"Four-twenty is like a holiday around here," said the 20-something reveler wearing a Humboldt hoodie as he walked with friends up the winding road leading to Arcata's Redwood Park.
While the precise origins of the connection between 420 and marijuana are indefinite, lost in smoky memory, a popular theory traces it back to the early '70s and a stoner clique at San Rafael High School who gathered at a particular spot after school at 4:20 p.m. to smoke pot. Whatever. Today it's code for ganja, and as the dude said, April 20th is "like a holiday" for stoners, particularly in places like Arcata.
The holiday drew party people to the park from far and wide, hundreds if not thousands. Metal heads and hippies, college students and teens, gray-haired guys and purple-haired girls, all there for no other reason than to smoke marijuana in a public place. Not everyone waited until 4:20.
The park took on a festival feel with vendors on the fringes selling tie-dyed tee-shirts, glass pipes, semi-precious stones and food, some of it munchies, some laced with ganja. A drum circle provided an unrelenting soundtrack; a young gent wearing overalls and a down jacket lay in the middle of the circle, either lost in a state of rhythm bliss or passed out.
Adding to the circus atmosphere, strips of nylon webbing rigged between trees at the edge of the meadow, set up by the HSU Slackline Club for those who wanted to give rope-walking a try. A skilled slacker, Rudi Bega, took a moment to discuss why he was there. "I just come to see friends," he said. "People come from all over to this thing and they keep coming back. You see them and say "Hi,' and there it is. It's not really political. I would say that my personal belief is that the incarceration of marijuana users is absurd; it's a non-violent, victimless crime. People imprisoned for marijuana should be released."
A little after 4, in the thick of the throng, someone lit up a giant reefer, six to eight inches around and about two feet long, and began passing it around. The crowd pressed in, either to try to get a toke or to snap a photo with their camera phone or digital camera.
"We came down from Seattle for this," said tall, goateed Cory, who stood outside the fray. "Humboldt County is the capital of cannabis for North America, like Vancouver B.C. is for Canada. Arcata draws a crowd. People know that this is where to come to celebrate, where you're not going to get punished by the authorities. The police are not going to come out and bust all these people. They might in Seattle; I've been busted in my hometown for simple possession of herb. I see this as a peaceful protest, where we can show that we are passionate about something that's not quite completely accepted yet."
Despite a press release from Redwood ACLU chair Christina Allbright warning of "a massive influx of out-of-town law enforcement," uniformed police presence was at a minimum. A pair of Arcata policemen patrolled one side of the park. Another Arcata officer worked the other edge of the crowd with a deputy from the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office. Their only duty was "maintaining the peace," according to Deputy G. Bickel.
Cory figured that would not be hard. "There'll be no fighting here today, no one's out to hurt anyone else," he said. "People know that about marijuana. No one's ever died from taking marijuana. It's not a bad thing."
As he was completing his thought, his voice was drowned out by cheers all around. The clock had struck 4:20 on 4/20. It was time. Lighters flashed setting pipes, chillums and joints ablaze. A cloud of smoke rose above the park. The crowd cheered again. The drummers played on. Before you knew it, it was over, and the stoned masses ambled down the hill headed for home.