It was April 20 in Golden Gate Park, the fabled 4/20 in the parlance of pot smokers, and we found Nick and Chris standing under the shade of a tree with a cluster of friends, including Geoff, the proud owner of a five-foot bong.
Nick had done several hits through the supersized smoking device that day. Beside him, Chris took hits from his own handheld bong. "I'm feeling good," Nick reported. "But I'm also kinda hungry. I could go for some Chinese food. Ohh, and some Sapporo!"
Administering a hit of marijuana through such unwieldy paraphernalia is quite the operation, requiring one person to stand and hold one end, another to light the marijuana once it's packed into the bowl, and a third to inhale the five-foot column of milky smoke that rises through the chamber. The smokers on the receiving end contorted their faces as they inhaled, inevitably coughing and laughing as they breathed out, seemingly amazed by the experience. The college-age friends were in 420-induced bliss.
The annual 420 celebration in Golden Gate Park is unpermitted, with no official organizers, yet thousands of festivalgoers nevertheless flock to it year after year. It's a quintessentially San Francisco experience: Young and old congregate for a collective daylong smoke-out, bringing drums, dogs, grills, shade structures, hand-blown glass, tie-dyed tapestries, Hacky Sacks, sound systems, and other picnic paraphernalia along with them.
The area around Hippie Hill — at the eastern end of the park, near Kezar Stadium — was a jumble of humanity crammed elbow to elbow, reeking of pot smoke. The crowd reflected a wide range of ethnicities and brought out many displaying an outlandish sense of fashion, sporting shiny plastic marijuana-leaf necklaces, sleeve tattoos, piercings, face paint, and piles upon piles of dreadlocked hair.
San Francisco maintains an iconic status as a weed-friendly city. While 420 in Golden Gate Park is a lighthearted scene that's also proved irksome for city agencies plagued by leftover trash and traffic jams, serious year-round marijuana advocacy efforts continue to mark the Bay Area as a hotbed for drug policy reform and thriving, legitimate pot-based entrepreneurship.
The movement to legalize marijuana for medical purposes started in San Francisco, the lovechild of the city's hippie movement and its caregiving response to the AIDS epidemic. It was Dennis Peron and other activists here who wrote Proposition 215, the statewide legalization measure that California voters approved in 1996.
A decade ago, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a comprehensive set of regulations for its two dozen or so medical marijuana dispensaries, guidelines that have proven to work well and be a model for other jurisdictions to follow, elevating pot purveyors into accepted members of the business community (see "Marijuana goes mainstream," 1/27/10).
Some have even begun to regard the Bay Area as a model for how to implement a sensible approach to regulating marijuana. On April 16, US Rep. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas) traveled to San Francisco on a fact-finding mission after Clark County, Nevada legalized medical marijuana, with Las Vegas and other Nevada cities expected to follow shortly.
"I want the state to learn from someone who's done it right," Titus told the Guardian as she toured The Apothecarium on Market Street, an elegant dispensary reputed to be one of San Francisco's finest.
In addition to helping guide Nevada's implementation of medical marijuana legalization, Titus said she's working on federal legislation that would better protect small businesses involved with a marijuana industry that is growing rapidly in the US, thanks to Colorado and Washington taking the next step and legalizing even recreational uses of marijuana.