‘This afternoon, all the students will go to campus and sit in a field getting really, really stoned,’ I was told. ‘It happens every year.’
This is 4/20: An annual mass celebration of all things marijuana that takes place every year on April 20th. It is observed with diligence in many places in Canada and the States, and The University of California Santa Cruz campus (UCSC) has developed a notorious reputation as a major meeting point for the celebrations this day entails.
That Saturday afternoon I followed a string of vibrantly dressed students and twenty-something hangers-on across the UCSC campus, which is stunning. The only ocean in sight is the Pacific, the shimmering view of which can be seen from the main roadway. Long wooden bridges cross dry gullies which open again into clearings bathed in hot Californian sun. The distant but tangibly recognisable aroma of lots and lots of weed reached my curious nostrils as I carried on walking. A presumably sarcastic sign by the road read, ‘Fire Hazard Today: Low’.
In a dry-valley, shaded by towering redwoods and dappled in shadow, people gathered and sat in groups, wearing board shorts, baseball caps, cork necklaces, quirky sunglasses and dreadlocks. Cannabis leaves were painted on to faces. Vest tops read ‘Keep Santa Cruz Stoned’. Hippies hoolahooped and produced foot-square cellophane bags from Quiksilver rucksacks containing buds of marijuana the size of a fat child’s fist. I was overdressed in blue chords and a plain t-shirt.
Somewhere nearby, a girl named Cecilia sat on a log next to a boy who looked a bit like Neil Young. She caught my eye. I looked lost. Wordlessly, she extended a smile and a half-smoked joint. I returned the smile, held the joint, and did that conspicuously British ‘are-you-quite-sure? Well-so-long-as-you-don’t-mind’ thing.
‘There’s plenty to go around’ Cecilia California-drawled. Not-Neil Young nodded slow agreement. And they weren’t wrong. Marijuana smoke filled the air like a thick, warm blanket.
Marijuana smoke filled the air like a thick, warm blanket.
The rest of the afternoon passed in a pleasant wash of conversation, sun and smoke. At around 3:30, a teenage boy climbed thirty feet up into a redwood tree, cheered on enthusiastically by the convalescing crowds. Reclining on a high branch, he reached out a wooden flute from a rucksack and began to play, badly. The overt pretension of this act was a pleasure to watch. At around 3:50, he came back down again. By 4:00 there were easily six hundred people in the wood and adjoining clearing. At 4:20, people cheered and hugged each other, and smoked, and cheered and grinned. At around 5:00, three uniformed police officers appeared in the wood.
The police had been there all day, leaning against their patrol cars and looking on with expressions of mild interest, slight amusement or vague distaste. The only intervention I am aware of is the confiscation that has been reported in the news of a four-foot long joint. This was certainly an anomaly.
The police told people to leave and people left.
Two days later, I was staying with a friend in San Francisco, discussing the implications of 4/20.
‘It’s not about the weed’, he told me. ‘Not really. 4/20 is important because it is a widespread act of social defiance. That’s important.’
As the war on drugs continues, with prominent voices raised on either side of the debate, I can’t help but agree. My own experience of 4/20 at UCSC was an enjoyable afternoon in the sun. With the level of controlled tolerance allowed towards drugs, a half-blind eye if you like, for one day, in one supervised place, nothing really went wrong at all.