At “Hippie Hill” in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, marijuana smoke curled up in every direction Friday as revelers with bags of Funyuns in their hands and pot leaf leis around their necks toked up for the ritual known as 4/20, which has served as both a beacon of protest and a laid-back festival since the 1970s.
Police and security guards could be spotted here and there on the outskirts and park rangers at checkpoints closer to the action, yet law enforcement mostly kept its distance from the revelers.
But down in Santa Cruz, known for a hippy culture that refuses to die, the annual celebration that took place in the usual oak-ringed meadow in the UC Santa Cruz hills started out decidedly less hazy.
Though recreational marijuana is now legal in California thanks to Proposition 64’s overwhelming passage in 2016, The Man was not mellow and early in the afternoon succeeded in mostly shutting down its use.
“The legalization allowed people over the age of 21 to possess it — it didn’t allow them to come out into public and smoke it,” said UC Santa Cruz Police Chief Nader Oweis.
About 100 officers, including many from nine other UC campuses, made their presence known. They were there to make sure people were safe and to enforce the prohibitions against smoking marijuana on campus and in public, Owens said.
A videographer who said she was shooting imagery for police probably discouraged some smoking too.
UC Santa Cruz art student Marco Cota was among the first attendees to learn law enforcement wouldn’t take a chilled-out approach to the event. Lying shirtless in the meadow, surrounded by several friends and toking on a joint, Cota was approached by two officers.
“Stop smoking,” one officer said. “I’m serious. Do it now. Get rid of it.”
Costa obeyed. “He got super aggressive all the sudden,” said Cota, 26. “It’s not like I”m smoking meth or doing cocaine.”
The policeman declined his offer to share the doobie, he said. “I asked if he wanted some because he needed to calm down a little bit.”
Another young man, in a tie-dyed shirt and jeans, was cited for public pot smoking and — because there’s a university daycare nearby — for using the drug within 1,000 feet of a child care facility.
Of getting a citation from police, student Calvin Abel, 21, of Corning said, “Why, is the big question.”
University officials consider the annual celebration of pot an “unsanctioned event,” school spokesman Scott Hernandez-Jason said.
“We don’t like it. We really just wish it would not happen. It’s a waste of resources, time, and then having to have additional law enforcement out for ensuring public safety,” Hernandez-Jason said.
A heavy police presence didn’t dampen everyone’s enjoyment, however. “I really find this to be an enjoyable way to celebrate,” said UCSC art history student Amber Giuliana, 21. “It’s really beautiful to sit in a meadow with a bunch of people like this.”
By 4 p.m. the crowd had swollen to at least 2,000, Owens estimated. Perhaps emboldened by their swollen numbers, many began lighting up. “Just smoke in the middle,” one man advised. On the fringes, police were busy writing tickets.
“It wasn’t like this last year,” said a mass education student who received a ticket for smoking marijuana and declined to give his name.
As the clock struck 4:20, most police had moved back. One man marked the crucial moment sitting despondently on the grass with a police officer standing over him writing a ticket.
At the same time in Golden Gate Park, many in the large crowd police estimated at around 15,000 lit up in unison to create a giant smoke bubble and yelled out “Happy 420,” followed by lots of coughing.
Greg Walton, 52, who came all the way from Suisun City to celebrate, said he felt a little unnerved by the number of security guards and police officers patrolling the scene.
“It’s as if they have to let their presence be known,” he griped. “They have the security walking the grass. They didn’t do that before.”
This year marks Walton’s third time attending the annual 4/20 celebration. His reason for being there, he said, is to prove a point.
“To show them: leave us alone. We’re just exercising the right we have to smoke. Even though I smoke on the daily, it’s the atmosphere, you know?”
First-timers Mia Hillix, 20, and her friend Sam Williams, 19, both San Francisco residents, came for “the Hill experience,” but were surprised to see the large number of vendors.
“It seems like now they’re almost trying to commodify weed instead of just hang out,” she said.
Whereas once Hippie Hill was a place where people went to rail against restrictive marijuana laws, this year’s festival held more of a Coachella atmosphere, Hillix added.
“Now that weed is accepted, there’s a lot more people that don’t want to rebel against the law, but are here just to party,” she said.
Williams suggested legalization wasn’t necessarily a good thing, that it bolsters the black market.
“I did not want it to get legalized,” she said. “The taxes have already gone up so high. It’s really stupid. It should’ve been legalized without the taxation. It’s just very commercialized now.”
Brandon Sanchez, 21, of Redwood City, took the day off from work to go out and celebrate relaxed laws, but said he has mixed feelings about the drug being legalized.
“There’s more taxes now,” he said. “It’s more expensive than it used to be. It was always safe.”
Jake Foley, 27, and Megan Rasmussen, 21, made the drive from Sacramento to satiate their curiosity after hearing about the festival from friends.
“If there was a time to come, this would be it,” Foley said. “I feel that since it’s so new, it’s popping; it’s what’s in right now.”
When asked if they’d come back next year, Foley answered, “probably not.”
Asked why she came, one girl said it’s because while pot is now legal in Calfiornia, it’s still not federally recognized. “I love weed and f… the government,” she said.