Thousands stage massive 4/20 smoke-ins to protest Canada’s pot laws

OTTAWA — The air got thick and hazy in cities across Canada Friday as thousands of marijuana activists lit up to mark 4/20 (April 20), the annual, international day to celebrate pot.

The event is much a day to rail against prohibitionist drug laws as it is a day to indulge.

Fittingly, more than 5,000 gathered on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, according to police estimates. In Toronto, crowds jammed the downtown Yonge-Dundas Square. Vancouver typically hosts the country’s largest 4/20 event, with a radio news helicopter hovering over anticipated crowds of up to 20,000. Prairie potheads blazed up in Winnipeg and in Regina.

Pot activists say they’re concerned about the Harper government’s recent move to toughen Canada’s drug laws.

The Safe Streets and Communities Act passed in March includes new mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences that involve youth or criminal gangs, including marijuana-related offences.

The reforms were made to fight criminal cartels that profit from the illicit drug trade and protect Canadian families, a spokeswoman from the Justice Department said in an email.

“We are not making any changes to the law with regards to simple marijuana possession,” said Julie Di Mambro. “Instead, we are targeting the source of the illicit drug trade: the drug traffickers and those who import drugs into Canada.”

“Prohibition is not solving the problem, it’s making it worse,” said Jodie Emery, a marijuana activist from B.C., who attended the Vancouver rally. “We need a new approach.”

Emery’s husband Marc, the “Prince of Pot,” is currently serving a five-year prison sentence in the United States for mailing marijuana seeds over the border.

“People who use or share marijuana shouldn’t face criminal penalties when they’re not hurting anybody else,” Emery said. “Each year the protests get bigger and bigger. Do all those thousands of people deserve to be put it prison? The answer is no.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper seemed to agree with protesters when he said “the current approach is not working” in response to a question about the war on drugs at the Summit of the Americas on April 15.

But Di Mambro said Harper was only talking about the war on international drug cartels. She said the federal government’s position stands: decriminalization and legalization are off the table.

The mood on Parliament Hill was defiant as smokers inhaled at 4:20 p.m.

“It shouldn’t be just this one day, it should be every day,” said John Albert, who attended the protest in sunglasses decorated with a marijuana leaf. “It’s a farce. If this many people can break the law at once, the law is dysfunctional.”

In Winnipeg, one sturdy man stood out among the throng at the Manitoba legislature, wearing a black shirt that bore a bold message: “COPS SAY LEGALIZE DRUGS,” it read. “ASK ME WHY.”

So a Winnipeg Free Press reporter did. “For 40 years, we’ve enforced the law,” said Bill VanderGraaf, a retired Winnipeg police staff sergeant who used to work the homicide and street gang beats. “Now Harper’s increased the law, and I think that’s going to make our country more dangerous. We’re criminalizing too many young people . . . you can recover from an addiction, but you’ll never recover from a conviction.”

According to the United Nations World Drug Report, in 2009 more than one in 10 Canadians ingested marijuana in some form. That rose to more than one in four for those aged 15 to 24.

The number 4-20 has long been associated with marijuana use but the origins of the association between digits and marijuana use are hazy and ill remembered.

One legend posits that the tradition began in the 1970s with a bunch of Northern California teenagers who smoked up daily at 4:20.

The number is now enshrined in law, as California’s medical marijuana bill was introduced in the state senate as Bill 420.

With a file from Melissa Martin, Winnipeg Free Press

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