At first glance, April 20 at the University of Colorado, Boulder, might seem like any other school day: students are walking and biking from class to class, talking and laughing among themselves, and eating lunch in the warm weather.
But uniformed policemen are standing on every corner. Entrances to the campus are blocked off, and there’s yellow tape surrounding all of Norlin Quad, an enormous open field in the middle of campus.
It also smells strongly of dead fish, thanks to fertilizer sprayed on the grass.
These are some of the measures the university and its student government have taken in an attempt to extinguish the massive get-together of students, Boulder residents, and out-of-towners who assemble every year on 4/20 to smoke pot. In 2011 the event attracted more than 10,000 people.
“This is not about marijuana or the War on Drugs,” CU spokesman Bronson Hilliard said at a press conference Friday. “It’s about a crowd that has gotten too big.” Referring to the quad as the “academic heart of the campus,” Hilliard explained that CU’s primary concern regarding 4/20 was students’ safety and ability to make their way around the smoke-out to get to class on time.
Last month the administration began sending students emails detailing the plans to end the gathering altogether. Only students, faculty, and staff with university IDs would be allowed to enter campus; school and city buses would be rerouted; a concert featuring reggae artist Wyclef Jean would be held to offer another event option.
“I’m extremely anti-drug, but the school’s actions are what has pushed me into doing this today,” said CU law student Laura Schneider, who walked around campus carrying a sign that read “Big Brother Can CU.” “The administration has caused a disruption,” Schneider said. “My class was shut down today because our guest speaker didn’t want to deal with security and canceled.”
Students and residents responded by organizing various protests both in favor of and against the crackdown. One group, called Stay Classy CU, asked participants to wear suits and dresses while going about their usual business on campus. “On 4/20, I want you to pull the tie out of the closet and show that CU can be classy and not just baked,” Stay Classy creator and CU sophomore Andrew Trujillo wrote on the group’s Facebook page. Junior Evan Harrison wore a three-piece business suit to all of his classes. “A marijuana protest doesn’t have any business here,” he said. “It’s not even a protest anymore, it’s just an event. It doesn’t serve a purpose.”
Despite these animosities, the majority of the day was quiet. “I’m really bored right now,” one Boulder police officer said with a laugh. “Everyone’s been subdued and cooperative.”
But the atmosphere began to change around 2 p.m., when three students were arrested for trespassing after they ducked under police tape to sit on Norlin Quad. “Officers approached them, and they just sat there,” said Ryan Huff, spokesman for the CU Police Department. “One student told us that he planned to get arrested for practicing civil disobedience.”
An hour later, a protest called Take Back 4/20 assembled down the street from campus and began to march along its perimeter. More than 300 students and residents participated, and it picked up steam as it entered the school grounds. “When our freedom and liberty are attacked, what do we do? Stand up and fight back,” the group chanted as they walked through campus, with police following close behind.
Police could only watch as the crowd—considerably smaller than in past years, but still hundreds strong—gathered in a different quad on campus. As 4:20 p.m. neared, protesters began to light up and were joined by a surprise guest—Sedeck Jean, brother of Wyclef. Lined up outside the field were students opposing the gathering.
At the end of the day, there were only three confirmed arrests and three tickets. Huff and Hilliard considered the crackdown a success, but the student body was still passionately divided.
“I’m in favor of what the administration is doing,” freshman Jacob Bornstein said. “People say that their right to assemble is being infringed upon, but if they’re doing something illegal, that kind of cancels it out.”
Sophomore Alec Kirkman is planning on applying to law schooland voiced his concern over the 4/20 event’s effect on the school’s reputation. “I’m concerned because firms are traditionally pretty conservative,” he said. “I don’t want to be associated with 4/20 after I graduate.”
“America’s the land of the free, and 4/20 has been a representation of that,” said Brenna Duiker, a senior. “I mean this really intense smell, all of the police … It’s overkill. It’ll be so awesome when people protest.”
Hilliard stressed that the bottom line of the various administrative measures was to protect a location that was unfit to hold so many people. “This just doesn’t belong on a university campus,” he said.