CU defends ongoing effort to snuff out 4/20

The 4/20 rally in 2011
Photo by Susan France

When University of Colorado officials announced plans to close campus to outsiders again on April 20 — a Saturday — critics howled that last year’s justification for doing so was no longer valid.

The 4/20 smokeout needed to be averted, CU officials said last spring, because it was so disruptive to the academic mission of the university. But there are no classes held on Saturdays, and other types of academic activity drop off significantly as well.

Still, CU spokesperson Bronson Hilliard says there is plenty to disrupt on Saturdays, including research, graduate dissertation defenses, rehearsals and performances. While he acknowledged that he knows of no classes held on Saturdays, he says students are studying in Norlin Library and participating in programs at the Rec Center, among other activities.

“The university doesn’t just shut down on Saturdays and Sundays,” Hilliard told BW. “It’s not a high school.”

CU officials have also repeatedly said that their opposition to 4/20 is not related to marijuana or drug laws. When asked if the university’s response would be the same if a crowd of 10,000 gathered on campus for a gun rights or anti-abortion rally, Hilliard replied that authorities might be more open to a gathering of that size if the hosting group followed campus policies, got a special events permit, had a student sponsor and paid for arrangements like porta-potties and clean-up.

But no one has ever done those things for 4/20, he says.

In addition, Hilliard says CU does not allow marijuana on campus due to the federal Drug Free Schools and Communities Act. He says violating that act could jeopardize CU’s federal research funding, even though some say the likelihood of that happening is slim.

“I don’t think any university in the country really wants to be the first university to test whether the feds are serious about that,” Hilliard says.

And he adds that those who say CU should loosen up about 4/20 because the state just passed Amendment 64 to regulate marijuana like alcohol may not realize that 64 only allows for the private consumption of pot, not smoking it in public.

Hilliard acknowledges that 64 may actually have the effect of reducing the size of the 4/20 crowd even further, because there is less to protest, at least in Colorado.

As for the infamous fish fertilizer applied to Norlin Quad last year to deter would-be tokers, he says CU decided to discontinue the practice at the request of student leaders who said they had received complaints about the concoction’s health effects on asthmatics and others with chemical sensitivities. Plus, Hilliard says, last year the fertilizer became more of a media story than an actual deterrent, since it didn’t emit a very intense smell.

He also challenged the notion that 4/20 is constitutionally protected as a peaceful assembly to exercise free speech and protest gun laws.

“4/20’s never been about drug laws, it’s been about partying,” Hilliard says, adding that it’s only a protest for a tiny percentage of participants. “No one could credibly make the argument that 4/20 is a consciousness-raising, political free-speech activity.

“There isn’t a First Amendment right to do something illegal under federal law,” he continues. “If their motivation is to make political statements about marijuana, the best place to make those is in the shadow of the state Capitol and the City and County of Denver. … At CU-Boulder it’s nothing more than a party.”

Hilliard says the point when he realized the event should be discontinued came a few years ago when a participant was climbing a cottonwood tree in the middle of the massive crowd, and an emergency responder next to Hilliard leaned over and said, “If he falls, we would have no ability to get to that person, to save him.”

CU police spokesperson Ryan Huff says he expects the university’s police presence on April 20 to be similar to last year, when officers were brought in from various other Front Range law enforcement agencies. The university spent more than $75,000 on overtime for CU cops and outside officers last year. According to Huff, those without proper ID who are caught on campus could face a misdemeanor trespassing charge carrying a fine of up to $750 and up to six months in jail.

Hilliard and Huff dismissed civil-liberties concerns about requiring students, faculty and staff to carry their IDs with them on April 20, saying it’s the only day of the year that such a requirement is in place.

When asked what the police response would be if a group of card-carrying students gathered on another quad to smoke and protest, Huff said, “Our primary objective is to keep everyone safe.”

Rob Corry, a Denver attorney who specializes in marijuana law and who unsuccessfully challenged the 4/20 campus closure last year in court, says he and his clients considered pursuing a campus permit to hold the event, but didn’t get encouraging signs from the university that it would be approved.

“They didn’t say one way or the other, but I think it was pretty clear that they wouldn’t, that they would deny it,” he told BW. “The prospect of getting a different result wasn’t very high.”

Corry says the lack of classes on Saturday means the university’s argument about 4/20 disrupting its academic mission is specious.

“I think it completely undermines that argument, and it exposes what their real argument is and their true motivation, which is the university’s image,” he says.

But Corry also agrees that with the passage of Amendment 64, there is less to protest on 4/20.

“This is a new world this year,” he says. “It’s just outright legal in Colorado. There’s less need for civil disobedience when you’re not even disobeying anything, really.”