There’s no denying people like pot. There’s no doubt pot attracts tourists and taxes. There’s no way politicians ignore money.
That calculus — coupled with the legalization of cannabis under Proposition 64 — recently benefited San Francisco’s popular 420 pot celebration, resulting last month in the city’s Recreation and Park Department issuing permits for much-needed amenities like more porta-potties, EMTs and ambulance and trash clean-up.
While permits are for services and not approval for the actual event itself, the permits issued March 28 saved 420’s bacon, conferring legitimacy, imposing regulations and attracting sponsors to underwrite the amorphous annual gathering that’s expected to draw 15,000 or more cannabis enthusiasts for a giant smoke sesh in Golden Gate Park on Thursday.
“We’ve had discussions about how to end this event,” Mayor Ed Lee said, “but the reality is that it would break into four or five different events and then we couldn’t control any of it.”
Lee compared 420 to the Critical Mass bicycle-rights rides on Market Street and pillow fights at Justin Herman Plaza.
“People come,” the mayor said of those events.
Last year, an estimated 15,000 people came to Golden Gate Park for 420, up from 10,000 in 2015 and 8,000 in 2014.
To Terrance Alan, the former chairman of the city’s nightlife commission who currently chairs the citizens’ committee advising city leaders on cannabis policy, 2017’s permits and sponsors are milestones.
“The city recognizing the 420 event is a major marker along the road to the normalization of cannabis,” Alan said. “Good for San Francisco to show leadership and great for the cannabis community that it can tackle such a complicated event.”
Regulations and Sponsors
After existing for decades as a seemingly spontaneous pop-up smoke-in with no apparent leadership, this year someone’s acting like a guy in charge. Haight Street fashion merchant Alex Aquino applied for the permits and pledged to pay event costs rumored to be well north of $100,000, a price that includes food trucks; fences and gates to control crowds; and prohibition of glass bongs, alcohol and children under age 18.
“The way it used to be was a free-for-all,” said Aquino, who owns the clothing boutique Black Scale five blocks from Golden Gate Park, ground zero for the Haight Street demimonde that presents its own daily issues, never mind 420 in the park. “The party’s not going anywhere. It’s not going away. I think building infrastructure will keep it safe and clean. It will preserve the park and keep our neighbors happy. How can we not benefit from that?”
One sure way not to benefit would be to let 420 be 420. This year’s ban on children may sound harsh but it’s supported by an incident last year involving four parents who brought small children.
“We just escorted the kids and the parents out of the park,” a police captain said.
Aquino is signing up sponsors, including fellow Haight Street merchants and cannabis dispensaries from outside the neighborhood. Medical services, sanitation and security top the list of expenses.
Last year it took four days and cost the city $80,000 to pick up 11 tons of trash strewn by stoners.
“Love it or hate it, the 420 festival is not going away, and it has a significant impact on our city, on our district and on the park system,” said Board of Supervisors President London Breed, whose district borders Golden Gate Park. “Every year, the event leaves the park and surrounding neighborhood a mess. It’s not safe to allow people to party in the park without adequate security, facilities and medical aid.”
Creative Safety and Savings
Violence and hard-core drugs have also plagued 420. Last year, eight people were arrested. A man wearing brass knuckles robbed two teenage boys. In 2015, someone smashed a bottle on a park ranger’s head, and two groups of men violently robbed people in the park. Five people were arrested in 2015, 11 in 2014.
Referring to a long-running iconic event city officials shut down after it became too large and violent, Aquino said: “We don’t want  to be Halloween in the Castro.”
Details about new 420 regulations and their implementation trickled out today on the event’s website, three weeks after Aquino received permits to improve 420. The event launched a Facebook page last week, updated its website and tweeted for the first time early Monday.
“We are trying to be creative and nimble and understand that people are going to keep doing this no matter what,” said Sarah Madland, a spokesperson for the Recreation and Park Department. “The goal is to try and see if we can increase public safety. It’s not about saving money in year one. The hope is that if this provides the necessary stability, then there may not be as much of a burden to all of the city departments.”
With sponsors pledging to cover increased security, the San Francisco Police Department can be creative. This year, SFPD’s Park Station will maintain a “420 Hot-Line,” set up and staffed specifically for quality-of-life issues (noise, drug sales, public urination) related to 420 on Thursday. Call (415) 242-3060 or (415) 242-3061 between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. Thursday.
“It makes sense that a public gathering would transition into a permitted event,” said Terrance Alan, a policy activist in San Francisco. “Just like the other events that will happen all summer around the city, this clearly announces the integration of cannabis into our society has begun.”
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