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Spliff Fest Rift

Two groups vie to champion pot smoking.

Lucy Saunders 20 Apr

Lucy Saunders is a Vancouver-based writer, who writes the blog Lucy-Claire.

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‘J-Day’ or ‘4-20’?

Today is a holiday for marijuana smokers. Thirty-six years ago, a few Californian high school students got stoned after a friend gave them a treasure map to a hidden field full of marijuana plants, and now, in cities around the world, people light up in the thousands. Anyone walking by the Art Gallery in downtown Vancouver, to name just one spot, will surely notice a large cloud of smoke. But this year, part of that smoke is the growing hot air in drug legalization politics.

In fact, you could say public pot celebrations are getting smoggy. And one of the reasons is a new day, called J-Day, founded in New Zealand to promote the decriminalization of marijuana. Dana Beal of the group Cures Not Wars started the event locally, and now, on May 7, there will be over 188 cities participating. Unlike the stereotype of sharing in the marijuana community, in this case, it's not all good. There's a rift developing between the groups and their followers.

Cures Not War's global activities are nothing more than "faux-events," according to Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a non-profit group based in Washington D.C. that organizes events to coincide with celebrations on April 20, what often gets called "4-20."

J-Day and 4-20

"If Beal left today, there would be no global J-Day," but 4-20 is an event with a long history in counter-culture that would continue even if NORML disappeared. "4-20 is an organic date. No one can own it. No one can control it.... It's a grassroots movement."

The history of 4-20 goes back to 1971, according to Steve Hager, the editor of High Times, a magazine for the "high-minded." A group of high school students in San Rafael, California, a small community north of San Francisco, were sitting on a wall when a friend gave them a treasure map that lead to a field where marijuana plants flourished. Someone suggested that they meet in front of the statue of Louis Pasteur in front of the school (a French chemist known for his work in microbiology who has no known connection to marijuana) after classes at 4:20 p.m. to use the map. Their agreement became known as "4-20 Louis." Eventually "4-20" became synonymous with marijuana, and the term spread to the Grateful Dead scene, whose headquarters were just a few blocks from San Rafael High School.

But while it may have "organic" roots, in 1994 NORML picked up on the movement and started using the date to push for marijuana reform. They hope to sway public opinion and convince governments to take a less prohibitionist attitude. NORML chapters across the world hold events with speeches, music and, of course, smoking. From the Czech Republic to Israel to New Zealand, smokers light up at 4:20 p.m. on April 20.

'Herding stoned cats'

Chris Fowlie, from NORML's chapter in Auckland, says that a small group gathers every Friday at 4:20 p.m. in a downtown park. For them, today just has an added reason to celebrate. There will also be a party later tonight at a nearby bar in Grey Lynn, an area near the city center.

For them, the event has special political importance because New Zealand's government takes a strictly prohibitionist stance on marijuana, even making medical marijuana illegal. "More people are arrested for marijuana than in the United Sates if you adjust for the population numbers," said Fowlie.

But even though Fowlie will be celebrating today, he says that J-Day is the real party. "Only your die-hard smokers know about April 20, but everyone knows about J-Day." He thinks it will take a lot more work for 4-20 to ever "smoke out" J-Day. And until then, he will continue to spread the word about both days.

But having two days of celebration that fall within three weeks of each other confuses the public and the media, says St. Pierre. Pot smokers are notoriously hard to organize, somewhat like "herding stoned cats."

"We always get e-mails from Dana Beal and supposedly every year he sends us posters advertising for the global march but this year was the first time they actually came," says Fowlie. "Usually they arrive late or they get sent to the wrong address."

Marijuana revenge

But Beal thinks having two dates "does not stretch the movement too thin."

First, Beal says that 4-20 is only a North American thing. "It's hard to introduce it to other places like Europe where it's Hitler's birthday," he said.

Secondly, he wants "revenge" on former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Giuliani declared the first Saturday in May to be Family Day, in what many pot activists say was a move to make it harder for smokers to "toke up" in public areas. By 2000, arrests for smoking marijuana in public view accounted for 15 per cent of all New York City adult arrests. By organizing marches around the world, Beal reasoned that Giuliani would be forced to acquiesce to New Yorker tokers if he didn't want negative press coverage.

Finally, Beal says J-Day has a different political agenda from other marijuana groups that use April 20th "mainly as a smoke session." Cures Not Wars subscribes to the Dutch harm reduction method, which is quite different from simply legalizing marijuana. They want America's punitive system to be leaner on drug offenders. And Beal is intent on spreading the message about Ibogaine -- a root which supposedly gets rid of addictions, from alcohol to heroin, with "a single dose."

While April 20th is firmly rooted in North America's counter culture, I spoke to about 20 college students from Vancouver, Los Angeles and New York, among other places, and it's clear most don't know the reason.

Tall tales of 4-20

Some suggested that the number 420 comes from Bob Dylan's song, "Rainy Day Woman #12 and 35" -- multiply 12 by 35 and you get 420. Others claim that the digits come from the two women who came into Dylan's studio drenched from the rain while he was recording that song. Their ages: 35 and 12. And still others point out that 1, 2, 3, 5 and then 7 are prime numbers. "Rainy Day Woman" is the first track on his seventh album. In short, there are as many theories behind "Rainy Day Woman #12 and 35" as there are behind the origins of 4-20.

One student who attends the University of California, Santa Cruz, and grows marijuana, told me there are 420 active chemicals in marijuana. In fact, there can be anywhere between 400 and 500 chemicals, according to the American Medical Association.

Of all the theories, the one I heard the most frequently was that 420 is the California police dispatch code for a marijuana bust. But in fact, 420 is the code for hindrance of public land; the California Police and Safety code for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana is 11357b.

Both NORML and Cures Not Wars hope their particular days hold much more appeal and staying power than the number 11357b.

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