Less politics, more commercial touches: Changes, big and small, evident at Denver’s 4/20 festival as marijuana industry takes control of event

Despite 364 days of chaos — a rumpus over rubbish, a mad dash for permits and, ultimately, a change in organizers — a cloud of marijuana smoke rose again over Denver’s Civic Center park on Friday at 4:20 p.m., the now-ritual marking of the city’s annual 4/20 cannabis festival.

Building afternoon storm clouds yielded spitting rain and blustering winds at the titular time. But that did not dampen enthusiasm at one of the country’s best-known 4/20 events. Organizers estimated that 70,000 people — more than they expected — attended the event, although an official crowd size was not possible. Long lines leading into the event stretched down the blocks around the park as 4:20 p.m. approached.

“It’s the only holiday we like,” said Bre Grover, 21, of Nunn. “I think the hippies of the ’60s would’ve been proud.”

Except, the hippies of the ’60s would have little recognized some of the more commercial touches at this year’s event.

For the first time, the industry took direct control of the festival. Last year, the event’s longtime permit-holder, Miguel Lopez, received a three-year ban and drew angry comments from Denver officials after the city woke on April 21 to a disheveled, trash-strewn mess in the park. After a literal race through the halls of the Wellington Webb building and a contested permitting fight, the dispensary chain Euflora won the right to host this year’s festival, now called the Mile-High 420 Festival.

That change revealed itself in ways big and small.

There were more entrances into the event this year and more visible security guards. Workers in orange T-shirts buzzed around sweeping up trash.

In a brief interview amid the crowd, Denver Police Chief Robert White called the event “well organized.”

“It’s going really well so far,” he said. “I just hope that continues on through the night.”

Also changed were some of the more overt political goals of the festival when it was run by Lopez, who viewed it first and foremost as a political rally to call for the end to marijuana prohibition. (Lopez could not be reached for comment Friday.)

There were few — if any — booths staffed by political causes.

Instead, there were companies selling clothing, smoking accessories, cultivation equipment and food. The Colorado Department of Transportation staffed one booth discouraging stoned driving.  There was a beer garden. Giant turkey legs — that staple of Denver’s festival circuit — were a popular item.

Those in attendance, though, retained the same energetic belief in marijuana’s virtues. Sporting tie-dye gear, pot-leaf garlands and wide grins, many began pouring into the park before noon. Pot smoke wafted in the breeze for blocks around the downtown park — despite signs posted inside the event by the Marijuana Industry Group reminding revelers that public consumption is illegal, even on 4/20.

“All smoking is done behind closed doors in New Jersey,” said Kenny Dykes, 20. “Coming here makes me want to leave New Jersey.”

Police issued several citations for public consumption, White said, although he did not have the exact number. Other revelers — such as one who gave his name only as Josh — got off with just warnings. State Patrol troopers walking the park made him dump out his bong.

“It kinda sucks,” Josh said. “C’mon. It’s 4/20!”

It was his first 4/20 in Denver, he said.

That was true of many in attendance.

Boulder resident Petra Stojanovic, 20, came for more than the smoke. Like many, she came for the spectacle, the cannabis camaraderie and the music, which featured several big names.

“I’m here to see Lil Wayne,” Stojanovic said. “My friends are visiting from New Jersey, so we’re celebrating and showing them around.”

Devante Anderson, 26, drove from Wyoming to celebrate 4/20 in Denver.

“There is nothing like this in Wyoming, so it’s cool that we can come here and celebrate,” he said. “Twenty years ago, we would all be in jail. Today, we are here having a good time, no need to hide.”

And, sitting on a patch of grass away from the main stage, there was Kendra Mayle, 27, of Denver.

She said she, too, wanted to see the spectacle and was excited to see Lil Wayne perform. She brought her 5-week-old baby, Ayla, to the festival.

“Technically, you’re not supposed to smoke,” Mayle said, “so we thought it would be fine to bring her.”

Staff writer Jon Murray contributed to this report.