DENVER - Tens of thousands of revelers raised joints, pipes, and vaporizer devices to the sky Sunday at a central Denver park in a defiant toast to the April 20 pot holiday, a once-underground celebration that stepped into the mainstream in the first state to legalize recreational marijuana.
The 4:20 p.m. smoke-out in the shadow of the Colorado capitol was the capstone of an Easter weekend dedicated to cannabis in states across the country. Although it is still against the law to publicly smoke marijuana in Colorado, police only reported 63 citations or arrests Sunday, 47 for marijuana consumption.
"It feels good not to be persecuted anymore," said Joe Garramone, exultantly smoking a joint while his 3-year-old daughter played on a vast lawn crowded with fellow smokers.
The Garramone family came from Hawaii, among the tens of thousands who crowded into various cannabis-themed extravaganzas, from a marijuana industry expo called the Cannabis Cup at a trade center north of downtown to 4/20-themed concerts at the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheater.
At 4:20 p.m., an enormous plume of marijuana smoke wafted into the sky above downtown Denver as rapper B.o.B. belted out his song "Strange Clouds."
The significance of the April 20 date is unclear and shrouded in urban legend. The most common version maintains that 420 was police scanner code for "smoking in progress."
The Civic Center Park event is the most visible sign of the pot holiday's transformation. It started as a defiant gathering of marijuana activists, but this year the event has an official city permit, is organized by an events management company, and features booths selling funnel cakes and Greek food next to kiosks hawking hemp lollipops and glass pipes.
Gavin Beldt, one of the organizers, said in a statement that the event is now a "celebration of legal status for its use in Colorado and our launch of an exciting new experience for those attending."
Denver is just one of many cities across the country where 4/20 celebrations were planned Sunday.
In Trenton, N.J., speakers urged a crowd of about 150 gathered at the statehouse to push state and federal lawmakers to legalize or decriminalize marijuana and called on Gov. Christie to do what he can to help medical marijuana patients.
In San Francisco, Police Chief Greg Suhr said his officers would be cracking down on illegal parking, camping, drug sales, underage drinking, and open alcohol containers at Golden Gate Park's Hippie Hill. Officials did not want the unofficial pot holiday to disrupt Easter Sunday activities in the park.
Back in Colorado, University of Colorado officials closed the Boulder campus to all but students, faculty, and staff on Sunday to ensure no 4/20 celebrations were held. Spokesman Ryan Huff said the tactic was working, with no arrests reported. The university says marking 4/20 is contrary to its mission of research, teaching, and learning, and in the past, it has seeded a main lawn with fertilizer to keep revelers away.
While the weekend was for celebrating, recent events have brought serious scrutiny to Colorado's experiment with legalizing marijuana. Denver police say a man ate marijuana-infused candy before shooting and killing his wife Monday, an attack dispatchers heard during a 911 call the woman had placed. Her death followed that of a college student who traveled to Colorado with friends from Wyoming for spring break, ate more than the recommended dose of a marijuana-laced cookie, and jumped to his death from a hotel balcony in Denver. State lawmakers are debating how to increase safety regulations.