DENVER (AP) - 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 in the nation 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 on 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. Acts included Slightly Stoopid and Snoop Dogg.
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," with the hook: "And all we do is light it up, all night/All you see is strange clouds/Strange clouds, strange clouds."
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 featured booths selling funnel cakes and Greek food next to kiosks hawking hemp lollipops and glass pipes.
PHOTO GALLERY: 4/20 At Civic Center Park
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 marijuana 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. Chris Christie to do what he can to help medical marijuana patients. Among those at the rally was Jawara McIntosh, the youngest son of noted reggae musician and pro-marijuana activist Peter Tosh.
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.
In Washington, thousands celebrated in the only other state to legalize marijuana. Events included a Snoop Dogg show Saturday night as well as an event sponsored by Seattle's Dope Magazine, with a $99 "judge's pass" available that included 10 marijuana samples.
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 Sunday. 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 on 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.
Through a quirk of the calendar, the pot holiday shared a date with Easter Sunday.
Festivities got off to a slow start on Sunday. At noon, as bells from the Catholic cathedral a few blocks away rang out over downtown to signal the end of Easter services, only a few hundred people milled around Civic Center Park. The smell of marijuana was detectable, but mild.
As the clock counted down to the mythical time of 4:20 and crowds surged into the park, festivalgoers noted the big changes from previous years - more merchandise for sale and more police.
Last year's rally was cut short by a shooting that wounded three. All attendees this year had to pass through security screening and a heavy police presence ringed the park.
"I still feel a little like a teenager," Garramone said as he eyed police patrolling the park.
Just as striking was the proliferation of merchandise, from cannabis-related gear and T-shirts to $9 roast turkey legs and $4 water bottles.
"I can just imagine how much money is being made right now," said Tina Crockett, 34, of Wichita, as marijuana smoke wafted into the air moments before 4:20 p.m.
The commercialism disappointed Bob Glisson, 27, who was attending his fourth 4/20 celebration in the park.
"It's all about the money now," the Denver resident complained.
Still, the whole scene was wonderfully surreal for Bud Long, 49, from Kalamazoo, Mich., who recalled taking part in his first 4/20 protest in 1984.
"Nationwide, it'll be decriminalized," he predicted on Saturday, the first day of the two-day festival, "and we'll be doing this in every state."
- By NICHOLAS RICCARDI, Associated Press
Associated Press writers Terry Chea in San Francisco, Bruce Shipkowski in Trenton, N.J., and Gene Johnson in Seattle contributed to this report.
(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
More Marijuana Legalization Stories
for more features.