The annual stoner holiday is upon us, yet things feel slightly different this 420. After years of surreptitious celebrations, there’s an expectation that this may be one of the last illegal editions of the pot-fuelled blowout. Yet with prohibition on its last legs in the US and Europe, the event’s significance is changing.
Has 420 Gone Mainstream?
Though 420’s roots are contested, the most widely-accepted account states that the tradition was first invented by a group of California teenagers back in 1971. Calling themselves the Waldos, the stoner friends used to meet at 4:20 pm each day for a joint, thus initiating the connection between weed and this symbolic number.
Before long, the numerical proxy for cannabis took hold within the die-hard community of Grateful Dead fans – otherwise known as deadheads – thus cementing 420’s status as a countercultural trope. To gather on April 20th and get stoned became an iconoclastic act of defiance, signalling one’s opposition to prohibition and mainstream culture in general.
Fast-forward to 2022, however, and an awful lot has changed. For one thing, pot isn’t even illegal anymore in numerous states and nations, and there is a clear will among US politicians to legalise weed at the federal level. According to the latest polls, more than two-thirds of Americans now support legalisation, and around a fifth of Medicare patients now use cannabis medicinally.
Consequently, 420 has lost its covert edge and has become something of a marketing opportunity for legal dispensaries. Last year, for instance, cannabis sales on Tuesday, April 20th, were 99 per cent higher than on an average Tuesday in US states where recreational weed is permitted.
Yet while some purists may turn their backs on 420 now that it has gone from a clandestine custom to mainstream holiday, the truth is that we should be celebrating this shift. For a century, prohibitionists have used cannabis to create social division, yet 420 now unites people from all walks of life, providing an opportunity to come together and celebrate our shared love of the plant.
After all, 420 was always intended as a protest against the injustice of the War on Drugs, and the event’s wider acceptance, therefore, represents victory. The counterculture has successfully changed the mainstream, creating a world in which weed is now acclaimed rather than villainised. If that’s not worth celebrating, then what is?
Does 420 Still Have A Purpose?
These days, every media outlet in the world puts out cannabis-related content on 420. In that sense, the event serves a hugely important function by thrusting weed into the spotlight and providing a forum for discussion. And boy, is there a lot to discuss.
It’s pretty obvious that cannabis will soon be rescheduled in most countries, which means the conversation has to shift from whether we legalise to how we legalise. As we’ve already seen in many US states, legal cannabis markets can be as divisive as prohibition when they aren’t set upright, and never is that more apparent than on 420, when smoke fills the air while a symphony of cash registers accompanies the flow of dollars.
Unfortunately, though, those who profit most from this annual bonanza are rarely those who were supposed to benefit from legalisation.
Social equity programmes designed to safeguard the participation of vulnerable communities in the legal market have largely failed in the US. Last year, cannabis sales topped $18 billion, and the industry now employs more full-time workers than there are dentists in America. However, just 1.7 per cent of cannabis businesses in the US are black-owned, despite politicians’ promises to help people from the communities most impacted by the War on Drugs to share in the benefits of legalisation.
Similarly, the proportion of female executives in cannabis has fallen below the national average across all industries and sectors. Witnessing these distressing developments, policy analysts now warn that legalising weed at the federal level could open the floodgates for large corporations to monopolise the industry, shutting out those with the greatest claim to reparations.
And yet, there is hope. While 420 may have started on the grounds of a high school in San Rafael, it is now a global event and will this year be observed in countries that have taken an alternative approach to pot. Malta, for example, recently became the first European nation to legalise weed, yet chose not to create a commercial market or allow for cannabis to be bought and sold.
Instead, the Maltese model provides for the creation of cannabis social clubs. Rather than purchasing their bud, members of these non-profit organisations receive a monthly cannabis stipend. As such, weed isn’t going to make anyone a billionaire in Malta, which means there’s no incentive for the corporate big guns to get involved.
On the contrary, this model allows those whose passion and expertise have supplied the illegal market for so many years to form their own associations. Consequently, the production and distribution of legal cannabis is overseen by long-term growers who have the best interests of the plant and the public at heart.
As is the case in the US, cannabis use in Malta is likely to peak on 420, yet this annual spike in stoner activity won’t translate into commercial profit. Instead, those who participate in the celebration will witness the righting of a historical wrong by revelling in the newfound legality of the country’s master growers.
Elsewhere in the world, 420 provides a platform for activists to come together in greater numbers than ever before and demand that legalisation be done right, rather than rushed through for profit.
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