws in other states are even worse, so I’m sure most good activists now work elsewhere. Then you see states that surprise you, like Oklahoma, which has an incredibly liberal medical marijuana program with lots of possibilities for something to happen. There are some pretty hard core attempts, but there are certainly many events and other things going on out there. I can’t say Missouri isn’t far behind either.
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Thomas Mitchell has been writing about everything cannabis-related for Westword since 2014, covering sports, real estate, and general news en route to publications like the Republic of Arizona, Inman, and Fox Sports. He is currently the cannabis editor for westword.com.