The drama of Denver's historic 4/20 rally has played out like a daytime soap opera

The drama of Denver's historic 4/20 rally has played out like a daytime soap opera

VicesMarch 21, 2018 By Will Brendza

When the doors of Denver’s Wellington Webb building swung open on the morning of November 21, Euflora — a Colorado dispensary chain — had already been camped outside for 27 days. Like a pack of wolves, the dispensary employees prowled. Despite complaints from confused security guards, despite stern lectures from police, and even after being evicted from the Colfax entrance, they stalked their target. Day after day they waited, tenacious and determined to claim their prize: the 2018 event permit for Denver’s annual 4/20 gathering. 

But they weren’t alone. 

In the wee hours of the morning on the 21st, the day the permit would finally become available, a stranger had appeared at the Colfax entrance of the building. He told security guards he was not there for the 4/20 permit, but for a different permit for a different location. Security believed him, and thus allowed him to remain at the unofficial entrance, waiting for the building to open. 

Bobby Reginelli, of Euflora, knew that was a lie. He knew that man was there for the same permit they were. And he understood that as soon as those doors opened promptly at 7:00 a.m., they were going to have a race on their hands. Reginelli grabbed Euflora’s fastest employee, stripped him of anything that might set off the metal detectors, removed his hat, and prepared his man for the race of a lifetime. 

The stakes were high. And tension mounted as the hour approached. When the clock finally stuck 7, the doors of the Webb building opened up like the gates of a horse race. 

This frantic charge to the permit office had been a long time coming. It all began last year with the disastrous 4/20 Rally of 2017— a fiasco that caused street closures, had severely lax security and unlicensed food vendors running rampant. Perhaps worst of all, though, the Civic Center was left desecrated after the event, covered in heaps of garbage. Many felt that the purpose of the event had been lost altogether; the historical rally had deteriorated from an activist gathering with meaning and direction into a pointless excuse to get totally blasted. 

“It became more like a causeless scenario,” recalls Mike Dunafon, mayor of Glendale, Colorado, and an activist who had spoken at prior 4/20 rallies. “People were wandering around and just getting wasted. It was disheveled, and it didn’t have the powerful meaning that the civil libertarians had attached to it.”

[420 Rally 2016, by Kevin O'Donohue]

The civil libertarian who had established that meaning in the first place, 25 years ago, was Ken Gorman. In 1993, the well-known Colorado cannabis crusader, and controversial pro-pot protester, organized Denver’s first ever 4/20 rally. Gorman meant to politically mobilize minorities and underserved demographics through cannabis, and to campaign for the end of its prohibition. 

Larisa Bolivar, the official historian of Denver’s 4/20 rally, worked closely with Gorman to establish the event. “The original rally was reaching (those) underserved communities using cannabis as a modality to attract people who would otherwise not be interested in politics, and then teaching them how to be specifically engaged,” she says.

For more than a decade, Gorman nurtured the event, growing it from a seed of dozens into a flowering phenomenon. And with the help of other cannabis activists like Bolivar and Miguel Lopez, Denver’s 4/20 event became the largest of its kind anywhere in the nation. 

Sadly, though, Gorman wouldn’t live to see Colorado legalize the fruits of his labor. 

[Ken Gorman (middle) with fellow activists // photo via KenGorman.org]

In February of 2007, Gorman was fatally shot in his own home during an alleged robbery gone awry (details of his case are still unanswered, and many fear they always will be). It was a jarring blow to the cannabis community, both in Colorado and the nation at large. Gorman had been a formidable force for the legalization movement. Without him, what would become of Denver’s legendary 4/20 rally?

The show chose to go on.

In the aftermath of Gorman’s death, the torch was passed along to Lopez, a man who had worked with Gorman organizing the rally in years prior. Lopez is a hardcore character, often described as militaristic and known for his incendiary public speaking and dogged political activism. Under his incumbency, the 4/20 rally began to change discernibly with each passing year. And in 2017, that change came to a head, leaving the Civic Center utterly vandalized. 

The People of Denver were furious at the poor PR the city received nationwide of the fiasco — not to mention a shooting that had plagued the same event four years earlier. The city responded accordingly.

Lopez was promptly condemned — both by the city and by activists in the industry — and banned from hosting the rally for three years. His permits were revoked, his honor disgraced and sanction after sanction was leveled against him, one of the original organizers. 

This infuriated some, like Bolivar, who believes the city wanted someone less radical to commandeer the event, to pervert its free-speech origins, and reap huge profits in the process. 

“[Ken] would be pissed.” Bolivar said, “He’d be horrified by what’s happening right now, with the city. The intent was never to make money. Everybody knows that they can make money from this, they know that they can make money from having another festival … that’s why Euflora paid somebody to camp out.

“It’s totally motivated by greed,” continues Bolivar, “The city is perfectly fine with having a bunch of stoners having an event at Civic Center park, they’re just not okay with it being Miguel Lopez and the 4/20 rally.”

[trash leftover from the 2017 rally, photo via cannasos]

Perhaps. The city of Denver had repeatedly tried to put a stop to the 4/20 rally, and had, over the years, been vocal in their distaste for the event. Maybe they had been waiting, watching for the perfect opportunity to dethrone Lopez and replace him with someone (or some business) that would be easier to control.

If that was the case, 2017’s embarrassing display of stoner debauchery and disregard presented the city with exactly the opportunity they’d been hoping for. 

“I know Miguel is making claims that he was bamboozled or something,” adds Dunafon. “But at the end of the day [the consequences] fall on the generalissimo. El Jefe’s going to have to pay the price for it — and I think that’s probably what’s happening here.”

The fall from grace created a vacuum of opportunity. Suddenly, without him in the picture, the Civic Center was up for grabs on 4/20. The city announced that the permit would become available for application again on November 21, 2017. And on October 25, almost a month early, Euflora got in line. 

Which circles back to that fateful morning.

The stranger on the other side of the Webb building, waiting at the Colfax entrance, was Michael “Smokey” Ortiz. And when the Colfax doors opened up, he didn’t sprint in. He didn’t preemptively empty his pockets so he wouldn’t have to stop at the metal detectors. He didn’t even break pace on his way to the permit office. He didn’t have to. Security camera footage shows that Smokey’s entrance was opened a full 20 seconds before the Court entrance, where Euflora was waiting. 

Twenty seconds isn’t a lot of time, normally. And on any other day, no one would have blinked an eye at the discontinuity between the two entrances opening. But on that particular morning, those seconds made all the difference in the world. 

Smokey beat Euflora’s runner in a photo finish. His application made it in first, and his claim to the permit seemed secure.

“Smokey knew which door was going to be allowed,” says Bobby Reginelli, Marketing Director of Euflora, “And at that point we began the process of seeing if the city would do the right thing, and we’re excited to say that they did.”

Smokey’s claim didn’t last long.

On December 30, the city rejected his application. After reviewing the case, officials found “competent evidence” that he deceived security guards in order to gain access to the Webb building. That, along with speculation that he was working with Miguel Lopez to acquire the permit, put the nail in the group’s coffin. He has since hired lawyers to argue his case, and defend his claim. But as things currently stand, Euflora’s application is now first in line. And they’ve got some grand plans if the company is granted the permit. 

“We’ve got to put on a better face for the city,” says Reginelli. “And we would like to diversify what 4/20 means. That means a lot of different attractions so that’s it’s not just a concert with some food vendors, where people publicly defy Denver’s laws.”

He mentions yoga classes, meditation classes, fitness classes and boot camps, even having artists doing live murals on site.

But Euflora needs to raise the bar on a multitude of levels in order to truly restore this event. They’ll have to scrupulously plan the street and traffic logistics, ensure there is sufficient security, and meticulously clean up the Civic Center afterwards. Not only that, but a return to meaning is necessary. The fight for legal cannabis is not yet won — it is still a schedule I drug, it is still illegal in 20 states, and only recently Jeff Sessions alluded to his wanting federal prosecutors to crack down on legal cannabis by recinding Obama-era memos. 

[420 Rally 2016, by Kevin O'Donohue]

With international coverage of it each year, the event provides a huge platform for cannabis education and activism. Many activists agree, if it’s just about smoking weed in public and listening to music, it’s wasting a valuable opportunity to foster progress. 

“This is where these guys that are showing up at the 4/20 rally are missing it,” Dunafon says. “They need to connect with voters, they need to connect with their politicians, they need to find the cause of civil libertarianism: the right to do what you want to do, so long as you don’t interfere with someone else.”

Jake Browne, a former pot critic for the Denver Post and co-founder of Grow Off, had similar sentiments, “If the focus is solely on how high everyone can get, I think it diminishes the very real struggles of people who depend on cannabis medically or have been incarcerated for it … It’s up to Euflora to prove this is more than a cash grab; as of now, they’re appropriating a free speech event founded by activists.”

“It’s disgusting to me,” says Bolivar, who says she will not be attending this year’s rally out of protest. “It’s disgusting. It’s egocentric, and greed all over the place, and it’s very disappointing.”

Even today, the saga is still ongoing. Smokey Ortiz and his lawyers are fighting to regain the permit for the Civic Center. Euflora is still waiting patiently for the city to approve its application. And everyone is standing by to see what happens this year… Will the event be improved upon? Or will the disaster repeat itself all over again? 

If Reginelli’s intentions are anything to go off of, Denver can remain hopeful:

“4/20 is not Euflora,” he said, “Euflora is giving this to the city of Denver and the state of Colorado. This is not about us, this is about bringing the cannabis community together and celebrating 4/20 in a way that we can all feel good about, in a way that’s inclusive of all people, and in a way that marks a significant shift in how cannabis has become stigmatized.”