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4/20 movement gathering momentum



Matt Mernagh
Toronto marijuana advocate Matt Mernagh on Thursday, April 17, 2014. (Stan Behal/Toronto Sun)

TORONTO – Longtime marijuana advocate Matt Mernagh becomes somewhat emotional when considering how far the Toronto contingent of the 4/20 movement has come since its inaugural Yonge-Dundas Square smoke out in 2007.

Sunday marks the city’s eighth annual demonstration for 4/20, a global event that reportedly originated over 40 years ago at a high school in California. It has gone from its humble beginnings of relatively small acts of defiance by pot smokers and medical marijuana users, to what is now an international show of solidarity among those calling for the end of the drug’s prohibition.

Mernagh, now a fringe candidate in Toronto’s mayoral race, both fondly and wryly recalls April 20, 2007. It was a modest — somewhat tentative — group of about 100 that marched into Yonge-Dundas Square, ignoring the baleful looks of police and shrugging off friends’ warnings they’d be arrested in short order.

Religiously, albeit nervously, they lit up at 4:20 p.m., sending small whiffs of pot smoke into the air.

Much has changed since then.

There will be no puny whiffs of pot twisting above Yonge-Dundas Square on Sunday, but thick clouds of it. Mernagh expects as many as 10,000 bud worshippers to tromp through the square, all “emboldened” by gradually shifting attitudes on the part of both society and legislators.

The pro-legalization movement — internationally, nationally and here in Toronto — has rapidly grown, particularly in recent months with marijuana legalization south of the border in Colorado and Washington, plus the recent call for legalization in Canada by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Mernagh said.

“The marijuana movement in Canada in the last 18 months has become huge,” he said. “There are a lot more advocates for marijuana than you’ve ever seen before, there are a lot more rallies.”

It was last summer that Trudeau reignited the Canuck version of the debate around marijuana laws, admitting during a trip to Vancouver that he had smoked pot after being elected an MP. In July, he announced that he favours legalizing, taxing and regulating the drug rather than decriminalizing it.

In response, the federal Conservatives dug in their heels. Justice Minister Peter MacKay maintained the Tories “have no intention of legalizing or decriminalizing” marijuana. He then shifted his stance slightly in December, hinting there is the possibility of altering marijuana laws to allow police the option of fining those possessing small amounts rather than laying criminal charges.

It is this shifting in attitude — both political and societal — that has led to growing “pockets of resistance” in cities such as “Toronto, Calgary, Ottawa, Winnipeg (and) Halifax,” Mernagh said.


“These (movements) never existed 10 years ago. I would say it has been in the last three years … that we see them now,” he added. “It gives people who may be hiding … right now, who are in the closet, who may be ready to step out of the closet … things like Colorado have emboldened them. Colorado makes it a reality for them. It has emboldened people to go further.”

Those who oppose pot prohibition, he said, have watched closely what has transpired stateside.

Recreational sales of marijuana began in Colorado Jan. 1. That state, in the fiscal year beginning in July, could realize $134 million in tax revenue (from recreational and medical marijuana sales) from its landmark legislative shift, the New York Times reported in February. Washington, which is set to do the same starting in June, is reportedly expecting to see $190 million flow into state coffers over four years starting in 2015.

American marijuana advocates are now eyeing legalization in Alaska, Oregon and Arizona.

On this, Mernagh is optimistic, explaining the floodgates have been opened when it comes to the legal use of the ubiquitous drug. “In Colorado that is a model to look forward to,” he said. “You can grasp onto that. You already have one state down. (The other states) are going to fall like dominoes.”

It all begs the question: Who or what started 4/20?

Myths and rumours abound, but Mernagh adheres to the one that seems to pop up the most: That 4/20 started in 1971 after a small group of high school students in San Rafael, Calif., began meeting at 4:20 p.m. to smoke pot by the statue of chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur. Reportedly, both the ritual and the story spread, with the latter becoming something of a folk tale among users of marijuana.

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