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Inside the Free Speech Battle Over Vancouver’s 420 Festivities

Inside the Battle Over Vancouver's 420 Festivities
Photo Gracie Malley for Cannabis Now


Inside the Free Speech Battle Over Vancouver’s 420 Festivities

A showdown is shaping up in Vancouver, where the city’s 420 event has always been held with no permit. This year it promises to be huge, with Cypress Hill headlining — but city authorities pressing for cancellation.

Vancouver’s first 420 event of the post-legalization era in Canada is, paradoxically, turning into a fight over free speech. City authorities claim the event has gotten out of control and must come to an end — or at least be significantly reined in. Organizers, in turn, are asserting their right to hold the event without a permit, just as they always have. 

This year’s Vancouver 420 will be the 25th time the festival has been held since the event began as a pro-legalization rally outside the Vancouver Art Gallery. Since 2016, the event has been held at Sunset Beach, a waterfront park, where it attracts tens of thousands of revelers, with some 40,000 attendees congregating during the peak at 4:20 p.m. and up to 100,000 over the course of the eight-hour bacchanalia.

But the Vancouver Park Board is saying the unpermitted fun must come to an end and has thrown up a multitude of bureaucratic obstacles. In the most recent development, at an April 15 meeting, Park Board commissioner John Coupar raised a motion to ask event organizers to cancel the planned performance by hip hop giants Cypress Hill. That motion passed, and the organizers are now on notice. 

“Cancel Cypress Hill, because that’s a big escalation,” Coupar warned organizers, speaking to Vancouver’s CityNews. “It’s almost like they’re saying, ‘OK, you think it was big last year? We’re going to really make it bigger and there’s nothing you can do about it.'”

‘Largest Act of Civil Disobedience in Canadian History’

David Malmo-Levine, longtime Vancouver cannabis activist and one of the event organizers, struck a defiant tone when reached by Cannabis Now — and he was particularly enthused about Cypress Hill.

“It’s the first time we have a major act performing,” he says. “It’s on a Saturday, so we expect a massive turnout. The parks board is the right wing of Vancouver politics and they’re losing their sh*t over the fact that they can’t shut us down and we refuse to pay for policing.”

That demand from the city, for event organizers to pick up the tab for policing, has also placed them at odds with authorities. The city additionally wants a halt to illicit-market sales of cannabis products on the site. Some 300 unpermitted cannabis-product vendors are expected at the event — and the park board has threatened to shut them all down.

But Malmo-Levine believes authorities will be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. “They like to pretend that cops can shut it down,” he says. “There aren’t enough cops and jails and paddy wagons in Western Canada to shut it down. Realistically, this could be the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history, and possibly a demonstration of the strength of the black market to assert its right to exist.”

Another Parks Board commissioner, Tricia Barker, is openly saying that this year’s 420 event will be the last to be held in a city park. And ironically, she is pointing to cannabis legalization as one of the reasons why. Both city police and British Columbia’s Community Safety Unit are gearing up to wipe out the illicit market.

“Everyone is getting used to the new laws; with another year under their belt they just won’t be allowing all the illegal sales that happen” at 420, she told the Vancouver Sun. “By next year they will be ready and there will be no permitted seller of cannabis at this event.”

Protest or Festival?

Much of the controversy hinges on whether 420 is a “protest” or a “festival,” with the event’s website splitting it down the middle by calling it a “protest festival.” 

Organizers say that as a protest, the event is not on the hook for covering the costs of its own policing. But the parks board says the event is no longer a “protest,” even if it began as one way back in 1995.

Barker said plans to bring in Cypress Hill are actually working against the event. “It’s gone now from being a protest to a festival, and I think they were foolish to do this because it makes our point stronger, that it’s not a protest,” Barker told the Sun

She also asserted that the fact it is no longer illegal to smoke cannabis in Canada weakens the event’s claim to be a protest, protected under the Canadian Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. “The bottom line is it’s legal now and you can’t smoke in a park. They’ve run out of arguments.”

British Columbia’s Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth weighed in on the side of the Park Board. He told Vancouver’s CityNews: “This is an annual thing and we’ve seen it the last number of year and my expectation is, you know what, it really should change to meet the times. The fact [is] that we now have legalization in this country.”

The Park Board last year billed organizers $64,870 for the clean-up and other costs related to the event — and despite having signed no permit, they paid up most of it (minus a retroactive permit fee and some other contested items). However, organizers refused to pay an additional $170,796 the city has demanded to cover the costs of policing the event.

Organizers are likely to be hit with similar sums after this year’s 420 — to similar results. “Protests do not pay for policing costs,” organizer Dana Larsen told Canada’s Global News. “The idea that you can’t hold a protest in Vancouver unless you give a huge amount of money to the police kind of goes against the idea of a democracy.”

Even some outside the bureaucracy aren’t buying 420 Vancouver’s argument. “Protests don’t have booths,” Kris Sims of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation told Global News. “They don’t have commerce tents, they don’t sell t-shirts, they don’t have cookies for sale. This is a festival, and it should be treated as a festival, and by that I mean taxpayers should not be footing the bill for this.”

Between the costs controversy and the pledged illicit-market crackdown, the Park Board is adamant that this year’s 420 will be the last to be held in a Vancouver park. “We do not allow smoking in parks [and] we will never, ever permit this event,” commissioner Barker told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

But Malmo-Levine, for one, says the event remains a protest despite Canada’s legalization of cannabis. “It is still quite illegal for the young to use and the poor to grow and deal,” he says. “They only legalized half our community. Until it’s as legal as coffee beans, it’s a protest.”

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