San Francisco has been oft-referred to as “49 square miles, surrounded by reality.” And the fabled Haight-Ashbury district is oft-noted as the most unreal square mile therein. Every April 20th — “4/20” — it becomes more so, by an order of magnitude of about 10,000 stoned people. And then a month later, by dint of plain old geography, our ‘hood turns into “party central” during the annual Bay to Breakers footrace/debacle.
The origins of the 420 cannabis festivities are well-documented, if still debated — it seems to have originated in Marin County in the early 1970s, as a code for smoking reefer after school. Since then, all things 420 = all things cannabis (so much so that enacted California cannabis legislation bore that number). For decades, on the actual day, pot-smokers have gathered to enjoy their herbal libation/sacrament/medicine in public places. In San Francisco this has primarily meant Golden Gate Park’s “Hippie Hill,” adjacent to the one-hippie Haight. Until the last couple of years, it was mostly a low-key event, featuring crowds of folks toking in the afternoon, especially at 4:20pm.
Last year, however, many locals, and local authorities, thought things got a bit out of hand. At least 10,000 people, likely many more, many if not most from out of town, many of a less “hippie” than thuggish demeanor, converged on the neighborhood. Violence did occur, but really not that much for such a large urban gathering. Trash, however, was left everywhere, not to mention urine and feces. San Francisco officials estimated it cost at least $10,000 to clean it all up, and this being an unofficial gathering, there is no organizer to bill for that. Local merchants were of a more mixed opinion, some of them reaping the commercial benefits of having so many thirsty smokers with the munchies, but others reporting lower business and some even closing for the day.
This year, 420 fell on Easter Sunday. We’ll leave any theological speculations about that to others. Authorities were worried — so worried that the chief of police admonished/begged “Just be cool” and some others issued some more stern warnings. The night before, an official decision was made to shut off most all automobile traffic to the neighborhood, which usually only happens during the annual Haight Street Fair in June. The no-surprise result of this surprise policy was, yes, a quieter “main street” but also chaotic gridlock in all directions as drivers attempted to get to or just around the party. One wonders how much all the very many parking control officers and police would cost the city — $10,000 suddenly seemed cheap. The closure had the desired effect of cooling down Haight Street, but many merchants — who tolerate the hordes in the prospect of increased receipts — reported notably decreased business. The main cry from last year, for many more trash receptacles and porta-potties, seemed to go largely unheeded, alas.
The only vaguely predictable, even “official” proceedings are something of a two-way procession. Midday, the masses move gayly and randomly West down Haight, towards the park. After 4:20pm, when the horde lights up *en masse* in the park and a visible and smellable cloud rises above the lovely trees, people start to wander back eastward into the ‘hood. Locals call it the 420 Zombie Parade. The police presence was very big on the street this year, even oppressive in a mostly-friendly manner; I was ordered — with a smile — off the main drag as my dog was barking loudly at the many skateboarders who had made the car-free street their own. So we wound back and forth, checking out the cross streets, which by early afternoon were already parking lots of idling cars with fuming drivers, stretching all the way up the hills towards Twin Peaks.
We saw big Easter Bunnies with pot leaf sweaters, lots of other rabbit ears, fake girl scouts in short skirts and high heels hawking questionable baked goods, forlorn freaks facedown in the gutter, sweet young kids doing a booming business at their lemonade stand, many other youngsters trying to sell various cannabis-laced or related products, and mostly, scads of people just wandering around, looking, well, dazed, in the heavily pot-perfumed lovely afternoon air.
In other words, it was like a much more crowded version of a normal sunny Sunday in the Haight.
Later in the day though, a mini gang fight or mugging gone bad resulted in a kicked-in glass door at a Haight Street record store (which, just after the festivities, added a “pot doc” service, wherein one just follows a green line on the floor to a back room where, for $39, “diagnoses” and cannabis cards are on offer), with a couple visits to the emergency room, prompting one staffer to say, “Isn’t this supposed to be a mellow kinda thing?” Well, yes, but as noted, some of the folks who show up now seem less so inclined. And some of them get a bit aggressive with the many young women around, too — I heard one say the whole thing “creeped her out.” Booze is heavily in the mix too, of course; it’s not a pure pot event by any means. Events like Mardi Gras or Beer Fest bring similar risks and complaints and even incidents.
However visible in some areas and despite it’s history, 420 is now wholly a stoner sideshow. While a famed local jazz musician was heard to lament that “Before it moved here, it was a political event down at city hall calling for legalization,” little or no such messages came out here. It was all about getting high — and trying to sell stuff to one another.
But wither the broader cannabis issues? Legalization is the renewed crusade, and in Colorado, where the 420 festivities were now fully legal, one wise young man observed “It seems to be all about money, now.” The “corporatization of cannabis” is well underway, with the threat of federal prosecutions decreasing but the threat of gluts and plummeting prices added in. In California, as predicted, the forces pressing for legalization put off their next attempt a couple more years to regroup and strategize and raise cash and see how things roll out in Colorado. A bit of a backlash seems already underway, but tax revenues there are reportedly exceeding all expectations — a powerful drug, that should turn out to be. Once hooked, states will likely find it hard to kick that habit even if they want to.
As for more “scientific” aspects, heated assertions on opposing sides supposedly based on the same evidence are likely to persist. Arguments about legalization’s impact on youth use patterns will be ever more visible, as will be the debates about cannabis’ effect on neurodevelopment of young brains — just the week before 420, a small study was released purporting to show some negative such impacts, but it was so fluffed up by the media that the normally staid MedPage site issued a stinging denouncement of reefer-madness reporting. But many objective researchers and observers do think there is something not-so-benign about heavy adolescent use, and some of the 420 behaviors — and a mass of other anecdotal “evidence” — do little to refute that.
Debates about “medical marijuana,” ignited anew way back in 1996 by California’s legalization of same, show little sign of abating too — prominent media MD Sanjay Gupta has issued ever-stronger endorsements of some medical use and has joined the call for a “rescheduling” of cannabis to allow more research — a position now held by many respectable groups, including the California Medical Association (disclosure: I co-authored their policy statement). Even without that change yet in place, though, research constraints seem to be lifting a bit in some cases, with more reports of cannabis-related investigations — some promising — underway. Cannabis is very unlikely to ever be confirmed as the be-all, cure-all magic substance its most devoted supporters hope, but the plant — or more likely, some of its components — will likely show more promise as time and research go on.
Back in the Haight, it was the morning after, and the Monday paper reported that, while there were few arrests even though smoking anything in the parks is illegal, the aftereffect was this: “G.G. Park Totally Wasted” under “mountains of trash.” How mellow is that?
Exactly one month later, festivities of a somewhat different demeanor “occupied” the Haight: The Bay to Breakers footrace, or rather, the street party associated with it. The serious face itself is over in less than forty minutes, as the Kenyan athletes, who come all this way in hopes of winning $3,000, or the average person’s annual pay back home, practically fly from the Embarcadero seven miles westward to the befogged Pacific. A few hundred other racers take it seriously and post competitive times, but the rest of the day, tens of thousands of partiers wander up the infamous Hayes Street hill and down into the “panhandle” of Golden Gate Park.
This year, another new policy, the closure of Alamo Square park at the top of the hill, seemed to just move the main party downstream a few blocks into the panhandle. Official strictures on public booze and nudity put a damper on things, but both were still in evidence. The amateur runners’ amateur boozing was, as always, a main problem as it results in locals’ calling the race a “puke and piss parade.” As for nudity, a brief viewing confirmed the old hippie festival dictum that “those who take off their clothes are those you wish would not, and vice versa” — although to be fair, there was a fair bit of not-too-shabby/flabby not-quite-nude flesh on display. And again, some fine and funny costumes. By late in the day, the stragglers were wandering lost, sunburned, loud and yes, sometimes obnoxious. Some residents on the main route and nearby had their hoses out already to clean things up.
And the next day, again, the panhandle looked like a massive garbage barge had overturned upwind. Huge dumpsters are wheeled in along the route to hold all the litter and trash. This time the sponsors of the race could be held accountable for at least some of the cleanup costs, but the pigsty provided yet more evidence that, in the decades since Lady Bird Johnson mounted her anti-litter crusade and a broader environmental movement made tossing trash about simply uncool, things have devolved back to an, er, more childish and messy norm. Which stinks in more ways than one.