As the first major U.S. city with retail cannabis, Denver's connection with 4/20 is well established, but the unofficial pot holiday's future in the Mile High is uncertain post-COVID. While some newer members of the local cannabis industry think there's a chance for Denver's 4/20 celebration to return in all its smoky, stoner glory, more seasoned veterans of the scene say that the holiday peaked years ago. To see where Denver could be headed for 4/20 in 2022 and beyond, we checked in with four people who've played an integral role in how this city views and celebrates cannabis. We're rolling out their stories in our Burning Question series in advance of 4/20 in 2021, and have already shared Warren Edson's memories of 4/20's early connection to Denver and Miguel Lopez's account of hosting the 420 Rally. And now, Jake Browne:
At the end of the day, 4/20 is about a plant's connection with people — and except during a pandemic, you can count on a lot of those people heading to Civic Center Park on April 20. Jake Browne has been one of those people...during the good, the bad and the weird.
The former strain critic for the Denver Post now operates a cannabis growing competition across seven states, immersing himself in cannabis culture from Hawaii to Massachusetts while still dabbling in media and comedy. Still, the Iowa native keeps his adopted home base in Denver, where he began his cannabis career at a medical dispensary in 2009.
Browne's wit and memory bring a certain amount of levity to the 4/20 experience, reminding us just how ridiculous the last decade has been in Denver as we navigate through cannabis legalization.
Westword: Was 4/20 something you celebrated growing up?
Jake Browne: In Iowa, 4/20 was senior skip day, and it permeated all levels of our school. So we'd go to Beaver Park, which was not far from my house, and everyone would roast one. It was one of those days where everyone smokes, in the same way everyone's Irish on St. Patrick's Day.
How have you seen Colorado's relationship with 4/20 evolve since you got involved in the local cannabis scene?
I would always go to the rally at Civic Center Park, no matter what. It was some of the best people-watching, but it was also one of the most diverse cannabis events that you would be at. A lot of the early 4/20 stuff was overwhelmingly cis, white and male — these little trade shows, or setting up a booth to slang merchandise at a jam-band show at Cervantes' — and the Rally was always the opposite of that.
Early on, it became clear there were some "big players," who were people fighting for Amendment 20 for years. People like Warren Edson, Timothy Tipton and Kathleen Chippi, and Miguel Lopez with the 420 Rally.
I was never a Boulder field day kind of guy. [The University of Colorado used to be the site of a major 4/20 smoke-in that was shut down years ago.] I do give Miguel credit for what he did, which was really a day based around activism. While that carried more slam poetry than I would've programmed, it was really about protecting patients' rights and educating people before it became a corporate monster a few years later. The event kind of slowly morphed into how many booths and corporate sponsors can be gotten, and the programming shifted away from patients and legalization, and more toward finding the biggest rapper they could get in Civic Center Park.
There's nothing like being there when everyone lights up, though. It's like being in front of the mountains, where it always looks farther away on camera — but being in the middle of it? Just smoke. And there's nowhere else you can get that. For every knock on 4/20, it really was made up of this diverse community around this plant who'd all fire up at the same time and felt like they were breaking some rules. It's something I'll never forget.
Do you think that's a feeling and community that can come back after COVID-19?
Probably, but nobody knows what the future of huge events are, period, let alone one based around people sharing, inhaling, exhaling and coughing around each other if what they're inhaling is any good. I'm also concerned Colorado hasn't kept up with the rest of the nation in terms of promoting canna-tourism and what's unique about the state. We're increasingly becoming indistinguishable from places where people can also get high.
Does Colorado have enough of a history with 4/20 to always remain a destination on that day?
We're not the only place that celebrates 4/20. I think when you look at what the Bay Area is going to do in the future, and New York recently legalizing, there are opportunities to do interesting things there. I think it's incumbent upon Governor Polis to truly embrace cannabis in the way he has.
How about Denver? How much has the city accepted or embraced 4/20?
I think the City of Denver would love if there were never another 4/20. It was one thing when it was a political event, and an entirely different one when it was a for-profit concert trying to wring dollars out of attendees under this idea that they were participating in civil disobedience. The idea of going through metal detectors and not being able to bring in water...like, what? Also, there's a big perception that Colorado is snowy all year here, and April 20 is not well positioned for that on the calendar.
How has it left such a footprint on the city in spite of all that?
Look at the infamous footrace to secure the permit [for Civic Center Park on April 20, 2018], and you see how hard it is for anyone to take over this event and do it differently. As long as its organizers continue to couch it as this day of civil disobedience and political action, I don't think the city has any business manipulating it or banning events there. It's legitimately a six-figure business for one day a year at this point.
How do cannabis-industry members and insiders view 4/20 now that commercialization is so strong?
For the community itself, 4/20 is like tax day for an accountant. There is very little to celebrate about dealing with massive amounts of people who all want the best stuff at the cheapest price. It definitely gives you a different perspective on the day. Not everyone wants to get off their hardest ten-hour shift of the year and go and party. We wanted to organize something upscale for business owners and upper management, and the response was just "No." The stress around 4/20 is crippling for some people. It's their biggest sale day of the year, so all of this marketing, messaging and energy goes into it. But everyone else in this oversaturated industry is doing the same, so they're all fighting to win the share. That gets more difficult when multi-state operators and large chains drown them out.
Do you think a faction of cannabis users grow out of celebrating 4/20? Sometimes it feels like the overindulgence is a turnoff.
It's very much wearing the shirt of the band at a concert. I think it's also been a day centered around this bullshit sense of canna-masculinity, where it's all about rolling up an ounce in a single blunt, or taking a one-gram dab to prove how macho you are. This day isn't about tragic overconsumption to be the toughest guy in the room.
Does Denver ever get back to where it was six years ago, where we had lines of people and dab bars at a High Times Cannabis Cup?
I think so, but only because it's so important for people to not feel isolated with their cannabis use. Ultimately, there is something communal about sharing a joint and being able to meet people to discuss how they use cannabis. These events serve as some of the best conduits for that in a way that isn't an Instagram comment or watching a YouTube video. When I talk to growers, especially, cannabis is one of the biggest isolating factors in their lives. For so many people, their cannabis use had to remain a secret for years, or they could lose their lives. Being able to leave those shadows and be surrounded by thousands of people who are there for the same reason, even though they don't look the same, is a powerful thing.
There were a couple big black eyes on 4/20. There was a shooting, obviously, and then the trash in the park, and the perception that a cannabis event was trashing the precious city. That sort of cast a pall over the day that I don't know if we can push back on — but could I see a more enterprising community like Glendale try to pull off the world's largest 4/20 celebration on their rugby pitch? Absolutely.
Denver's just always been so far behind, and acts like the industry had a gun to its head. In reality, it was a blank check for the city's pocketbook. Until there are clear social consumption rules, anyone big enough to do something worth attending will be way too scared. The fines and potential jail time would end trying something like we used to have. That was the beauty of the old 4/20: It was a loosely organized people's movement. Nowadays, everything needs to permitted, insured and regulated.
Much of the cannabis industry is trying to distance itself from stoner culture, but 4/20 is still such a big day for dispensaries. How do you see that clash playing out?
The future of 4/20 is going to change dramatically because of the people who are involved now. Cannabis culture used to mean you listened to reggae or jam bands, or you had this signifier that you're into the jazz cabbage, too. Now you don't need these outward signifiers that help you score, so it's not this set of a few subcultures anymore. Everyone wants to cater tosoccer
moms, but on 4/20, everything is going to be tie-dyed and freaky again.
More tomorrow. In the meantime, read the first three installments of this series:
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