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Festival Fight: Industry & Activists Battle Over Denver’s 4/20 Party

April 16, 2018

For 27 days and 26 nights last autumn, employees of Euflora, the Denver cannabis dispensary, camped outside Denver’s municipal building in order to be first in line when the doors opened on Nov. 21.

Who owns the 4/20 Civic Center celebration? Political activists and industry leaders both want a better festival. But only one side can win the permit.

On that day, the Denver Parks and Recreation Department would begin accepting permit applications for the annual 4/20 celebration in Civic Center Park. Two rival parties were sparring for the right to host the 420 Rally, one of the nation’s largest cannabis celebrations. Only one permit would be issued, and applications would be processed on a first-come, first-served basis.

Euflora was determined to nab the permit and host the event. So 25 employees, working rotating shifts, sat in camp chairs outside the Webb building 24/7 through early November. On the 21st, Euflora had one team stationed outside the building’s Colfax Ave. entrance, another at the Court St. entrance. They thought they had their bases covered. But then a security guard tossed an element of confusion into the situation.

Around 6:45 a.m., a security guard shooed the Colfax Ave. team away. “The official entrance for the 4/20 permits is on the Court Street entrance,” the guard said. “The Colfax Street entrance is actually considered loitering, if you’re out here.”


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This Door Not Legal

Euflora consolidated its team at the Court St. doors. At 13 seconds past 7 a.m., security guards allowed the team inside.

Meanwhile, at the Colfax Ave. entrance, a different security guard opened the doors and let in Michael “Smokey” Ortiz, an associate of longtime 420 Rally organizer Miguel Lopez—Euflora’s 4/20 rival. Ortiz had not camped out for 27 days and nights. He showed up early on the morning of the 21st.

At the metal detector, guards forced the Euflora team to wait while they ran their hats through the x-ray machine. Smokey lucked out. His entrance had the faster security team.

And the Winner Is…

Surveillance video captured the resulting photo finish. Lopez sprinted to the threshold of door number 101, the entrance to Parks, a half-step ahead of the Euflora team.

It was a shocking turnabout. Ortiz raised his hands and rejoiced. The Euflora team, from the grainy video, looked shocked, angry, and utterly deflated.

The bizarre, slapstick drama spoke volumes about Denver and the city’s pride in its role as America’s legalization pioneer. Marshall Zellinger of 9 News, Denver’s NBC affiliate, captured the caper in this brilliantly produced segment:

“That first rally said, ‘Here we are, look at us’—we must be recognized, not as the victims but as the victors,” says former 4/20 organizer Miguel Lopez.

A Cow Town No Longer

Ten years ago it was common to hear Denver locals lamenting their city’s cow town status. Too often the Mile High City presented itself as a metropolis that relied on agriculture, energy, the ski industry and Old West tourism for much of its livelihood.

What a difference a decade makes.

Denver is now booming, with a rapidly growing population and rising rents to match. That jump fueled in part by Colorado’s burgeoning cannabis industry. Even Coloradans who remain opposed to legalization will grudgingly admit that things have not gone to hell since cannabis became legal.

Denverites take pride in their city. That’s why the controversy surrounding the annual 4/20 event in downtown’s Civic Center Park strikes such a contentious chord with so many people here.

The fight turns on two diverging perspectives about legalization. On one side: Industry insiders. On the other: Cannabis activists.

Celebrate! Or Motivate

A gathered crowd smokes marijuana en masse – as per tradition at 4:20 p.m. – during the annual 4/20 marijuana gathering at Civic Center Park in downtown Denver, Wednesday, April 20, 2016. (Brennan Linsley/AP)

Industry supporters say the war over legalization has been won. So let the celebrations begin. Let a thousand joints be lit, and may we all make merry all day.

The activists, on the other hand, see this as no time to party. They see 4/20 as a day to double down and fight. Rally the troops. So long as the poor, people of color, and other disenfranchised members of society remain the most legally vulnerable to the remaining biased cannabis laws, there is work to be done.

The first 4/20 rally at Civic Center was organized in the early 1990s by Ken Gorman, a Denver native and one of the city’s best-known cannabis activists. Gorman, aka ”Governor Pothead” (he conducted several write-in gubernatorial campaigns), shepherded Denver 4/20 through more than a decade of difficult activism. These were the years during which the seeds were sown for legalization votes that would culminate in Colorado’s 2012 passage of full adult-use legalization. The emphasis on 4/20 was on righteous, defiant activism—with a fun spirit of celebration there as well, of course.


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A Founder Lost

In 2007, though, Gorman was mysteriously shot dead in his Denver home in 2007. The murder remains unsolved to this day.

Determined to carry on Gorman’s important work, other activists picked up the Denver 4/20 banner. One of them was Miguel Lopez.

Miguel Lopez: Showrunner. (Lopez/Facebook)

“I was an intern at the Denver mayor’s office at the same time (current Denver Mayor) Michael Hancock was,” Lopez told Leafly earlier this month. “From the mayor’s window you could see Civic Center Park, and [the cannabis rally]. I was curious as to what was going on outside.”

Lopez said those early 4/20 rallies included “more of a diverse and young crowd,” which Lopez felt he could relate to. Intrigued, he reached out and contacted organizer Ken Gorman.

“We had had discussions about the rally,” Lopez remembered. After Gorman’s death, he says, “with permission from his family I was able to continue his legacy. And now I’m the bearer of his ashes.”

Lopez meant that literally. Years ago, he said, some of Gorman’s cremated remains were secretly interred in Civic Center Park to honor the Denver 4/20 founder.

Miguel Lopez Takes the Reins

With Gorman gone, in 2007 Lopez applied for and received a permit from the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation, which manages Civic Center Park, to hold the 420 Rally. The 2007 event was a success, and Lopez continued to gather the permits and put on the show year after year.

Those events, he says, were political first and foremost. The rally gave voice not only to the issue of cannabis legalization, but also to a number of other issues of social and economic injustice.

“The accomplishment of the first rally was kind of, like, to say ‘Here we are, look at us’—we  must be recognized, not as the victims but now as the victors,” Lopez said. “We have endured thousands of years of oppression and we will survive. That’s pretty much what our statement was. And it’s what we’re still doing.”

The Rally Grows

Anthony Fantano, of San Diego, wears a pair of sunglasses with frames shaped like marijuana plants while attending festivities at the 4/20 marijuana rally Monday, April 20, 2015, in Denver. (David Zalubowski/AP)

As the cannabis legalization movement in Colorado began to gain momentum in the mid to late 2000s, the annual 4/20 Rally also picked up steam. The event began drawing hundreds and then thousands of people every April. It wasn’t without some low moments. Denver police handed out citations for public cannabis consumption. There were crowd control issues and broken barricades. A shooting incident in 2013 during a music performance created panic in the crowd, and left three people wounded.

Then in 2014, the event began to change.

That was Colorado’s first year with open adult-use retail stores. With cannabis fully legal, Denver 4/20 began to morph into more of a celebration.

That year, it seemed entirely appropriate. Decades of arduous activism had brought about a globally historic moment. Longtime (and long-suffering) activists deserved to celebrate.

“Historically a rally, the Denver 420 Rally is evolving into a festival,” Lopez wrote in a press release at the time. “Yet, that does not mean that the organization will stop being a political organization and promoting human and civil rights. There have been a lot of positive changes in drug policy reform, but until everyone is free and marijuana is decriminalized, the Denver 420 Rally will still be championing for social justice.”

The 2014 celebration was one for the ages. Across town, the High Times Cannabis Cup held that same weekend at the Denver Mart attracted the biggest crowd in its history. Cannabis tourists from around the world descended on Colorado that weekend, and the celebration at Civic Center Park was epic.

Since then, though, the 420 celebration has been marred by a series of mishaps.


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Tough Breaks Lately

In 2016, a freak spring spring snowstorm forced the cancellation of the rally. Lopez rescheduled the event a couple weeks later, but without the momentum of April 20, the resulting celebration was muted.


The weather cooperated last year, but festival-goers did not. Following the 2017 event, Denver city officials complained that Lopez and his staff failed to follow through on promises to remove trash after the event. City leaders also charged that festival organizers did little to curtail widespread public smoking. Unlicensed food vendors peddled their wares, the city said, and there were few security guards in evidence.

Lopez disputed the city’s concerns. He said his volunteers cleaned up the trash prior to an agreed-upon deadline. Yes, festival-goers left garbage in their wake, as at any major outdoor civic event. But his cleanup crew did their job in accordance with the Parks and Rec agreement, he said.


Mayor Hancock was unmoved.

“Our parks and public spaces are held in the public trust,” the mayor said. “When you leave one of our parks trashed, you violate that trust.”

Hancock’s administration took action. Lopez and his organization were fined, Lopez lost his “Priority Event” status, and the city prohibited his group from hosting the Civic Center 420 event for three years.

Clashing With Mayor Hancock

“I think the city was trying to progress into a more tightly-run organization,” says Thomas Mitchell.

Mitchell is the cannabis editor of Westword, Denver’s alt weekly. He’s been following the controversy closely.

“Miguel Lopez has never gotten along with Mayor Hancock’s administration—that’s pretty well known,” says Mitchell. “So I think once the city saw a legitimate opportunity to discipline them for things they fucked up on, they took advantage of that.”

Mitchell says there was also a lot of feedback from Westword readers, via emails and article comment sections, who felt the 4/20 event needed to transition into a more “grown-up” celebration. The 420 Rally was run by well-known local cannabis activists, Mitchell adds, who were known for their anti-industry stance.

“The average person that’s attended a (cannabis) event is not embedded into marijuana policy,” Mitchell says. “I think the people that got this event up and going, that were tied to it day-to-day, don’t want to see it” evolve into a more commercial, slickly run, industry-focused event. “But I think that for the most part the general population, the people who had to deal with long lines and overflowing trash cans,” wouldn’t mind a more consumer-friendly, efficiently-run operation.


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Euflora Fills the Void

With Lopez knocked out of the organizer’s chair, ownership of the 2018 festival was suddenly up for grabs.

Euflora, the Denver-based cannabis dispensary chain, moved quickly to fill the void. In Oct. 2017, the company announced it would organize the Mile High 420 Festival in Civic Center Park in 2018.

“The festival is under new management and is no longer a Rally,” Euflora announced on the event’s website. “For 2018 expect a whole lot more from the World’s Largest Free 420 Celebration.”

Euflora co-founder Pepe Breton took a pointed shot at Miguez Lopez in the company’s press release. “I won’t stand by while they get away with what they did to the park, to the city, and to the image of our young industry” Breton said in the statement. “We worked very closely with Lopez and company at the event this past April [2017]. We were one of their biggest sponsors, and they simply couldn’t do what they promised. The entire event was categorically mismanaged. They couldn’t pay their bills, their vendors or even clean up their mess.”

So You’re Telling Me There’s a Chance…

People smoke marijuana during the annual 4/20 marijuana gathering at Civic Center Park in downtown Denver, Wednesday, April 20, 2016. (Brennan Linsley/AP)

That wasn’t the end of the issue. The controversy had merely entered a new phase.

Euflora still had to apply for the Civic Center Park permit for their 420 event. A company representative needed to be first in line at the Parks and Recreation Office, room 101, when the permit became available.

Miguel Lopez, meanwhile, was appealing his group’s three-year ban. He was preparing to nab the 2018 permit himself, based on his assumption that the ban would be overturned on appeal.

That possibility prompted Euflora to have members of its staff camp out around-the-clock at the Wellington Webb building for more than a month. Tents were not allowed on the municipal campus, so staffers hung out in camp chairs and dressed for sub-freezing Rocky Mountain evenings.

On the appointed day, Lopez’s associate Smokey Ortiz showed up and used the Colfax Ave. entrance to arrive at room 101 a half-step ahead of Euflora.

Unfortunately for Lopez, his victory turned out to be short-lived. In late December, the Ortiz/Lopez application was rejected by the city. Parks and Recreation officials said the application was obtained by “misrepresentations and deceit.”

Euflora is hosting this year’s Civic Center Park event, dubbed the Mile High 420 Festival, which runs from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Friday, April 20. In retrospect, the city’s permitting process “was not the most well-thought-out,” says Euflora marketing director Robert Reginelli. “And I guess this is what happens when something becomes available for the first time in years.”


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Lopez: This Fight Ain’t Over

For his part, Lopez says the fight over the soul of Denver 420 isn’t over. Not by a longshot. The people who claim the legalization war has been won, he says, are giving into propaganda.

“It’s not legal,” he says. Cannabis prohibition “is not explicitly repealed by Amendment 64. Chicanos and blacks are still filling the prisons and jails. It’s not legal if you can’t go out and smoke out in public, if you can’t smoke, in housing run by the Denver Housing Authority. It’s not legal if you can’t smoke in the same park where you can legally smoke cigarettes. And it’s still federally illegal.”

Lopez’s group has not taken its loss gracefully. Their Facebook page advertises Denver’s rival “420 on the Block” party, and takes broad shots at Mayor Hancock and this year’s organizers. The page contains a number of posts that have nothing to do with cannabis, but lead with text that says “boycott euflora.”


Heavy Investment by Euflora

Euflora’s Reginelli, meanwhile, says his company is investing several hundred thousand dollars in this year’s festival.

“Year after year after year, people have said gosh, wouldn’t it be great if somebody professionalized this event,” Reginelli says. “After years of seeing that in our backyard, we decided we’re going to attach ourselves to it. We’re going to own it. We’re going to put our name and money on the line and show people that it can be done responsibly.”

This Year: Music, Comedy, Vendors, Yoga

For 2018, the new festival will have three stages of live music and comedy acts. This year’s headliners include Lil Wayne, Lil Jon, the Original Wailers, Inner Circle, Taylor Alexander, and WhiteWater Ramble.

It also will feature craft vendors, charity booths, a yoga and fitness pavilion, and dozens of city-licensed food trucks. There’s more fencing, twice as many entrances to the park, metal detectors, and four times the security of previous events.

“Cannabis has left the shadows and become more of an accepted and legitimized part of Colorado’s economy,” says Euflora’s Robert Reginelli.

“We think that throwing a protest, after having been the first state in the nation to legalize, isn’t quite fitting of the times anymore,” Reginelli adds. “There’s still a lot of activism and things to be done, and it sounds like there will be some activity on the [Colorado state] capitol steps. But we’re celebrating just how far we’ve come and this festival reflects that.”

For his part, Miguel Lopez vows to enjoy 4/20 no matter what happens this year. “I’ll be at quite a few parties throughout the city,” he told Leafly. And yes, he will stop by Civic Center Park to check out the event. “I have my right to be there,” he said, but this year as a guest, not the host. 

Lead image by Brennan Linsey/AP
Flood image by Brennan Linsey/AP

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Bruce Kennedy

Bruce Kennedy is an award-winning reporter, editor, and producer based in Colorado. He has covered the legal cannabis industry since 2010.

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