Organizers and authorities both compromised to let the legalization protest/smoke-out go off safely.
It’s not surprising that Friday’s 420 marijuana-legalization protest at Yonge-Dundas Square, organized by the Toronto Hash Mob, an anti-prohibition group, started off with a showdown between police and demonstrators.
What is surprising is that the disagreement wasn’t over marijuana use, which was both open and constant—with bongs and lit joints as far as the eye could see—but over noise bylaws.
Hash Mob organizers didn’t have an amplification permit, meaning that they wouldn’t be permitted to use the generator-fuelled sound system they had brought with them. According to Hash Mob member, marijuana activist, and self-proclaimed “Cannabis Champion of the World” Matt Mernagh, the lack of a permit wasn’t due to an oversight on the part of organizers, but was the result of an intentional decision.
“We notified the square, like, ‘Hey, we’re coming here,’ back in January, but we refuse to apply for a permit,” he said. “We’re a protest, not a parade or an event.”
Mernagh says that the initial disagreement wasn’t so much a confrontation as the jumping-off point for a negotiation.
“The police want to push the line to ‘Don’t come to the square,’ and we push all the way to ‘We’re going to be here with our own sound system,’” he said. “Between those two points, we begin negotiating.”
Staff Sergeant Rudy Pasini, who was the Toronto Police Service’s point man at the square on Friday, more or less agreed with Mernagh’s characterization of the negotiations.
“[The protesters] have compromised quite a bit, and I know Yonge-Dundas Square has compromised a bit. We’re at a peaceful standoff right now,” he said. “They’ve gone to the far east end, they’ve turned it right down, and they’re using megaphones to address the crowd. It is a bylaw we could enforce, but with the common good sense here…we’re not going to push it right now.”
Pasini said that the police were ignoring the tokers in part because “unfortunately, we’re slightly outnumbered,” but said that his team’s main concern was making sure that everyone was safe.
“We’re here to maintain public safety…and make sure that the good citizens of Toronto can enjoy the city without being interfered with,” he said.
Fortunately for Pasini, the crowd was fairly well behaved, save for some shoving when a woman dressed as the “Weed Fairy” began tossing joints into the crowd. Mernagh was also pleased with the crowd’s mellow mood. The whole point of the protest, according the Mernagh, is to prove that neither marijuana nor its users pose a threat to public order.
“We’re trying show that marijuana is definitely harmless, otherwise people would be getting arrested and getting into fights,” he said.
There are several theories as to how 420 became code for marijuana use. The most common is that the phrase was first used by a group of students at a Northern California high school who would gather every day at 4:20 p.m. to get high. They would then refer to smoking weed as “420,” enabling them to talk about pot in front of parents and teachers undetected. Former High Times editor Steven Hager also declared 4:20 p.m. to be the earliest socially acceptable time at which one could get stoned. Since then, the code has become ubiquitous, with April 20 becoming an unofficial holiday for marijuana enthusiasts around the world.
The protest drew a notably diverse crowd, with roughly 2,500 people in the square at its peak. Admittedly, the early-afternoon crowd consisted of the stereotypical mixture of neo-hippies and incoherently baked teens, but by the time 4:20 p.m. rolled around—a moment that was celebrated by a mass joint-lighting—these attendees had been joined by a fair number of 20- and 30-something creative professionals and middle-aged suburbanites, and a surprisingly high number of senior citizens.
While most of the crowd was understandably reluctant to participate in interviews, citing everything from career concerns to not wanting their grandmothers to find out they smoke, Scarborough landscaper Andrew McNeil was one of the few protestors who was willing to speak to the press.
“I’m a pretty open guy,” he laughed.
McNeil admitted that for him, the hash mob was as much of a social event as it was a protest.
“I’m just hanging out with a bunch of my friends and having a good time,” he said. “I like the peacefulness of it. Everyone’s just chilling and relaxed. No one’s starting any problems with anyone.”
While the event may have reached its hazy apex at 4:20 p.m., by 5:00 p.m. the assembled crowds were starting to peacefully disperse, many of them heading to the Eaton Centre food court.