What started out as a mellow day to celebrate marijuana in Denver – one of many such annual “4/20” gatherings around the world – turned violent Saturday with gunshots fired, three people wounded, and thousands of revelers running for cover.
With the Boston Marathon’s recent experience in mind, there had been increased police presence as tens of thousands of pot smokers and others gathered in Denver’s Civic Center for the worldwide event held every April 20th.
"It was peaceful; everybody was having fun," Laura Forduno told the Denver Post. "And then you heard the shots. Pow, pow, pow, pow."
None of those shot was seriously injured. Police are looking for two suspects – both described as black men.
Denver police are asking witnesses to come forward with information, Denver police spokesman Sonny Jackson said. "Everybody fled. That's the problem.”
The larger-than-usual crowd in Denver Saturday was tied to Colorado’s recent passage (along with Washington State) of a ballot measure legalizing recreational use of marijuana.
Organizers expected record crowds, and the tens of thousands of people who packed into the downtown park did not disappoint, the Denver Post reported.
"This is what freedom smells like," marijuana attorney Rob Corry shouted to the crowd. "You are standing on some of the freest ground in the world."
Marijuana remains a controversial political issue.
Critics see it as a “gateway drug” to other illegal substances, particularly among younger users drawn to the cannabis culture.
“Adolescent marijuana use increases the odds of other illicit substance use two to three times by young adulthood,” reports Arapahoe House, a drug-treatment facility in Colorado.
While there has been a de facto decriminalization of personal marijuana use and possession in small quantities, it remains illegal under federal law.
"Neither a state nor the executive branch can nullify a statute passed by Congress,” Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, told an audience in Washington last week. “Nor should we lose sight of the fundamental fact that using marijuana has public health consequences, and the most responsible public policy is one that restricts its availability and discourages its use."
At the same time, marijuana is becoming more acceptable in US society – particularly its use for medicinal purposes. The Pew Research Center reported earlier this month that 52 percent of Americans now say that marijuana use should be made legal. Among younger Americans, the figure is even higher.
“That finding is the result of decades of slow demographic changes and cultural evolution that now appears, much like attitudes around marriage equality, to be accelerating,” writes Huffington Post reporter Matt Sledge. “More and more people, including Pat Robertson and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), are rejecting the tough-on-crime rhetoric so long directed toward drug use.”
A HuffPost/YouGov poll in January found that just 19 percent of those surveyed think the “war on drugs” has been worth the cost.
Harvard economist and senior lecturer Jeffrey Miron estimates that legalizing marijuana across the country would result in $8.7 billion in financial savings from tax revenues and reduced enforcement costs.
Still, the issue remains politically controversial. While voters in Colorado and Washington approved recreational marijuana use, Oregon defeated a similar measure.
Lawmakers in Colorado and Washington have been looking for ways to resolve the apparent legal conflict between state and federal law regarding marijuana.
In Colorado last week, a bill was introduced in the state legislature. Among other things, it would regulate the types of businesses allowed to sell marijuana, the amount of the substance that can be sold in a single transaction to individuals from out-of-state (one-fourth of an ounce), and the ways in which marijuana sales are taxed.
Following Saturday’s shooting at the Denver 4/20 celebration, organizers canceled a second rally scheduled for Sunday.