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Marijuana Smokers, Nazis, and the Big Lessons From 4/20

This year’s 4/20 celebration at the University of Colorado in Boulder did not live up to the hype of years past. The heavy clouds of smoke were absent as a crowd of about 700, with probably more onlookers than participants, gathered at 4:20 p.m. to light up.

All in all, the event can be seen as a success for many of the groups directly involved. The university administration was able to keep the campus from becoming the center of negative press  by avoiding thousands of unwelcomed visitors, the media got a good show from a telegenic crowd, and the partiers were able to smoke out in front of the police, who for their part were probably happy to be making the overtime pay.

A success for all involved, that is, except the actual issues being supported.

The protesters likened the university administration’s actions to deter the influx of thousands of non-students to the campus as an assault on democracy. They compared the efforts of university and community police to deter the anticipated thousands of revelers as a police state on par with Nazi Germany. Not allowing people to smoke marijuana on a school campus is not an assault on democracy and wrapping yellow tape around a field does not make a police state.

This kind of irresponsible hyperbole is disingenuous and counterproductive. It trivializes the genuine and serious concerns that need to be honestly addressed, like opportunities for substantive discourse about a failed war on drugs, a federal government that keeps medical marijuana away from those who truly need it, and the rise of corporatism in this country. These causes were poorly served by a group of shrill ‘protesters’ whose histrionics diluted their message.

While the protesters should think twice about their misguided efforts, the university should also rethink its message. There was a high degree of irony present as the administration, in their efforts to curtail the smoking of marijuana, held a concert by Wyclef Jean at the Coors Event Center, named for the family that gained their riches selling alcohol. This is especially noteworthy in light of several relatively recent and highly publicized alcohol-related student deaths.

The CU administration made efforts, largely successful, to protect the campus from an onslaught of non-students who in past years have been attracted to the open campus with promises of a huge party. This year, the university closed school grounds to outsiders and required students and staff to show their university ID cards to access campus, spread pungent fish fertilizer on Norlin Quad, and marked it off-limits with police tape and increased police presence. By early afternoon, the odor of the fertilizer had dissipated, but the police were still highly visible. These efforts reportedly came at a price tag of over a $100,000.

This stepped-up police presence brought cries that the university had become a police state and drew comparisons to Nazi Germany. The reality was that the Boulder ‘police state’ issued 11 tickets and arrested three people for trespassing who refused repeated requests to step off the quad.

The first amendment does not provide license for people to do whatever they want. To do so diminishes it, just as branding Boulder a police state demeans those that have actually suffered under the yoke of true oppression. The biggest problem with those that see 4/20 as a touchstone of the modern civil rights movement is that many people are conflating the idea of protesting for civil rights with the ‘right’ to party and confusing democracy with a mob following someone holding a microphone. Hula hoops and tie-dye are not the tools of civil disobedience, they are affectations.

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