Apotcalypse Now

On April 20th each year, San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district and Golden Gate Park are arguably our beleaguered planet's ground zero for what is loosely referred to "cannabis culture." Why that date? It's a long hazy story, but the gospel of Wikipedia is probably as good as any: "A group of teenagers in San Rafael, California calling themselves the Waldos because their chosen hang-out spot was a wall outside the school used the term in connection to a fall 1971 plan to search for an abandoned cannabis crop that they had learned about. The Waldos designated the Louis Pasteur statue on the grounds of San Rafael High School as their meeting place, and 4:20pm as their meeting time. The Waldos referred to this plan with the phrase "4:20 Louis." Multiple failed attempts to find the crop eventually shortened their phrase to simply "4:20," which ultimately evolved into a codeword that the teens used to mean pot-smoking in general... April 20 has evolved into a counterculture holiday in North America, where people gather to celebrate and consume cannabis. Some events have a political nature to them, advocating for the legalization of cannabis."

In the Haight on Saturday, there was nothing "political" visible about this year's gathering. April 20 fell on a sunny breezy Saturday and the crowds were huge. The event seems to grow substantially each year, and this year a local paper predicted about 10,000 people. That seemed overlarge to me, but they were probably right. On my morning dogwalk, even before noon there were tents covering much of the Hippie Hill lawn, the fabled zone where Beatle George Harrison visited the center of the hippie scene during the 1967 Summer of Love but fled in disgust, later recalling, "You know, I went to Haight-Ashbury, expecting it to be this brilliant place, and it was just full of horrible, spotty, dropout kids on drugs. It certainly showed me what was really happening in the drug culture. It wasn't what I thought was all these groovy people having spiritual awakenings and being artistic. It was like the Bowery, it was like alcoholism, it was like any addiction."

There's much debate about the "addictive" nature of, and about the harms linked to cannabis vs. alcohol, but in this case it would be hard to separate the two drugs, as beer and booze flowed heavily along with the pot. The crowd may or may not have been dominated by "spotty" dropouts, but from my unscientific observation, the average age was in the early twenties, with some younger and some veteran holdout hippies at either demographic end. And there was an undeniable thuglike look and vibe to many attendees as well. The San Francisco Examiner reported a police captain as saying the gathering "does attract a criminal element" and that "known gang members have RSVP'd for this thing." I saw no violence, and at about 5pm a cop standing on the outskirts of the biggest crowd said "So far so good — but let's not curse things." In past years there were some violent incidents, even a stabbing (and this year a 420 event in Colorado reported a shooting of a man and his dog), but most of the 911 calls tend to be for medical emergencies. The cops were on motorbikes and horses to navigate the park and the traffic, which was horrid, with gridlock in the blocks around the park. Tow trucks were doing good business.

It's an unofficial gathering with no real organizer, so the city's Recreation and Park department has nobody to bill for the cleanup, which they estimated to cost over $10,000. "A crowd of this size will have an impact on the grass" said a department spokesperson, who might have been punning. And the crowd was far from "green," at least in the eco-sense — trash was left everywhere. It would be hard to clean up all the urine as well — there were no extra "facilities," and thus more folks using the bushes and streets than for other big events. In other words, a mess — as with the annual Haight Street Fair each June, although that mass party does set up port-o-potties and such, and features bands and food purveyors. Offering none of that, this event is only about pot.

But of course messes of various kinds are nothing new in our neighborhood. "A late stroll down Haight between Stanyan and Central on any given evening will not recommend any homilies about the triumph of the human spirit," wrote renowned poet and longtime local August Kleinzahler in his loving tribute to the late legendary "martini Nazi" Bruno Mooshei, who held forth at his Persian Aub Zam Zam bar for decades. Even though gentrification has been brewing for a long time, the funky element remains, much to the chagrin of late-coming "neighborhood improvement" advocates and real estate agents.

But at the Anarchist bookstore, one volunteer said "F__k Rec and Park — it's their job, and they are supposed to pay for such things anyway, and just kicked out a longtime recycling center and garden in the park to put in a new garden." Another, more on point about 420, said, "At this point the whole thing is kinda old hat, but I'm glad they can do it."

At local businesses, commerce was booming, albeit with a touch of disdain for the masses. "A bunch of a__holes," was the succinct characterization of the day's clientele by a worker at a local market. "This has nothing to do with San Francisco, these kids are all from out of town," observed a young pizza purveyor. "I'm going to hide at home," said the lovely young lady at the pet food store. "They're even dirtier than the usual gang," said a record store staffer. "Business is good, the vibes are OK — but I didn't know cannabis was legal?" quipped a neighborhood veteran at another music shop.

Back in the park at 4:20pm, a huge collective cheer rose from the crowd, followed by a visible and smellable cloud of rising smoke. It was quite amazing, really. Not long afterwards, a sort of mass zombie parade began as the smokers migrated eastward into the Haight. The great local Booksmith shop posted that they were closing down early to let their staff get home while it was still light, out of safety concerns. Hopefully, probably, everybody got home safely. My main concern walking homeward was the traffic, as it was likely a good assumption that many, if not most, of the drivers were "altered" in some manner. But that's not so unique to this event, of course.

Yes, the "war on drugs" is a failure, and not so long ago, I was a co-author of a state medical association paper urging decriminalization and regulation of cannabis. I still believe that would be our best collective policy. But from "ground zero," I can't help but wonder about those who seem to make cannabis their reason for living — an end, rather than a means, to something else, or even part of their identity. Even way back in high school, that seemed sort of pathetic to me. But who am I to say? Nowadays the cannabis crusade seems mostly about the almighty dollar, no matter how that is dolled up in "medical" or other rubrics. And at "medical" pot conferences, and this event, things can get truly "creepy" — a term I heard repeatedly from locals who observed the invasion of their neighborhood.

Perhaps the most positive take on the whole event was given by Tom at the Anarchist book collective shop: "Hey, at least it's better than a meth fest!"

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