DENVER — A heavy cloud of marijuana smoke hanging over Civic Center Park tells you all you need to know: 420 has arrived.
Tens of thousands of marijuana enthusiasts celebrated increasing cannabis legalization with rallies across the country on Thursday, April 20.
"Awesome!" yelled Kevin Barron, a marijuana tourist who came from North Carolina to join the Denver festivities, as he took a drag on a joint. "Unbelievable."
In Denver, thousands of people partied to live music and then lit up en mass at 4:20 p.m. local time. Outside Congress, legalization activists handed out at free joints until they were shut down by Capitol Police, who arrested organizer Adam Eidinger.
As in Colorado, marijuana possession is legal in the District of Columbia, but public consumption is prohibited, as is possession on federal land.
April 20 has long been a day filled with civil disobedience by marijuana users, who gather in public to light up at 4:20 p.m. The phrase "420" is a code for marijuana users, who work it into dating profiles or post it on signs to show their shared interest. But while it used to be a celebration held with a certain level of furtiveness, the rapidly expanding legalization of cannabis means more and more Americans no longer face significant, if any, punishment for smoking pot.
"It's a demonstration for liberty-minded people of how the system works against patients and citizens who are not hurting anyone," said Tyler Hopkins, a volunteer at the D.C. event, said after police shut it down.
In Denver, rain showers did little to dampen enthusiasm for thousands of revelers, many of whom waited at least an hour to pass through security screening. Screeners were only removing potential weapons, however, and the clouds of pot smoke hanging over the rally showed just how many people came prepared.
All states that have legalized medical or recreational marijuana have also banned public consumption, but those rules are often ignored on April 20, when crowds gather on college campuses and central parks to light up. That means big sales days for stores, especially in states with functioning marijuana marketplaces: Colorado, Oregon and Washington, which could see single-day 420 sales of $20 million, said Matt Karnes of GreenWave Advisors.
Initial statistics seemed to bear that out: Baker, a customer engagement platform for recreational and medical cannabis dispensaries in 12 states, reported its clients were seeing double the usual foot traffic and set all-time records for online orders.
In Denver, celebrants snacked on fresh hot donuts, examined smell-blocking "stash" boxes and openly lit up in front of police monitoring the free event. Police appeared to have written at least a few citations for public consumption, facing pushback from users who said they didn't see what the big deal was. Police earlier in the day tweeted out a video message asking rally attendees to avoid smoking in public but nevertheless wishing people a "safe and happy 4/20."
Organizer Rob Corry Jr. said he sees the annual event through a bittersweet lens: The city will happily let alcohol vendors sell beer during festivals but still bans public marijuana use. Denver's rally claims to be the world's largest 420 celebration.
"I'm hoping to one day have a festival where we can consume cannabis legally, but we have made tremendous strides," Corry said as he surveyed the smoky crowd.
Later, standing in the stage moments before the celebration time, Corry yelled to the crowd: "I see freedom, but more importantly, I smell freedom!"
The clock then ticked down and the crowd lit up to wild whoops.
Contributing: Jueun Choi, USA TODAY. Follow Trevor Hughes on Twitter: @TrevorHughes