.The 411 on 4/20: Then and Now

What does the stoner holiday look like this year now that Hippie Hill is out?

When I co-founded Harborside Health Center in 2006 in Oakland, the popularity of the 4/20 holiday was just beginning to seriously rev up. At that time the medical cannabis framework in California had been in place for 10 years. By 2006 enough legal patients existed to make 4/20 a safe day for hordes of celebrating stoners to come out. The movement was spreading its wings and making itself known to the media nationally and internationally.

Hippie Hill in San Francisco had become a spontaneous gathering place for stoners. Dispensaries like Harborside and Berkeley Patients Group began to pioneer the tradition of giving away free medicine and gift bags, inviting local DJs into the shop to spin tunes and providing food trucks to feed the masses with munchies.

In addition to our own curated celebrations, many dispensaries sent staff to Hippie Hill with goodies to distribute to anyone with a valid medical recommendation. All of this embodied the spirit to make the holiday as big and bold as possible, so our message could reach the rest of the country and the world.

This was important because the DEA was still raiding growers and dispensaries in 2006. We had to get the message out. It was a matter of survival. With each passing year the crowds became larger on 4/20, and more media attention descended on the Bay Area. We amplified the message that cannabis is a good plant—not a bad plant—and more people caught on. 

Jump-cut 18 years, to 2024, and in many respects we won the war. While thousands of cannabis prisoners remain locked up, tough activists remain dedicated to freeing them all, and weed is legal in one form or another in just about every state and a few countries. It took less than 20 years. Not bad for a bunch of patients and stoners who were told repeatedly it was impossible. And yet, we all knew it was inevitable.

Which brings me to the question, where is 4/20 today, now that we won the war? What’s the patient and stoner community doing now that’s different from the past? I no longer own or operate a retail cannabis business so I reached out to current owners and operators in the East Bay, as well as senior editor at Leafly, David Downs, who’s curating SF Weed Week this year to mark the 4/20 holiday in the city that started it all. SF Weed Week, modeled after SF Beer Week, is a collaboration between cannabis farms, brands, dispensaries, lounges and art galleries.

When I observed that event organizers canceled Hippie Hill this year due to a lack of sponsors by cannabis companies, Downs didn’t seem overly alarmed. “4/20 is still coming out of the pandemic,” he said. “4/20 is not a protest anymore; the activists won, and while the same spirit is still there, it needs activation and re-imagining.”

Here in the East Bay, the holiday seems to support each dispensary or company doing their own thing for their customer base. The East Bay Express “Best of” award-winning dispensary, 7 Stars, will maintain its 15-year tradition of throwing a giant party at its flagship store and consumption lounge in Richmond. By now, owner Zee Handoush and his family know how to do 4/20 right—goodie bags, free food, artist pop-ups, craft cannabis demos, meet-your-farmer events and a whole lot of other fun surprises lay in store for the community.

When I asked him what’s changed over the years regarding 4/20, Handoush didn’t hold back. “The industry is maturing and moving to more traditional agricultural regions, so there are more players than ever,” he said. “But our corner of the East Bay is staying true to its roots and keeping hope alive by supporting small farmers, producers and other partners.”

This attitude of staying true to the activist roots of cannabis in Oakland is best personified this 4/20 by the Equity Path, a do-it-yourself exploration of social equity dispensaries, lounges and brands in Oakland. Equity dispensaries like Root’d in the 510, Oakanna, Nug and Ivy Hill are collaborating with supporters like Smoakland Delivery to offer consumers the opportunity to use their dollars to make a statement. Those who walk down the Equity Path on 4/20 will be supporting the communities most harmed by the war on weed in Oakland.

Chang Yi, CEO of Smoakland Delivery and a big supporter of Oakland’s equity program, who collaborated with Visit Oakland on the Equity Path, said: “Smoakland participated in the equity program from day one. And Oakland activists are representing hard at the National Cannabis Festival in Washington, D.C., during the 4/20 week to amplify what we’ve done here in Oakland.”

This bit of innovation with the Equity Path feels like a creative bridge between activism and sales. Linking the two can activate and inspire consumers to become superfans of these companies.

Aundre Speciale, owner and operator of CBCB in Berkeley, who’s about as “OG” as it gets in the East Bay weed game, is excited for this year. Her dispensary will feature a 4/20 Carnival with music, food, games, specials and even a mechanical bull to ride. Plus, her staff will be handing out free otter pops and fruit for customers while they wait in line.

“CBCB is made up of people who have been cannabis activists for decades, and sharing weed together on 4/20 is what we all fought for,” Speciale said. “It’s our favorite day of the year.”

Harborside will throw a three-day celebration all weekend, with an exclusive deal each day offering specials on nearly every brand in the store. Zed Schlott, vice president of retail at Statehouse, the new owners of Harborside, highlighted the discounts for consumers.

“We view 4/20 as a day for us to appreciate our community through having the best discounts in the Bay,” Schlott said. “4/20 is the largest sales day of the year, and the advantage of it being on a Saturday means more consistent traffic throughout the day.”

Perhaps the most telling insight this year was how many owners and operators were too busy to respond to my inquiries. Most are running their businesses super lean and cannot take time away from keeping their heads down and grinding it out. Brands and dispensaries remain focused on getting customers in the door on 4/20 and banking some much-needed cash.

Like everything in the cannabis industry right now, my search for 4/20 in the East Bay proved complicated. On the one hand, a ton of specials and giveaways will help consumers stock up affordably from their favorite shops. Operators get to bank some money, which helps them stave off the extinction events plaguing California cannabis companies.

The day itself is more about survival than it is about big celebrations. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing for customers and operators. People can hop from one favorite store and brand special to the next and load up. Operators can feed the fire and maybe make some money with the holiday falling on Saturday.

And yet, the lack of a big central celebration feels like a lost opportunity to me. I can’t help but feel sad knowing what we’ve all been through and continue to endure. 4/20 won’t fall on a Saturday again for another six years. Maybe by then, the frameworks will allow for that big party to crank up once more. I know I’ll be there blazing with the rest of the community.


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