420: a lesson in cooperation

As a relative newbie to Vancouver, I was quite shocked when around this time last year I was headed to Pacific Centre Mall for some much needed splurging and I stumbled across a huge crowd celebrating 420 in Vancouver. And when I say stumbled, I should clarify that a mushroom cloud of smoke invaded my nostrils from about three blocks away!

I’d never heard of 420 before and was surprised by the level of openness surrounding the whole event. As most Vancouverites will know, whether they like it or not, this annual marijuana ‘protest’ is held every April 20th at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and is also celebrated nationwide in Toronto and Ottawa.

Literally thousands of like-minded people gather every year on the north side of the Gallery to celebrate their passion, as they have done for the last sixteen years. The event has grown substantially every year as word has spread, making it the largest event of its kind in North America. Say what you want about these guys but they’re certainly organized!

What surprised me most again this year was the cooperation between police and the crowds. They seem to co-exist peacefully, at least for the day. I guess they don’t want a repeat of 1971’s Gastown Riot where 79 protesters were arrested during the ‘Vancouver Yippies Smoke-In,’ where police were accused of using excessive force.

On the contrary, there’s actually quite a festive atmosphere downtown with live entertainment and food kiosks (I wonder why?!) One noticeable absence last Wednesday was Canada's ‘Prince of Pot’ Marc Emery but, as expected, his presence was still felt and his wife, Jodie Emery, a Green Party candidate in the federal election, was there to give a rousing speech in his name and even tried to convince the muggle-minded crowd to remember to vote!

Whether you agree with it or not or think it's a total waste of time, this event really encapsulates what Vancouver is all about – freedom of expression and every citizen having their voice heard.

Events like these don't just have to be about some potheads getting stoned on a street corner and making a nuisance of themselves (although I'm not sure all the hotheaded drivers beeping their horns would agree!) and can actually raise awareness for some more serious discussions, especially concerning medical marijuana use.

In fact, a controversial ruling just recently on medical marijuana from an Ontario Superior Court judge has lit up a new federal election issue. Judge Donald Taliano ruled that Health Canada's medical marijuana program is invalid and denies legal access to sick people who need the drug. He gave the government ninety days to respond, without which production and possession of pot would effectively be legalized. Strange how the law works isn’t it?!

The problem with marijuana use these days is that it's not just hippies, dropouts and miscreants who indulge but people from all walks of life be it doctors, athletes, scholars or even government members.

In the UK and Ireland, it’s much more frowned upon and you would never find this level of cooperation between protesters and police.

If we could learn one lesson from this event it would be how every ‘peaceful protest’ does not have to descend into full-blown anarchy.

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