Torontonian pot smokers were treated to a new, improved 4/20 celebration this weekend, after the marijuana legalization protest in Yonge-Dundas Square received a gift from a wealthy benefactor.
4/20 is an unofficial marijuana holiday, observed each year on April 20 in places around the world. (The number 420 has long been associated with pot, but nobody’s exactly sure why.) In the past, Toronto’s 4/20 event has been held in violation of both drug laws and city bylaws, with demonstrators occupying the square and using sound amplification without permits. This year, the Toronto Hash Mob, which organized the gathering, was able to get enough money for permits, security, and insurance. All of this was courtesy of British Columbia lotto winner Bob Erb.
According to Hash Mob member Erin Goodwin, the gift from Erb was enough to transform the event.
“As he collected his large cheque, while smoking a big joint, he said he was going to donate a large portion of his winnings to the national 4/20 campaign and legalization movement,” she said. “He really came through with that. He gave us $15,000 to help make this happen.”
“Every year we apply for a permit, and most years we get turned down. This year, I guess due to the funding from Mr. Erb, they said yes.”
Goodwin said Yonge-Dundas Square officials had been remarkably easy to work with. “They’ve been amazing in helping us with this event,” she said. “They were friendly and accommodating…It gives me hope for the future that the laws are closer to changing.”
She added that she had been concerned that the just-above-freezing temperatures would affect attendance. Instead, she was pleasantly surprised when thousands of cannabis enthusiasts braved the cold to celebrate their favourite herb.
“Considering that there was a blizzard here when we were setting up this morning, we’ve done pretty well,” she said.
The crowd was remarkably well behaved, with no incidents of violence and most people obeying the no-alcohol rule put in place by the organizers.
Police presence at the event was near-invisible, with a few bicycle patrol officers at the east end of the square, and one court services van at the west end.
The celebration featured live bands, an hour of stand-up comedy, and several speeches from marijuana activists. The day’s host was activist, Hash Mob member, and self-proclaimed Cannabis Champion of the World Matt Mernagh. He was among the afternoon’s more impassioned speakers, repeatedly criticizing the Conservative government’s drug policies.
“We’re saying we want the laws to change now,” Mernagh said. “We’re not saying decriminalization is a nice step towards something. We want to grow marijuana, and we want to buy it in the store.”
Among the attendees was Fucked Up lead singer Damian Abraham, who lent his support to the legalization cause. Abraham didn’t smoke, drink, or use drugs until a little over two years ago when he started smoking marijuana to help him with an anxiety disorder after traditional medication failed him.
“We were in Europe one time, and I felt like I was falling apart,” he said. “I felt like I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and I asked the band if I could smoke a joint they were smoking, and you kind of heard the needle go off the record, but they passed it to me, and I don’t want to say it was immediate, but it actually was immediate. I really felt removed enough from the situation that was giving anxiety that when I wasn’t stoned any more, I could look at it objectively.”
Abraham added that marijuana has improved his life by helping him cope with his anxiety without all the side effects of prescription drugs. He’s currently in the process of getting a medical marijuana license, which is a complicated process that takes about a year.
“It would be easier for me to refill an old prescription for Ativan in 20 minutes than it would be for me to get a medical marijuana license in a year,” he said.
For her part, Goodwin hopes that this year’s better-organized, better-funded 4/20 will be an ongoing thing. She and other members of the Hash Mob are planning on flying to BC to meet with Erb in August.