DENVER – Marijuana stores across the country could sell more than $1 billion worth of cannabis as pot enthusiasts celebrate the annual “420” holiday by lighting up in public across America.
April 20 has long been a day filled with civil disobedience by marijuana users, who gather in public to light up at 4:20 p.m. The phrase "420" is a code for marijuana users, who work it into dating profiles or post it on signs to show their shared interest.
Though it used to be a celebration held with a certain level of furtiveness, the rapidly expanding legalization of cannabis means more and more Americans no longer face significant, if any, punishment for smoking pot.
"It's holiday season for cannabis retailers right now," said Ryan Smith, the CEO of cannabis sales platform LeafLink. "Last year was the biggest day ever. This year will be the biggest day ever. And next year will be even bigger than this year."
Tens of thousands of people are likely to gather in Denver for the largest 420 celebration, filling hotel rooms and packing restaurants during what would otherwise be a quiet time of the year. Before the event, dozens of companies offered tours and arranged visits to commercial growing operations, aimed at tourists who flew in to partake in state-legal weed.
Denver's Mile High 420 Festival this year features performances by Lil Wayne and Lil Jon, along with dozens of food trucks.
“To us, this is a cultural celebration for a year in a life of cannabis,” said Kyle Speidell, CEO of the Green Solution, a chain of 16 marijuana stores in Colorado. “It gives everybody the opportunity to unify at a time when we’re really ostracized as an industry.”
Speidell's stores sponsor a separate cannabis festival in Denver over the 420 holiday. Called 420 on the Block, it's a three-day music-centered festival featuring Action Bronson and Matisyahu that expects to draw up to 15,000 people.
Every year, April 20 is the single biggest sales day, and the days leading up to it are a combination of Thanksgiving, Christmas and Black Friday rolled into one. Since Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana in January 2014, participation has risen nationally. Nine states and the District of Columbia permit recreational marijuana use, and 30 states permit some form of medical use.
LeafLink predicted retailers will sell about $1.17 billion worth of cannabis products for this year's 420 celebrations. In Denver, Terrapin Care Station offers 1-gram joints for $5 — half off the usual price.
LeafLink's analysis shows a consistent shift away from loose "flower" marijuana and into branded products. When marijuana stores first opened, buyers flocked to purchase pieces of marijuana flowers, which they smoked. There's been a shift toward pre-packaged joints and branded marijuana-infused foods such as chocolate or candy.
A large reason for the shift toward products known as "edibles" has been laws banning public marijuana consumption, although those are widely ignored during Denver's 420 celebration at Civic Center Park, where the mass light-up leaves a heavy cloud of pot smoke hanging over the crowd. Edibles are far easier to travel with, especially for cannabis tourists willing to risk smuggling them back home.
At My 420 Tours in Denver, most slots for party bus trips were sold out for the end of the week even through the company tripled the number of offerings, spokeswoman Cynthia Ord said. Tour participants visit a dispensary to buy marijuana, then consume it on the bus before visiting grow houses.
“People are both wide-eyed and bleary-eyed at the same time,” she said with a laugh. “It can get pretty emotional for people.”
Ord said about 90% of the company’s customers are out-of-state tourists, largely from Texas and other Southern states. The company offers 420-friendly hotel rooms for people visiting during the celebration, but all 70 are sold out, she said. She said the company hasn't seen much of a change since California began legal sales Jan. 1.
"Business is as strong as ever," Ord said.
The service Weedmaps, a Yelp for marijuana stores, sees its traffic triple on April 20 each year. Peak time comes from 8-10 a.m. as users "wake and bake," according to the company. Search traffic normally peaks in the evening, she said.
The Colorado State Patrol plans enhanced patrols around the 420 events; troopers have written more than 3,000 marijuana-related driving citations since 2014, the agency said.
Mason Tvert, who led Colorado's legalization initiative, said marijuana consumers are no different from drinkers who attend beer festivals and wine tastings: "Adults are able to go out and openly consume alcohol all the time, but 4/20 is the one day of the year that many feel comfortable being open about their cannabis use."