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‘Rewriting the narrative’: 4/20 still recognized a decade after the University of Colorado Boulder closed campus to smokeout

Students, faculty host annual Cannabis Symposium to promote drug education

Marijuana smoke rises from Norlin Quad during the 4/20 celebration at the University of Colorado on April 20, 2010. The university has quashed the annual smokeout, which drew 10,000 pot enthusiasts at its peak.
Marijuana smoke rises from Norlin Quad during the 4/20 celebration at the University of Colorado on April 20, 2010. The university has quashed the annual smokeout, which drew 10,000 pot enthusiasts at its peak.

A decade has passed since the University of Colorado Boulder closed its campus on 4/20, forever ending the well-known annual marijuana smokeout on campus.

But the significance of the day lives on.

Students, employees and community members no longer gather on Farrand Field or at the Norlin Quad, where thousands once congregated to partake in the yearly tradition of smoking marijuana together. But they have continued to recognize 4/20 in a way that allows them to learn about its history and the importance of drug education.

“I thought (the smokeout) was a wasted opportunity,” said Caroline Conzelman, an associate professor with the Global Studies Academic Program at CU Boulder. “To me, it didn’t go nearly far enough, especially with so many thousands of people on campus every year. There was no education and no discussion about how many people are rotting in jail for what everyone is doing on campus.”

After the campus ended the smokeout in 2012, Conzelman decided to change the way 4/20 was recognized at CU Boulder. She designed the course Culture and Power: Drug Policy, which began during spring 2014, when Colorado recreational dispensaries opened to begin selling recreational marijuana, she said.

In the course’s curriculum, she created an event that required students to help her plan and hold a 4/20 event in a way that recognized the significance of the day and importance of drug education. The event she formed was designed to model teach-ins, which were held during the Vietnam War to raise awareness and address issues that public officials were not properly addressing, Conzelman said.

“The idea was that students would have more information about legalization, why CU shut down campus and turned it into a police state, and what the pathways forward were,” she said.

Conzelman said the event hosted multiple speakers, including an herbalist and CU Boulder Chancellor Philip DiStefano.

After the first cannabis teach-in, Conzelman connected with the CU Boulder student group Students for Sensible Drug Policy, which held a symposium that year to educate students on drugs. Conzelman became their faculty adviser and later, she became the adviser for the Psychedelic Club as well. Eventually, they all began working together to hold what is now the annual Cannabis and Psychedelic Symposium.

“We created a paradigm shift away from the smokeout and disruption and wasted opportunity and also away from the lockout, which also had been ineffective,” Conzelman said.

Chad Tannous, CU Boulder alumnus and former chapter president with Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said the symposium is important because it ripped the Band-Aid off the topic of drug use, which has long been taboo on campus. It allows students to feel like drug use is OK, but it also gives them the opportunity to learn about drugs and how to be safe if they did use them.

“I think people have a right to party and have fun,” he said. “I think it’s an honor to the 4/20 season, (when) we celebrate the time to alter our consciousness and our freedom to do so, I think it’s more respectful to have speakers there and highlight the people who are studying the industry.”

Before moving to Boulder from New Jersey to attend CU Boulder in 2018, Satya Rath said she had heard about the annual smokeout, which gave CU Boulder a reputation for marijuana use.

“I totally would have assumed it was still a thing,” she said.

When she joined the Psychedelic Club and Students for Sensible Drug Policy, she learned the important role education plays in changing the stigma around drug use that has long been ingrained on CU Boulder’s campus.

“A lot of the stuff we have done is to accommodate the change in attitude since the 4/20 smokeout,” she said. “With everybody in the Psychedelic Club and everyone coming together, it has become evident that people need education and people care about education. A huge part of my work is working to rewrite the narrative surrounding drug addiction.”

Rath said one year they hosted a speaker with Harm Reduction Action Center who talked about safe drug use.

“(When) you understand that people are going to use drugs, it then becomes our responsibility to prevent harm and prevent death,” she said. “Ways that people do that is safe needle exchanges, safe injection sites, access to resources and rehabilitation centers.”

Although Conzelman and the student groups have come a long way in the past decade to educate people and start a conversation around dug use, there is still work to be done, she said.

“Talking about all drugs and drug policy is 100% interdisciplinary,” Conzelman said. “You can come from any major, any department, and you can study these subjects. “It’s really exciting, and it’s just a matter of time until the university is able to treat cannabis really as a career path.”