Where There’s Smoke: Officials, Activists Tussle Over 4-20 Party In Arcata

Apr 15, 2015

A crowd gathers in Arcata's Redwood Park to celebrate 4-20 on April 20th, 2008.
Credit Michael Joyce/JPR

As April 20th approaches, civil liberty activist and city officials in Arcata, California are at an impasse.

Is the annual gathering of marijuana smokers at 4:20 PM on April 20th -- so-called “4-20” --  a protected first amendment activity? Or is it a pot party run amok?   

You can run with the bulls in Pamplona, make a toast to October in Munich, enjoy the cherry blossoms in Osaka, or on April 20th, you can light up a joint with droves of others in Arcata’s Redwood Park.

Or can you?

Tom Chapman: “4-20 is and has been a party. It’s an illegal party. It absolutely is an illegal party.”

Tom Chapman has a been an Arcata police officer for over 20  years, police chief for the last five, and has been to most of the 4-20 gatherings during that time.

Tom Chapman: “People can congregate? Absolutely. People can engage in free speech? Absolutely. There’s certain laws and regulations that they have to comply with. It’s not a free-for-all and it was a free-for-all.”

But the unpermitted event was tolerated for years. At first it was impromptu and small. Then with California’s approval of medical marijuana in the mid-90’s, it grew.  And by the year 2000 an estimated two thousand-plus people filled the meadow which is a touch bigger than a football field. 

That’s when civil rights activists allege the city started to play dirty and did things like blocked the entrances to the park with tree-limbing operations or dumped a ton of smelly fertilizer on the meadow.

Last fall a civil rights lawsuit was filed against the city alleging subterfuge, and violation of peaceful assembly and free speech.

Jeff Schwartz: “This time it’s 4-20. It could be something else next time.”

Arcata attorney Jeff Schwartz is director of the Humboldt Center for Constitutional Rights  - or HumRights - and not a plaintiff on the lawsuit.

Jeff Schwartz: “It’s all about freedom of assembly. It’s a government-sponsored 3-4 year quest to quash the right to assemble in a public place.”

But the city counters that all of the following are illegal in the park: smoking of any kind, drinking alcohol, camping, and unlicensed dogs or dogs off leash. And that all of these violations were on the rise.

Karen Diemer: “For me the crux maybe of the issue is what is appropriate use of our park facilities, and trying to accommodate community events in various facilities throughout the city that fit the need for their event.”

Karen Diemer has been Arcata City Manager for just four months, but before that was with city parks and has witnessed the evolution of 4-20.

Karen Diemer: “This event that,  in small scale for years,  it was able to fly under the radar. Then it  started to grow into something that facility could not accommodate. And the neighborhood could not accommodate.  The complaints came.”

Neighbor: “To me it’s just bad manners. It’s like picking up after some bad-mannered humans.”

This neighbor - who wants to remain anonymous - has lived next to the park for almost 20 years and says it’s not the marijuana he takes issue with.

Neighbor: “Our driveways are blocked. They’ll trespass. They’ll walk right through our yards to get to the park.  We’re left with the trash,  we’re left with  the feces. It’s just a lack of respect for the forest and its neighbors.”

Other than complaints by neighbors Police Chief Chapman says there may be a related escalation in petty crime. Although he has no statistics directly linking 4-20 with criminal activity he says anecdotally he has noticed a spike in vandalism, shoplifting, trespassing, and public intoxication around April 20th.

4-20 attendance the past few years has dwindled. Most people blame heavy rains. But no one thinks the gathering will go away.

Last month City Manager Karen Diemer and Humrights met to craft a compromise. The city ended up approving an April 20th, 2015 park permit under the following conditions:

Humrights can host a gathering of under 150 people in the picnic area only. No alcohol or smoking will be allowed. Park gates will be open from 2:30 to 6:30 PM. The event will not be open to the general public.