The grass is always greener on Norlin Quad on 4/20 as thousands gather for the annual pot smokers' picnic.

As the clock struck 4:20 p.m. Wednesday, thousands of revelers took a communal toke, and a giant plume of smoke formed above the University of Colorado's Boulder campus.

"I am smoking weed like it's oxygen," said Robert Lodding, 21, of Chicago. He wore a T-shirt that said: "Fix the economy, legalize marijuana."

Crowds erupted into cheers at 4:20 p.m., and -- by 4:21 p.m. -- there was a chorus of coughing.

CU spokesman Bronson Hilliard estimated that, by the end of the event, as many as 10,000 people were in the crowd for the unsanctioned, annual smoke-out, which is about even with last year's count. He said the smoke-out costs the university $50,000 in parking, security and other related costs.

A growth in medical marijuana licenses and shops, increased social networking and CU's No. 1 party school ranking from Playboy added momentum to this year's celebration. In between puffs, participants pontificated on why weed should be legal.

Bradley Ehrlich, a CU communication student from Boca Raton, Fla., pulled out his glass pipe, and he and his friends packed blunts in the minutes leading up to the smoke-out.

"I'm going to take the biggest hit of my life," he said.

Ehrlich, 22, said he started smoking at midnight and added that he has his medical marijuana license to reduce lower back pain.

"We're sending a message that this is a liberal, progressive town and we are ready to end prohibition," he said. "Weed needs to be legalized."

But campus officials say the 4/20 celebration -- an event they begrudgingly inherit by virtue of being a public campus -- is more of a party than a protest of drug laws. The lawn, throughout the afternoon, played host to hula-hooping, Frisbee tossing, interpretive dancing, drumming, painting and footbags.

McKenzie Lange, center, and Delaney Chandler begin their 4/20 pot smoking experience on Wednesday.
McKenzie Lange, center, and Delaney Chandler begin their 4/20 pot smoking experience on Wednesday. (CLIFF GRASSMICK)

Tickets slightly up

Pot smokers who stayed on cue with the large crowd and lit up their pipes, bongs and joints at, or around, 4:20 p.m., didn't receive tickets. Those who arrived early were more likely to get ticketed.

CU Police Cmdr. Tim McGraw said officers issued about 10 possession tickets last year. This year, authorities issued a few more than that, but final tallies won't be available until Monday, he said.

A stoned teenager crashed into a police patrol car at the intersection of Folsom Street and Colorado Avenue as he was leaving the CU campus at 3:43 p.m., police said. He was taken to the hospital because of "marijuana-related" issues, and authorities said they plan to ticket him.

Officers also shooed away a group of young people with T-shirts for sale because they didn't have vending licenses.

University officials sent an e-mail to students earlier this week asking them not to attend the smoke-out, saying it's a costly event to manage, it denigrates degrees and it contributes to CU's party-school reputation.

Hilliard said the event reflects negatively on a campus that has been recognized by the White House for producing civically engaged students.

"A party school is not a reputation we want to try to cultivate," he said.

The university contracted with Argus Event Staffing to help control the crowd, which has significantly grown over the past decade.

University officials estimated that about 75 percent of those in attendance were not affiliated with CU.

Push for legalization

Dillon Perry, 17, of Lafayette, and Stefanie Miles, 16, of Boulder, sat on the quad at about 2:15 p.m., a little gun shy to pack their pipes with weed because word had spread that police were issuing tickets.

Perry, who noted that he was already "pretty high," said he started smoking pot when he was 10, and it helps curb his hyper tendencies so he can concentrate in class. He looked out at the campus and said marijuana brings people together as a community.

"It should be legalized because it makes people in a better mood," he said, adding that people don't overdose and die from marijuana like they do alcohol.

Perry was wearing a T-shirt that said "It's always 4:20 in Boulder" and had a green marijuana leaf drawn on his cheek.

Miles said marijuana helps her cope with her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

"When I'm high, I can concentrate and learn better," she said.

In the hours before the smoke-out, the quad was mostly empty of pot enthusiasts. But Tony Schindel, 28, arrived early -- in his bath robe, a green beaded necklace and a cannabis-themed T-shirt. He and his friends packed pipes and pre-rolled marijuana cigars.

It was his first 4/20 in Boulder after moving from Texas last year, he said.

"I'm hoping it's a lot of calm people here having a good time," said Schindel, who supports marijuana legalization.

Greg Kinsley traveled to Boulder from Madison, Wis., with other advocates who are pushing for the legalization of marijuana. Kinsley, who said he suffers from Crohn's disease, said high-grade medical marijuana is a better remedy than pharmaceutical drugs. He is with the Madison chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

"This is the biggest smoke-out in the country that we know of," he said.

4/20 aftermath

After the event, participants streamed into University Hill and down to Pearl Street, where bartenders and restaurant managers said they saw a burst of business. The crowds dissipated within a few hours, though, leaving the mall largely quiet.

CU's Environmental Center deployed volunteers to help clean up the quad following the smoke-out. And about two dozen volunteers from CU's chapter of the Campus Crusade for Christ arrived at 4:30 p.m. to aid with cleaning up the quad. They were given gloves and trash bags before they combed the lawns collecting trash.

Arielle Brill, 20, an international affairs major at CU, was among the volunteers with the Christian group. Part of the group's mission is "service," she said. They wore T-shirts that said "I love CU."

"We want to reach out to our campus," she said.

While Brill said she doesn't agree with the smoke-out, she said she wanted to help clean up after the participants.

"I still want to love them and serve them," she said.

Camera Staff Writer Erica Meltzer contributed to this report.

Contact Camera Staff Writer Brittany Anas at 303-473-1132 or anasb@dailycamera.com.