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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’ll post their stories before April 20, 2021. Read the introduction to the Burning Question series and Warren Edson’s recollections of the early 4/20 connection to Denver here. And now Miquel Lopez:
Denver has all 4/20 smoking sessions, but the heart of the action has always been Civic Center Park. Initially a casual gathering initiated by cannabis activist Ken Gorman, over the decades it grew into a boisterous event that attracted up to 50,000 people. But as the crowd came in, more bells and whistles came along too.
Miguel Lopez saw it all. As a friend of Gorman, he turned the 420 rally into a memorial after Gorman’s murder in 2007 and kept it going when it turned into a free concert of stalls and vendors, albeit with a layer of activism.
The inclusiveness that Lopez preaches was reflected in the variety of his events, but there were problems. In 2013 there was a shooting during the rally celebration, in which two people were injured. In 2017, Lopez lost his offer for a Civic Center approval for an event on April 20, 2018 after a tough end to last year’s rally. When photos and reports of long safety lines, broken fences and overflowing trash cans surfaced online during the rally and the next morning, Mayor Michael Hancock’s office banned Lopez and his 420 other rally organizers from applying for an event permit at the park for three years. Meanwhile, Euflora, a pharmacy chain that was an unfortunate co-sponsor of Rally 420 2017, sent staff to a camp in front of the park and recreation office to take control of the 2018 permit. After a verbatim step to the application counter shortly after midnight on November 1, 2017, the Euflora group was beaten by a man named Michael Ortiz – but Ortiz was later found to be linked to Lopez and the department denied his application.
Euflora’s 4/20 event at the Civic Center – named Mile High 420 Fest in 2018 and Fly Hi 4/20 Fest in 2019 – stayed free and full of unsanctioned pot smoking, but the activism attempts were gone. The 2020 event was canceled altogether in the first few months of the pandemic, and no one has applied for a permit for April 20 this year. But that could change for 2022.
Both Euflora and Lopez, whose three-year bans at Denver Parks and Recreation ended last year, tell Westword that they plan to hold an event at Civic Center Park on April 20, 2022. Depending on who wins the race this time, the city might surprise you next year. We spoke to Lopez about the importance of 4/20 and where his future lies in Colorado.
Westword: What did 4/20 mean to you when you first became acquainted with cannabis?
Miguel Lopez: I have a long history of family activism that dates back to the peace and Chicano movements. These movements were then intertwined with anti-war demonstrations, which were sort of the birthplace for the marijuana movement. In many of these places, people smoked marijuana as a peaceful form of public defiance against the Vietnam War and the war on drugs. I use the term “marijuana” because it is a misconception that “marijuana” is a racist term. It’s not like that unless the people who don’t say it are racist themselves. According to the dictionary, the word marijuana comes from the Nahuatl term “mallihuan”. I think the term “marijuana” is too ethnic for some people, but too bad. The word “cannabis” is also Latin, so no matter what you say, it will be something historically demonized if associated with “these Mexicans”.
How do you see Denver’s current relationship with 4/20?
It’s like the Pride festival. It was a first year riot in New York City. Like April 20th, it was this political thing at first, but now all of these people just jump on it to be happy without knowing what they are happy about.
A cloud of smoke hovers over Civic Center Park in 2017.
Did you notice a parallel between the inflow of money into the cannabis movement and the 4/20 trend over the past five years?
Oh yeah. People, especially young people and millennials, don’t see the activism issues we’ve been dealing with, be it Rosa Parks on the bus or people broken on the street because of censer or fake curses like stop-and-frisk and New York or “broken windows” police work in Denver that still exists.
How are you feeling now for 4/20?
People can say marijuana is legal, but it’s not nationwide. The United Nations has not resigned itself to it in a global way either. Our laws have an impact on the world and we are still responsible for inhuman acts in other countries like the Philippines where you cannot get a trial after being caught with drugs. You will be shot. This is shit that comes from our ideology, our hatred, and our religious fanaticism. To see 4/20 now, it looks like people have forgotten their fathers’ struggles.
Do you think Coloradans felt that after recreation was legalized, there wasn’t so much to struggle with?
But there are still struggles, economic differences and environmental impacts. There are many people who believe in the effects of the grassroots movement. I have letters from Vietnam veterans and from around the world, coast to coast. To open this type of post and take on these causes, there is a difference between making salaries and bargaining and trying to make the world a better place. We have civil rights concerns, but most of all we are all human. Marijuana is not a panacea, but people shouldn’t be jailed, fined, or get into criminal trouble for it. There should be no restrictions on marijuana. it should be regulated like tomatoes.
How do you look back on the 420 rally when you think about where Colorado’s cannabis laws are today?
One of the things we are really proud of is that we represented many cultures there, be it Indians, Chicano, Blacks, Hip-Hop, poor whites or whites who use their privilege for something good. We included all genres of music; it was all. We wanted everyone to feel welcome.
America is many things. How do people feel in a country that doesn’t believe in their cause? It all started here where the first people under federal law went to jail for marijuana. [Denver’s Samuel Caldwell and Moses Baca became the first people arrested for marijuana sale and possession under the federal Marijuana Tax Act of 1937.]
The Civic Center’s 4/20 fun has been fenced off since 2014, but those restrictions don’t always apply.
What are your plans for the coming 20s after the end of the pandemic?
We are already putting together plans for 2022. We are planning smaller, intimate events in the neighborhoods and would also like to partner with someone for an event at the Civic Center. Everything will come when new rules on social consumption come out, but we will always keep the course of a grassroots movement. The purpose of the downsizing is to speak to people who do not have the social capital and let them know how their elected officials represent their communities.
At the Civic Center, I wouldn’t say it’s going to be something great with great cast members unless they volunteered for free. We will focus on the smaller days of the booth space and the Greek theater. We have given the people opportunity and we have been exploited. We don’t want to exploit anyone or use anyone’s money, but we also don’t want anyone to exploit us.
Does Denver have a special connection to 4/20 that other cities don’t?
I would say the only connection to 4/20 that is special here is the people who knew what this was before legalization. Many people didn’t like the fact that when we were filming in 2013 we had to put up fences at next year’s rally. That just changed the dynamics of things. We prepare for emergencies, but with bigger population and bigger growth, the world has become that way. The mayor wants to make this a world class city and blames me for all the junk. Well, the city doesn’t look very prime right now and they take a lot longer to clean up the trash than me.
When we celebrate things like July 4th, was that day really beneficial for everyone? These rules with marijuana and this country’s birth certificate are parallel. That won’t change until we see more inclusion here for grassroots votes, and not just for politicians.
More tomorrow. In the meantime, read the first two parts of this series:
“Burning question: where does 4/20 go from here?”
“Dive into Denver Early Connections at 4/20”
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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.