OTTAWA - Frisbees, hula hoops, reggae and the slightly skunky aroma of burning bud masked a serious policy dispute Sunday afternoon on Parliament Hill.
The annual day of celebrating cannabis culture has ramped up into mainstream political activism as the pot-smoking 4/20 movement took on marijuana prohibition with rallies across Canada.
"I think the policy edge has always been there. It's just more and more people are getting fed up with the status quo," said John Albert, a former Marijuana Party candidate, as he sat amidst a crowd that police estimated was more than 2,000 on the front lawn under the Peace Tower.
Recent legalization in Colorado and Washington State has opened the eyes of governments and businesses to the financial possibilities of a legal trade in marijuana, a commodity that's too often linked to either organized crime or glass-eyed slackers.
"We would like a choice," said Albert. "I think what is happening in Colorado and Washington has kind of crystallized it in people's eyes. They see that it's a real thing, that legalization can work, and be a benefit to not just people who smoke cannabis but to just regular taxpayers."
After years of glacially slow movement on the decriminalization or legalization policy fronts, pot activist Jodie Emery says there's been a huge spike in interest as the American state experiment plays out.
"I can tell you from my spot as being a pot activist for 10 years in Vancouver, the last year has been insane — even in Canada — with respect to licensed providers and all these companies trying to be the next big thing," Emery said in a telephone interview from Vancouver.
"We've won over the Man and the establishment. You know, they're on our side. And it is definitely financially motivated."
The 4/20 moniker dates back to the pot culture of California in the early 1970s, but it became formally attached to April 20 when a group of Vancouver activists held the first day-long rally in 1995.
Rallies have been held every April 20th for 20 straight years since then and have spread across Canada and across the globe.
Local 4/20 organizers were advertising events from Whitehorse to Halifax, Iqaluit to Windsor, Ont., in Dallas, Texas, and Birmingham, Ala., London, Belfast, Reykjavik, Aukland, Lima and Cape Town, South Africa, to name just a few.
Hundreds turned out at rallies in Vancouver and Toronto.
Ray Turmel, 62, wandered Parliament Hill holding a large plastic freezer bag filled with enough marijuana buds to warrant a trafficking charge, in other circumstances.
Turmel is among those medical pot users who are fighting in Federal Court to retain the right to grow their own, a practice the Conservative government wants to end under a new medical marijuana policy that would license, regulate and industrialize all growers.
"I'm one of the old guys. We're fighting for the right to keep using it and keep growing it ourselves," said Turmel, before lifting his bag of homegrown out of the reach of someone asking for tester.
Good-humoured RCMP officers watched the sedate scene with apparent bemusement as clouds of marijuana smoke drifted down the wind.
"This is an annual event that has always been held in a peaceful manner," said spokeswoman Cpl. Lucy Shorey.
"Usually at about 4:20 p.m. protesters will be exercising their right to, uh, light up, if you want," she said. "The RCMP respects the rights of individuals to protest on Parliament Hill and that's what we're here for today."
Shorey would not venture into policy territory, or comment on the juxtaposition of thousands of people openly committing a Criminal Code offence while sandwiched between RCMP cruisers and the House of Commons that legislates the law.
But Albert, the former Marijuana Party candidate, said it highlights political hypocrisy.
"It's a credit to the cannabis community in a way that, even though we're persecuted, we're put in jail, we're constantly demonized by society, we can gather here on the front lawn of the highest parliament in the land and openly defy the law with no fear — because we know that we have truth on our side," he said.
"We're not dangerous criminals. We're just regular law-abiding citizens otherwise who just enjoy cannabis."
To give you an idea what these rallies are like, check out a video from last year's 4/20 event on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.