The legal arguments over Denver’s 4/20 are like “Parks and Rec” without the jokes

If the charges against Miguel Lopez are upheld, he’ll be banned for three years and lose his “priority” right to run the 4/20 rally in Civic Center Park.
6 min. read
From left, Miguel Lopez, Santino Walter and Rob Corry, with parks ranger Sam Gannon in the background, at an appeal hearing about the annual 4/20 rally in Denver. (Andrew Kenney/Denverite)

From left, Miguel Lopez, Santino Walter and Rob Corry, with parks ranger Samuel Gannon in the background, at an appeal hearing about the annual 4/20 rally in Denver. (Andrew Kenney/Denverite)

Dozens of people gathered in rows of swiveling office chairs in a sunlit room on the first floor of the Wellington Webb Building early on Tuesday morning to hear the future of one of Denver's most infamous -- and for some, most beloved -- annual events.

Just after 9 a.m., hearing officer David Ramirez called the improvised courtroom to attention. They were there, he announced in the dry, authoritative tone of a judge, to hear the case of "the annual four-dash-twenty rally."

It was the beginning of what turned into a full day of testimony and arguments about the future of the marijuana celebration that takes over Civic Center every year on April 20, aka 4-20. No decision was reached, but we did get a front-row view of the serious business of weed holidays.

This was a day of bureaucracy and mild absurdity, complete with a tense cross-examination of a parks ranger in full parks regalia -- like an episode of the sitcom "Parks and Recreation," except someone forgot to write the jokes. Hardly a smile was cracked as witnesses gave hours of testimony about what did or didn't happen when 50,000 stoners converged in a park.

At the hearing's heart was the question of whether Miguel Lopez, a stoner advocate who's fiercely proud of his roots in Chicano and cannabis culture, will be allowed to continue to run the potentially lucrative event. While we won't know the outcome for several more weeks, the first few hours of testimony revealed the outlines of the argument, complete with some courtroom drama and exasperated cries of "objection!"

The city of Denver alleges that Lopez and his team badly mismanaged the event this year. In a letter, parks officials charged that the 4/20 crowds created a security risk by crashing through fences, that improper trash management allowed garbage to build up during the event, that numerous food vendors were operating without proper licenses at the event and that the event resulted in improper blockages of streets and sidewalks.

Lopez's attorney, Rob Corry, largely denied the allegations and sought to undermine the city's evidence, needling city employees about the details of their accounts. The other defense strategy was to argue that the problems were caused by vendors and hired help, not Lopez himself.

If they can prove that it wasn't Lopez's personal fault, then he may be allowed to keep throwing the 4/20 event in Civic Center. If not, he'll likely lose his "priority" right to Civic Center each April 20th.

Here's how it went down.

"Let's break it down. Let's break down trash," Corry said, tackling one of the most contentious topics.

"OK. Let's break down trash," agreed Samuel Gannon, the parks ranger who had taken the stand. (There wasn't actually a stand. It was a conference room table.)

Gannon and other city staff testified that the event didn't have the necessary trash receptacles until late in the afternoon, hours into the event. Lopez's attorney said that it was a vendor's error and that the event rushed to hire additional companies once the mistake was pointed out.

Lopez's team said that they had the park's trash cleaned and bagged after the night's concerts -- including a performance by 2 Chainz  -- had concluded. The day after, though, images of a trash-strewn Civic Center were front and center across Denver news outlets.

Lopez's attorney argued that an unknown party had cut open the trash bags overnight and spread trash back over the park after it had been cleaned.

"You're aware that there are homeless people in that park? And you're aware that those bags were slashed later?" Corry asked one parks staffer. She acknowledged that she had seen cut-open bags.

City staff also acknowledged that the park was clean by the afternoon of 4/21, which was the end date of the permit. Some staff said, however, that Lopez's team also was responsible for keeping the park continuously clean during the event.

“Seeing our Civic Center in a state of disrepair was for many in our city — including myself — deeply disappointing and discouraging,” Mayor Michael Hancock said at the time.

The city showed video of an apparently frustrated crowd pushing down a security fence and rushing through the gap, skipping the security checkpoint. Corry said the fence was back up within three minutes, but Gannon said that it took 30 minutes for the Denver Police Department to raise it again -- and he said he saw seven others go down, though Corry questioned his memory.

The city's attorney, Reneé Carmody, also said that security lines grew so long that they obstructed traffic, and that portable toilets were left on Bannock Street "while traffic was flowing," early the next day.

Throughout the morning, the two sides at the hearing tangled with the question of responsibility.

Corry said in his opening statement that the city has trumped up its charges to reach the eye-popping count of 19 violations, including five against Lopez personally.

Corry said that the city is unfairly trying to pin Lopez with the failures of the people he hired.

He said that the vendor in charge of checking the food vendors' licenses, for example, had been fired, and he claimed that the event had followed the security plan laid out by the city, though Gannon said that some planned gates were not open at the beginning of the event.

The only apparent lasting damage was to a sprinkler, which cost $190 to replace.

"What else can Miguel Lopez do?" Corry asked.

But city officials pushed back on that idea, with Gannon, the park ranger, saying that the event organizer had failed to properly staff and manage its event.

The outcome matters: Besides paying $12,000 in fines, Lopez could lose his right to claim Civic Center on 4/20 if he is found to have committed four or more violations.

If he's hit with five violations, he'll also be banned from hosting permitted public events for three years, which will open up a golden window for someone else to move in on the high holiday. Lopez even suspects that monied interests in the marijuana industry have lobbied to push him out.

We've not seen evidence of that, but some in the industry have said that the event is too showy and bacchanalian, while Lopez maintains it has a political purpose.

Either way, it's all in the hands of the hearing officer now. If Lopez can defeat a few of the violations, he may remain the stoner-in-chief on that haziest of days.

A decision on this case is expected within 30 days. Sign up for our newsletter for updates on this and other Denver stories. See our previous coverage here.

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