Skip to main content

Celebrating marijuana in the open

By Amanda Reiman, Special to CNN
April 20, 2013 -- Updated 1837 GMT (0237 HKT)
A woman celebrates a drug-policy reform rally in Seattle, Washington.
A woman celebrates a drug-policy reform rally in Seattle, Washington.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • This Saturday, April 20, is "420: International Marijuana Day," with festivals worldwide
  • Amanda Reiman: In 1971, high school friends invented 420 as code for smoking pot in secret
  • Reiman: It's disgraceful so many people are serving time on marijuana charges
  • She says 52% of Americans want new policies; 4/20 a good day to join legalization effort

Editor's note: Amanda Reiman is the California policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance and a lecturer in the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley.

(CNN) -- Today, April 20, is "420: International Marijuana Day." Festivals and marches are planned around the world. The number 420 reflects the date, but it also represents the term's clandestine origin in the 1970s, brought about by laws that still plague cannabis consumers today.

In 1971, a group of high school friends, the "Waldos," invented 420 as a code word for smoking pot. Referring to 4:20 p.m. after school, the friends from San Rafael, California, would meet to smoke marijuana in their secret spot next to a wall -- the origin of their nickname. In the 40 years since, 420 has spread to become an international symbol for using marijuana, and it's a part of the cannabis consumer's vocabulary.

Threatened with jail and unemployment, people who use marijuana in most states must hide their activities. In 2011, more than 750,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession and sales in the United States. In 2010, 86% of those charged for possession in New York City were black or Latino. That, even though these groups represent about half the city's population and use marijuana less than whites.

Amanda Reiman
Amanda Reiman

But, slowly, support for cannabis regulation is growing.

A recent Pew research poll found that 52% of Americans support taxing and regulating marijuana, a historic high. It isn't that more people are using marijuana -- those rates have remained stable -- it's that more people feel they can come out of the closet about their support for marijuana policy reform.

Websites like the Marijuana Majority feature statements from celebrities and politicians in favor of marijuana policy reform, across the political spectrum, from Bill Maher to Pat Robertson. No longer a part of a fringe, those who see a better way to regulate marijuana are casting aside the secret codes and openly declaring support.

The marijuana flag was waving proudly on Election Day, when Colorado and Washington became the first states where voters approved taxing and regulating marijuana for adult use. Two recently introduced pieces of federal legislation would protect medical marijuana states from federal interference and end federal marijuana prohibition.

As can be imagined, the April 20 celebrations across Colorado and Washington, as well as other "marijuana friendly" states like California and Oregon, will be joyful, well attended and burgeoning with cannabis products. It might even feel as if marijuana is already legal -- but it isn't, and, in some states, the need for secret codes is still very much alive.

The growing business of marijuana
Flood of applicants for 'pot czar'
Medical marijuana for a 7-year-old?

In Oklahoma, manufacturing hash carries a mandatory two-year prison term but can also mean life in prison. Under Louisiana law, a second pot possession conviction is classified as a felony offense, punishable by up to five years in prison. Three-time offenders face up to 20 years in prison. And in Florida, possession of more than 20 grams of marijuana, as well as the cultivation of even a single plant, is a felony offense and punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

What this means, despite Colorado and Washington, is that April 20 brings a chance to stop and reflect on the draconian marijuana laws still threatening so many Americans.

In addition to the lives harmed by arrests and incarceration, the economic costs of prohibition are enormous. The war on drugs has cost at least $1 trillion since it was announced in 1971 by President Nixon.

The term 420 began as a secret code. But 40 years later, in some states the need for a code has given way to "cannabis pride" and open celebration. In other places, people will smoke or otherwise consume pot in private parties. And for those in prison and jails and for their loved ones, it will be just another sad day.

Make this April 20, as the numbers of pro-legalization supporters swell, the day to join the Drug Policy Alliance in promoting the legalization of marijuana for all adults and an end to the war on drugs.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amanda Reiman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
November 15, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
November 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 2200 GMT (0600 HKT)
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1657 GMT (0057 HKT)
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1347 GMT (2147 HKT)
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1358 GMT (2158 HKT)
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 2014 GMT (0414 HKT)
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1821 GMT (0221 HKT)
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
Ruth Ben-Ghiat says WWI enshrined the enduring notion that words cannot adequately express the experience of combat -- that the veteran will often remain silent about the trauma of war.
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 2227 GMT (0627 HKT)
Obama's Asia trip is his first chance since the midterms to show the power of presidency, Michael Green says.
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 1234 GMT (2034 HKT)
Frida Ghitis asks why President Obama has written another letter to Iran's Supreme Leader about the nuclear deal.
ADVERTISEMENT